1-0 Sturridge, 1-0 Sturridge, 1-0 Sturridge. I could get used to this. As long as my heart holds out through the next 35 matches, that is.
None of Liverpool's wins have come easy this season. A first half goal, this one incredibly early, followed by Liverpool pinned deeper and deeper into two banks of four. But they've come in the end, and – especially at this stage of the season and given Liverpool's issues last season – that's all that really matters.
Only one player's registered a league goal for Liverpool this season, and it took that player just four minutes to get off the mark on his birthday. Early pressure from Liverpool, a corner won by Sturridge when Ferdinand made a last ditch tackle, Gerrard's delivery redirected by Agger and flicked into the back of the net by Sturridge, who'd cleverly eluded his marker by using De Gea as a blocker.
United responded well – van Persie bicycling over on one of the home sides too-numerous set plays, Mignolet smothering Welbeck's shot from outside the box, a monumental tackle by Johnson to deny Welbeck – but that threatening response only lasted for 15-20 minutes. The away side continued to see more of the ball, but Liverpool coped more than adequately, with Lucas, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, and Enrique all on top form, massively frustrating the Mancs, who were lucky not to have a man sent off as Cleverley, van Persie, and Carrick all saw yellow.
The second half followed in the same vein as Liverpool's last league win, with Liverpool similarly retreating into a deeper and deeper defensive shell. Only one side looked likely to score, and it wasn't Liverpool. Only one side managed more than a single shot at goal until the final 10 minutes, and it wasn't Liverpool. But, somehow, the narrow victory at Villa was surprisingly more nerve-wracking, despite today's opposition. Villa put Liverpool under more pressure, took more shots which nearly spoiled the win. Neither of United's second-half substitutes – Nani for Young and Hernandez for Giggs, after Valencia had to replaced Jones in the first half – improved the away side or changed the pattern of play. United bossed possession throughout entire second half, but only Nani's blast from distance in the 77th minute and van Persie's shot into the side netting 10 minutes later marginally threatened to level matters, and neither required the heroics from Mignolet that we saw against either Stoke or Villa.
As in those two other narrow victories, today's was a team-wide win. Eight of Liverpool's starting XI have a more-than-fair shout at being named man of the match; only Aspas and Coutinho underwhelmed, partly explainable by Liverpool's defensiveness, while Mignolet didn't have enough to do to merit it. Otherwise, Henderson and Lucas were utterly superlative; Gerrard led by example, as he often does in these fixtures; Sturridge scored yet again, despite still not being at full fitness; and every single member of Liverpool's back four had their best match of the season by some distance. Special mention goes out to Martin Skrtel, making just his third league start since Liverpool last faced United in mid-January, who not only kept van Persie under wraps for long stretches but frustrated him to the point where he was nearly dismissed just before halftime.
All three of Liverpool's substitutions made a positive impact as well. Sterling tracked back when needed and was only denied the sealing second goal by an excellent De Gea save. Wisdom, on for the injured Johnson, clearly put Notts County behind him, blocking off attempted attacks from both Evra and Welbeck before they truly threatened. Luis Alberto's fresh legs, replacing Coutinho, allowed Liverpool to press United in the final 10 minutes, preventing them from building up the head of steam that was inevitable throughout Ferguson's tenure. All three of those substitutes were born after Ryan Giggs made his league debut (hat tip Not Too Xabi). The seven players on Liverpool's bench had made a grand total of 89 league appearances, and have an average age of 21, a total inflated by Brad Jones' 31 years.
Liverpool took just four points from the same three fixtures last season: a dismal draw against Stoke where Liverpool did absolutely everything but score, a somewhat fortunate 2-1 comeback win at Villa, and a depressing 1-2 loss against United after Shelvey's early red card. Today is September 1st. Liverpool didn't have nine points in the league until October 28th last season.
This team is still very much in its formative stage, the first XI and the substitutes. It should get stronger in the next 24 hours, with Mamadou Sahko, Tiago Ilori, and Victor Moses in the director's box today, and with Suarez to return after two more matches suspended. Despite that, this team continues to win and continues to keep clean sheets, even if they haven't fully impressed in any fixture. But the ability to grind out these wins, three consecutive wins, in these difficult fixtures – especially today's – is arguably more impressive than any 4-0, 5-0, 6-0 bashing of clearly substandard opposition.