Once more, we've taken a closer look at the tactics of Brendan Rodgers in the match and two key players, this time wide forwards Sterling and Philippe Coutinho, to try and gauge both the progress of the individuals and the cohesion of the team as a whole as we head toward the start of the 2014-15 season.
This concludes Liverpool's tour in the USA. Thanks to all of our fans for the support! #LFCTour— LFC USA (@LFCUSA) August 5, 2014
Somewhat hindered by a lack of numbers with available personnel, Rodgers understandably went with a 4-3-3 once more. Lazar Markovic, Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana, Jon Flanagan and Dejan Lovren are all unavailable for a variety of reasons, so Rodgers was really only left with Rickie Lambert to play as centre-forward, with others supporting from wide and behind.
Despite the usual changes of starting XI names, the only unusual positional alteration was Glen Johnson playing at left-back.
The three-man midfield of last season saw Gerrard play behind Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson, with the latter two working extremely hard to ensure the Reds pressed United as soon as they reached the centre circle in possession. This forced United into either direct passes from deep, which at times caused Liverpool problems in defence, or else to go backward and pass to their back three—United featured a 3-5-2, as they have all preseason.
One of the key aspects of the first half was how often Liverpool attempted to go one-on-one with United's defence.
Spreading Coutinho (right) and Sterling (left) fairly wide, those two got into advanced positions as soon as the ball was in Liverpool's possession and looked to isolate their respective centre-backs either side of central striker Lambert. This also had the impact of keeping United's wing-backs tracking back more often than they would have liked.
Out of possession—and once United encroached the Reds' half—a line of five in midfield on both teams made little space for United's forwards to find between the lines.
One particular area of concern was when Simon Mignolet had the ball for Liverpool. United left two high up to cover the centre-backs, meaning the Belgian keeper had to kick into the second line of players: the full-backs and central midfielders. This didn't always go to plan, with the ball going out of play more than once and United's wing-backs pushing right onto Liverpool's full-backs.
Later in the game, once subs had been made, it was apparent that Liverpool really struggled to pass out of central defence once Gerrard had been replaced by Lucas, who was unable to find space or time to pick up the ball and distribute it, while Lambert's absence in attack gave little for the other forwards to run off, even if the No. 9 hadn't been particularly effective on the ball.
Liverpool need a centre-forward who can carry the ball, hold it up and is intelligent with his movement. Hard to find..— The Football Front (@ReviewFootball) August 5, 2014
Sterling was extremely impressive in the first half.
He used space and his own speed intelligently, looking to beat Phil Jones for pace and movement whenever possible. This method won him a penalty and a number of other promising positions, as he gave Jones in particular a nightmarish 45 minutes.
The continued willingness of Sterling to race infield from a wider starting position whenever transitions of play occurred will remain a feature of the Reds' play moving forward, but he was not supplemented often enough by runners from the second line of midfield to run in behind him.
On the ball he was direct, consistent and also the most likely player to trouble David de Gea. He also worked hard off the ball and held his position defensively.
Despite a number of new arrivals who play in similar positions to Sterling, his place in the team has to be one of the most secure for the beginning of the new campaign. So far, he hasn't yet put a full season of top-class performances in for Liverpool; that will be the challenge this year for the talented wide forward.
In an unusual position for him, Coutinho played from the right side of attack—but with plenty of licence to run infield when he had possession. This meant he frequently picked up possession with an awful lot of space and, as such, was the best player on the park for the first hour of the game.
Coutinho drifted behind United's centre midfielders or goal side of the wing-back before putting on a spurt of acceleration and a quick change of direction to make himself room to look up for a through-ball.
As is the case with those who try the more difficult final-third manoeuvres, not all his attempts to split United's back three came off, but three times he picked inch-perfect passes for the likes of Sterling to race onto. Five minutes into the second half was his best moment—a spin away from Ander Herrera, with good strength to hold off his rival, before a fantastically weighted through-ball for Sterling behind Jones.
Plenty of times Coutinho had to win a physical battle to allow him to immediately get the chance to pass forward, and once again he was well capable of holding his own.
After an initial batch of subs were made, Coutinho briefly played as the furthest forward central player, dropping deep to get the ball and turn, but he spent only 10 minutes or so in this role before being subbed himself.
Heading into the new season and judging by the fitness and form of the Reds' squad, Coutinho will be—along with Sturridge, as things stand—perhaps the most important starter for Liverpool.