Liverpool tasted defeat for the first time since Boxing Day, as they succumbed 2-1 to Manchester United in the Premier League at Old Trafford. The match provided as many negatives as positives for manager Brendan Rodgers this time around.
Making a change in his starting XI from the side which defeated Sunderland so comfortably, Rodgers replaced the improving Jordan Henderson with Joe Allen, but the move did not yield dividends for the Reds.
In fact, the midfield was arguably Liverpool's weakest point for the entire match, as United dominated entirely the first 45 minutes with crisper passing, by being quicker and stronger in the individual battles and by having more players move into the final third when in possession.
The Reds fielded Lucas Leiva as the holding midfielder with Steven Gerrard and Allen supposedly slightly more advanced, but Allen failed to have any effect on the game beyond the halfway line and gave the ball away several times when defending.
By far the most worrisome aspect of Liverpool's first-half play was their tendency to tamely gift possession back to Manchester United without any real urgency to win it back.
Liverpool have to learn, and quickly, that although the passing approach to dominating matches is fine, they have to marry it with a pack-hunter mentality in the middle third of the pitch to retrieve possession when it is lost.
Too often there was a single grey-shirted player as opposition, and when he was beaten, United's front players had a clear route through to the defence.
Several times, only a last-ditch block or tackle from centre-back duo Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger stopped United from having good opportunities to increase their lead before half-time.
Lucas was another under-performer in the centre, as he continues to struggle to regain the immense presence and mobility that he had prior to his severe knee injury; understandable, of course, but also predictable.
Liverpool badly missed the industry and power of Jordan Henderson against United.
The former Sunderland man isn't the most technical player in the squad, nor has he dominated an entire midfield on his own on enough occasions—but he has been in form and is fit and showing confidence. This was a match in which Rodgers might have done better to pair Henderson with Gerrard in midfield once more, leaving Allen and Lucas to fight over the deeper holding role.
Without Henderson, there was far too little presence in the middle, not enough urgency in possession and a marked lack of support from deep for an increasingly isolated Luis Suarez.
It wasn't all doom and gloom for the Reds, though.
An improved second-half display started when Daniel Sturridge made his league bow, replacing Lucas at half-time, and he took only a dozen minutes to make his mark.
The finish itself was a straightforward tap-in, but it was Sturridge's anticipation and movement which got him the goal, racing past the static defender Rafael—who was otherwise superb on the day—to make up five yards even before David de Gea had parried the ball back out into the six-yard box from Gerrard's initial shot.
Without that movement, Sturridge wouldn't have scored.
Following up a shot is one of the most basic tenets that youngsters are taught when learning the game, yet somewhere in the midst of tactics and player roles, it seems that such a simple value is lost.
Perhaps because of a player not wanting to get caught out of position, or perhaps because of a lack of instinct to do so, Liverpool have not had a player automatically follow up a shot like that since Dirk Kuyt left, and before him perhaps since Robbie Fowler's second stint came to an end.
Such a simple manoeuvre, but one which has already yielded a goal for the new No. 15 in just one half of league football. Continuing to do it will doubtless hand him another chance on a plate before the end of the season; hopefully one which next time contributes to winning points.
Sturridge also gave the first tantalising glimpses of his potential link-up with Luis Suarez.
The two formed an immediate partnership of sorts, trading passes within five yards inside the penalty box and also over a much longer distance. At one point, Suarez found the substitute with a glorious 40-yard cross-field pass which led to a shooting chance.
A massive part of deciphering how Liverpool play and attack going forward will be to determine the new role of Suarez.
As Suarez is the team's top scorer and responsible for much of the Reds' attacking creativity, Brendan Rodgers will not want to move him too far from the front line—though there are benefits to moving him from the centre-forward role, as shown by the continued presence of first Sturridge and later Fabio Borini in the centre.
Liverpool did look more threatening when Suarez was free to drift and roam, leaving one of the others as the focal point, but half an hour is no time at all to make an accurate appraisal of the situation.
Even so, as Borini returns to fitness and Sturridge continues to bed into the team, the manager will be quietly pleased that even though defeat resulted at Old Trafford, his attacking options are looking decidedly more varied and exciting than they were a month ago.
A defeat at Old Trafford, taken in isolation, won't affect the outcome of Liverpool's entire campaign too much. But having a trio of forwards who can play with each other, score goals and work hard to keep the ball in the final third...that could be the difference between another eighth-place finish and real, tangible progress by the end of the season.
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