van Persie 19'
So, why can't Liverpool start playing until they're two goals down? That is an excellent question and I don't have an answer for you.
Once again, an inability to perform for a full 90 minutes, coupled with some questionable choices for the starting lineup dooms Liverpool's chances.
I truly don't have enough pejoratives in my vocabulary to adequately describe that first half. Let's just go with "completely awful" and hope that suffices. United really could have finished the half three or four goals ahead and it wouldn't have been harsh on Liverpool.
It wasn't wholly surprising to see Allen play as the most advanced midfielder. But it was a gamble, and ended as a massive, massive failure. I don't care how well Carrick played (and it was pretty well), this is not the chalkboard of an attacking midfielder, no matter the opponent. He was by no means Liverpool's only disappointment, but it was the most notable change from Liverpool's tactics in the wins against Fulham, Sunderland, and QPR, and it did not work in the slightest.
Nearly everyone was a passenger, and it's become depressing to see Liverpool stutter its way through halves, if not full matches, against the top sides. Even during Benitez's final season, the worst times under Dalglish, or, hell, a fair few matches under Hodgson, Liverpool "were up" for matches against the top sides. That has not been the case this season outside of the home draw against Manchester City and until the red card in the reverse fixture against United, comprehensively beaten by Arsenal, overwhelmed until down by two at Tottenham, and stuttering against Chelsea until the change in formation after two-thirds of the match.
That Liverpool mostly defended adequately, at least through Skrtel and Agger, also played a large part in United's narrow halftime advantage. But United's opener came because Liverpool allowed the home side far too much possession on the left flank, stringing something like 13 passes together before Wisdom drifted too far inside with Downing nowhere to be found, allowing Evra far too much space to cross for van Persie, who beat Agger to the low pass. To be fair, Wisdom regrouped well after that mistake, never hiding in either defense or the few times going forward; no matter how he's played this season, we need to remember he's still been developed as center-back. And is all of 19 years old.
Still, United had multiple chances to extend the lead. Van Persie split the center-backs to receive Young's throughball, blasting over when not realizing how much time he had. Agger made a crucial block on Welback after Allen's giveaway put Liverpool under pressure. Welbeck blasted wide from a narrow angle, Cleverley barely missed the target with a volley when Liverpool failed to fully clear Young's cross. And the best chance came just before halftime, when Rafael got behind Johnson on Carrick's long pass, but Reina saved van Persie's backheel, then was taken out by Kagawa when blocking the rebound. I have no idea how Pepe wasn't seriously injured, although he stayed down for a couple of minutes.
Credit where due, Rodgers' halftime change improved Liverpool, but once again, it came after choosing the wrong starting XI. And it was a surprising change, removing Lucas (on a yellow) for Sturridge, shifting to 4-4-2 for the first time during his tenure. Liverpool's midfield trio simply had not worked; Allen was uncertain in his role, but neither Lucas nor Gerrard played well either. Liverpool didn't press, didn't string together passes, and no one's movement complemented his teammates (when there actually was movement).
But before Liverpool could take advantage of the improvement, United got the needed second from a free kick. A free kick where Liverpool were lucky not to see Skrtel sent off for taking down Welbeck on the counter, with Webb evidently assuming that Reina could have come out to cover. Liverpool were actually lucky neither Skrtel nor Johnson were sent off – the former for this foul, the latter for a later possible second yellow. So, surprisingly, we don't get to blame Howard Webb for today. This one's on Liverpool.
And that's despite being able to argue that Vidic was offside for United's second, but it's no surprise that the linesman missed it. It was an exceptionally narrow decision, with tons of bodies in the area on the set play, and we needed multiple reviews to even tell whether he or Evra had the final touch. More worrying was how open Evra was at the back post, with Johnson trying and failing to pick up three United players. Even more worrying was that Liverpool's performance to that point fully merited a two-goal deficit.
But then Liverpool remembered how to play football, obviously aided by the halftime substitution. That change, more than anything else, shifted the match in Liverpool's direction; had the team not fallen asleep on a set play, Liverpool could have come away with an undeserved draw. They nearly did so anyway.
It took less than three minutes after United's second to reduce arrears. I would hope Liverpool learned a few important lessons from the goal.
Most importantly, Liverpool are much better when midfielders and attackers press high up the pitch. Liverpool don't score if Gerrard doesn't tackle Carrick in the final third. Also, attackers making runs into the box, following shots from outside the area, helps immensely. De Gea saved Gerrard's effort from 19 yards out, but Sturridge was quickest off the mark, beating a static Rafael to the loose ball and hammering in with his left foot.
Reina soon had to make another crucial save to keep Liverpool in the match, smartly denying Kagawa's blast after Gerrard and Allen lost possession in their own half by getting in each other's way. But from there, it was almost all Liverpool. Ferguson's subs – Jones for Kagawa, Smalling for Vidic – were to protect a lead; Rodgers, in bringing on Borini for Sterling and Henderson for Allen, gave Liverpool even more impetus going forward, both in firepower and pressing from the front.
Comparing Liverpool's shots before and after United's second pretty much tells the entire story. But, as is all too common, Liverpool also paid for inaccurate shooting after already paying for the woeful first half. Sturridge had two chances sent into the side netting and an excellent one thwacked well over the crossbar, Borini narrowly missed the target on his best opportunity, and Suarez's tame header at De Gea near the death came with Borini in a much better position to take the shot. Still, that Liverpool were able to pen United back is promising, and Borini's return to fitness at the same time as Sturridge's acquisition bodes well going forward.
Honestly, I'm not surprised Liverpool got nothing from the game. It is an inconsistent, young, often-struggling side trying to rebuild against the near-runaway league leaders, on a ground where Liverpool's lost eight of the last nine matches. We all need a bit of realism, and realistically, this United should expect to beat this Liverpool on its home turf, as painful as that is to write.
But it's impossible not to be disappointed by how Liverpool got nothing from the match. Liverpool were thoroughly poor in all phases in the first half, one of the worst displays against United I can remember which didn't involved a Liverpool red card. That Liverpool improved in the second half – better in midfield, promising in attack – is a cause for optimism, but continued inconsistency in both performances from all involved as well as the manager's tactics and selection remains a cause for worry.
All told, it's probably best to remember that this is Rodgers' first season rebuilding from the ground up, and the growing pains are going to continue. Set your expectations accordingly.