Rodgers strikes solution at second-half attempt

Posted by Kristian Walsh

When Brendan Rodgers sits down and reflects on Liverpool's narrow defeat to Manchester United, he will do so with a semblance of regret, his wistful thoughts bringing a sickly rancour to his post-watershed drink. No matter how many times he reviews the game, or how much he analyses the 90 minutes, the message is simple and clear.

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Liverpool were abysmal in the first half. The defence looked afraid of the attacking assaults from Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck and others; the midfield, as has been at times this season, was non-existent, its only function seemingly to perpetually provide United with the ball. The front three of Stewart Downing, Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling also toiled, with better service existing in a packed bar in Deansgate on a Saturday night.

And then, with one half-time substitution, confirmation: confirmation Rodgers had simply got it wrong from the start.

That he decided to change it at half time is something to offer praise for, the testicular fortitude from the away trips to Everton and Chelsea surfacing once more. But do not let it mask the mistake made from the start. Even if Daniel Sturridge was not fully fit to begin the game for Liverpool, this was a game where attacking intent would always be master. Teams do not contain United, such is their attacking strength; the days of hard-working 1-0 away victories long gone at Old Trafford.

Liverpool did not test David De Gea once in the first half, Suarez's snapshot the only chance; once more, magic from he or Steven Gerrard appeared the gameplan. Once Sturridge arrived, the shape of the side changed; no longer did United control the game and march through the midfield as they had the 45 minutes previous. The result truly was at the mercy of whoever attacked better, with more penetration and thrust.

By the time Liverpool took that mantle, they were 2-0 down. Though Sturridge had a terrific impact, each incisive run or intelligent piece of movement confirmed further Rodgers, and Liverpool, had got it wrong to begin with. Teams should attack United, much like Liverpool did at Anfield in September, narrowly losing despite a one-man disadvantage. Liverpool decided not to - a ploy that might work if the team were a finely-tuned unit, pressing together and working hard on and off the ball. Yet, they are not, and a team seven points clear at the Premier League summit will always offer punishment for such frailties. It appears Rodgers was feeling particularly gluttonous for it.

Easy for those on the sidelines to say, of course. Make no mistake, Liverpool could have taken a point from this game. As poor as the first half was, they were impressive in the second when the defence and midfield struck up a harmony not seen before, so too the midfield and attack. With Sturridge, Suarez and the returning Fabio Borini up front, a stark role reversal occurred as it was the home side now disjointed with their phantom midfield being overrun. Alas, the feeble first half ultimately proved too much to recover. The second half proving this was a missed opportunity. Though Sturridge came on at half time and Borini appeared with 28 minutes to go, it was all too late. In Sturridge's case, 45 minutes too late.

The former Chelsea man was magnificent; quiet rumblings of disrespect towards his debut on the basis of non-league opposition will now surely be hushed. Also hushed will be the debate on where he should play. Featuring up front at Old Trafford he continually hassled United's back line, pushing them deeper and deeper, allowing Suarez to operate in the space behind. His goal showed all his best qualities: he was alert, quick and possessed an ability bereft in this Liverpool side to follow in on spilt balls. The question remains why it took so long for De Gea to be tested as such.

Though this defeat will hurt Liverpool, particularly with Sturridge and Suarez having chances to level near the end, it will be of some use if this provides Rodgers and his side with a lesson learnt. It is simple to merely decry defensive football; in a league with such a dearth of defensive mastery, there is something in the ability to shut out sides. But Liverpool do not possess that mastery. Sometimes, you must play to your strengths from the start.

Maybe Rodgers will learn that. He is, after all, still learning. It is not Rodgers' fault he has been hired to learn his trade while managing a top side. But learn he must. He knew that as he applauded the away supporters after the game with a tinge of upset and disappointment.

Striking the correct balance when setting up the team away to a top four side is a difficult one, but one they must eventually strike. He won't even have to wait until next season's trip to Old Trafford, as much as he would want the carrot of revenge dangling as soon as possible.

With Arsenal and Manchester City within the next month, there will ample opportunity to learn some more. The feeling of missed opportunity is one of the worst in football, particularly against fierce rivals. He won't want to experience it many more times, but to make sure of that, he and his side must learn from Sunday.

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