Even a Goal of the Season calibre strike from Liverpool attacker Christian Benteke couldn’t lighten the mood in the away end of Old Trafford today with the Reds losing out in spectacular fashion to the one team you never want to be on the wrong side of at a ground that has served up too many painful memories to count.
After a first half that failed to yield a single shot on target from either side, Manchester United drew first blood with a free-kick routine straight off the training ground that made the visitors comical defending look nothing short of tragic. An error in judgement from young Joe Gomez would allow Ander Herrera to double up on Daley Blind’s opener after the Spaniard crumpled under a clumsy challenge from the fullback. Benteke restored a glimpse of hope with a thumping overhead volley as time ticked down, but débutante Anthony Martial made sure all three-points stayed in Manchester only two minutes later, coolly finishing off a mazy run that bamboozled even the experienced Martin Skrtel.
Following their first three matches of the season in which his side didn’t concede a single goal, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers said that a new-found focus on the defense was what was going to propel us forward as we looked to put the disappointment of the previous campaign behind us. Now, with five matches played, we’ve conceded six goals in our past two outings to teams that don’t even have their first choice strikers available.
Our defensive renaissance was short lived, if it ever existed at all; consider the fact that United manager Louis van Gaal stumped for midfielder and all-around villain Marouane Fellaini up top in the absence of an injured Wayne Rooney and try to tell me that our problems at the back are being resolved or that we’re seeing improvement week in and week out — the evidence, especially based on today’s ugly affair, doesn’t even come close to supporting it.
Obviously, problems exist that even the most venomous of the anti-Rodgers brigade couldn’t even dream up; set up to frustrate from the off, Liverpool offered absolutely nothing going forward throughout the first half and that looked to be working a treat as we inched towards the draw the Northern Irishman was looking for all along. While their hosts were only marginally better than they were throughout the opening 45-minutes, they were quick to exploit our ongoing fragility at set-plays with Blind’s opener well rehearsed and inexplicably flying through no less than five of opposition defenders without a single one getting a foot out to even try to stop it while Simon Mignolet remained rooted to the spot.
Although we never looked likely to find a reply, it was only after conceding that we looked bothered to venture forward, but our inability to shift out of a defensive 4-3-3 formation effectively shackled both Roberto Firmino and Danny Ings, who was handed his full Liverpool debut in a match played away from home against our most bitter rivals, in what were essentially wing-back roles. That David De Gea, making his first appearance for United this season, would end up saving good efforts from both Ings and Jordon Ibe when he was introduced later in the second half was of little surprise given his quality, but Blind clearing a Skrtel header off the line and Firmino missing a sitter were clear indicators that things weren’t about to go our way.
That being said, we didn’t create enough even warrant the bit of luck that saw Benteke pull one back in spectacular fashion, let alone have the football gods grant us a reprieve from the gut twisting agony that comes along with losing at Old Trafford.
There were very few positives to pull from that match; if you could say that Lucas broke up the play well on a number of crucial occasions, you could also say that the Brazilian quite often followed that up by cheaply giving the ball away or fouling yet another player when their back was to goal and they posed little to no threat. The lack of mobility and ingenuity on display from James Milner and Emre Can highlighted just how bad this side is missing Jordan Henderson with the midfield duo showing their limits after a decent opening half. You’d be remiss for having a go at Gomez for the needless foul on Herrera that directly lead to their second goal, but mounting problems further up the pitch left a young player once again deployed out of position and on his weaker foot one on one with an attacker as tricky as the Spaniard and he showed both his age and inexperience with a reckless tackle that was only exacerbated by his meek response to his obvious error.
In the end though, it all comes back on the manager; I may not agree with the view that Rodgers is the end all, be all of our problems, but a number of baffling tactical non-decisions and a stubbornness that is — as the kids say — epic, only serves to undermine what little confidence is left in his ability to manage this football club. Trying to shoe-horn our most creative talent into an ill suited wing-back role, persisting with a lone, increasingly isolated striker and his dogged refusal to bring Mamadou Sakho back into the starting eleven have all elicited shock on separate occasions, but the fact that he’s got this far doing it week over week out is bordering on the unacceptable.
While you’d have a fair shout in arguing my insistence that we’ve yet to dip to Roy Hodgson levels of depravity quite yet, one can only hope that the rot is stopped one way or another before the Rodgepocalypse replaces the ever so witty Hodgepocalypse in our collective lexicon.