Defence puts Liverpool atop the table

Posted by David Usher

Bill Shankly once described full-back Gerry Byrne as the best player he ever managed. "He was hard and skilful every game," Shankly said. "But above all, honest. And that is the greatest quality of all." It was fitting therefore, that on the eve of what would have been the great man's 100th birthday, the Reds produced a performance overflowing with honesty, character and resilience. It was like having a team of Gerry Byrnes out there, and "Shanks" would surely have loved this.

It wasn't flowing, it wasn't pretty and at times it was far from comfortable, but the joyous Kopites didn't care about any of that on Sunday when the full-time whistle sounded on the 1-0 victory over Manchester United, sparking scenes of much jubilation on the pitch and in the stands. It's another win, another clean sheet, another winner from Daniel Sturridge, and Liverpool end the weekend looking down on the rest from the top of the Premier League table.

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Brendan Rodgers had opened up his first post-match news conference of the season by jokingly chanting "Liverpool, top of the league!" after his side defeated Stoke City in the early kickoff on opening day. After three wins on the spin, it was the supporters outside Anfield chanting it.

No one is getting carried away, of course. It's very early days, and the victories have been anything but convincing. Few if any are expecting Liverpool to stay at the top of the table for any length of time (Rodgers actually had to stifle a laugh when he was asked by a reporter about whether his side could end the season in the top spot), although the upcoming fixtures certainly present an ideal opportunity for them to maintain this newfound lofty perch for a few more weeks at least.

Being top of the league at this stage of the season doesn't count for anything, but it certainly beats being in the position Liverpool were in after three games last season.

Beating Manchester United always feels good regardless of the circumstances, and it's also a nice feeling going into an international break on a high for a change. Maybe it's just me, but it seemed every time there was a break last season, Liverpool went into it on the back of a disappointing result and had two weeks to stew.

Without wanting to jinx anything, this does appear to be a different Liverpool to last season; you only have to compare this performance and result with the corresponding fixture last season to see that. Liverpool played United off the park last year in a completely dominant display, and not even being reduced to 10 men slowed the Reds. Yet they lost.

Yes, it was unfortunate and the players deserved so much more, just as they had a couple of weeks earlier when being held to a draw by Manchester City, but the bottom line is they couldn't find a way to win.

This game was the polar opposite of what happened against United last season. Liverpool didn't dazzle, they rarely threatened and the swagger in possession and dominance of the ball on show last season was conspicuous by its absence for most of this fixture.

Yet when Andre Marriner blew the final whistle, it was Liverpool who were celebrating. The Reds are finding a way to win, and now it's not Rodgers but rather opposing managers sharing their hard-luck stories with the press after the game.

There's a resilience there this season that wasn't there last year, and Martin Skrtel spoke afterward about how there was a real emphasis on defending during preseason. Presumably last year was more about what Rodgers wanted from his players when they had the ball; now that he's comfortable, the squad know what's expected in an attacking sense, and he's now looking to make sure the back door is bolted. There was a definite shift in tactics last weekend at Villa, and it was in evidence again once Sturridge had headed the Reds into an early lead.

We know Liverpool can play flowing, attractive, exciting football and that when it clicks they are as good to watch as any team in the land. We're now seeing that they can defend and withstand pressure, too, something they often could not do last year. It's only three games, which is clearly too small a sample size to be able to make any definitive proclamations about the defence.

But the signs are certainly encouraging, and for all United's second-half dominance, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet wasn't particularly overworked. He probably had more to do against Aston Villa last week.

Credit for that goes to the tireless work of all of those in front of him -- from the injury-hampered Sturridge, who put in another terrific shift closing people down and helping out his midfield, to Lucas and Steven Gerrard, who closed down the space in front of the defence, to the reunited centre-back pairing of Skrtel and Daniel Agger, who for me were the best players on the pitch. Jordan Henderson's boundless energy was vital, too, and Glen Johnson's defending also caught the eye.

With the ball, Liverpool were not impressive, but without it, they were fantastic. Successful sides aren't successful because they play flowing football every week; they're successful because they find a way to win on the occasions when flowing football isn't possible. Manchester United have been the masters at that particular art, with Liverpool often the ones on the receiving end. Sunday, they were given a taste of their own medicine.

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