United 2: van Persie 19' , Vidic 53'
Liverpool 1: Sturridge 57'
Of the few assumptions I had pre-match, one was that Jordan Henderson would start for Liverpool given his solid run of form over the past few weeks. To see Joe Allen included at the expense of the young English midfielder was incredibly disappointing, then, and to add insult to injury it was the only change from the impressive performance in the home win over Sunderland. No start for Daniel Sturridge, which made sense given form/fitness questions, but he made the bench along with the newly fit Fabio Borini.
The opening was a departure from Liverpool's tendency this season, in that it offered less bursting energy and dominating possession and more rigid, back-and-forth with United. No major qualms considering the occasion, but it became increasingly clear that the area Liverpool were supposed to be able to dominate--the midfield--was more of a fight than Lucas, Steven Gerrard, and Joe Allen could handle, with Tom Cleverly and Michael Carrick ably handling Liverpool's three-man contingent.
Back-and-forth eventually turned into a very one-sided affair, as Liverpool left Luis Suarez on an island up front and failed to put together anything worthwhile in possession or attack. United deservedly took the lead in 19th minute, with Patrice Evra slicing a low cross inside of Andre Wisdom and through Stewart Downing to Robin van Persie, who just does not miss from eight yards out. That they didn't add to it in the first forty-five minutes was a wonder, as chance after chance was either cleared at the last minute or just wide.
They did get their second less than ten minutes after the restart, though, with a van Persie free-kick on the near side finding Patrice Evra's forehead. The left-back nodded off the side of Nemanja Vidic's head (who may or may not have been offside), fooling Pepe Reina just enough to see it into the back of the net. Liverpool's response was almost immediate, with Daniel Sturridge--who'd replaced Lucas at the half--following up on a David De Gea save from Steven Gerrard's shot to draw Liverpool within a goal.
It was the visitor's match from there; Sturridge found himself with two more good chances that went begging, Fabio Borini hit a volley wide, and Luis Suarez intercepted a possible chance for the Italian striker with a fluffed effort. United did little in the final minutes, but with Liverpool huffing and puffing but unable to find a final ball, they didn't really need to.
Let's start with the very good part(s) of today--Daniel Sturridge and the emerging link-up that developed between he and Luis Suarez. Fabio Borini maybe fits in there somewhere at some point, but that point wasn't necessarily today. The Italian showed good movement and was unfortunate to have a chance taken away by Suarez, but the final forty-five for Liverpool was dominated by the understanding that's starting to develop between the new-boy and the league's second-leading goal-scorer. As an individual Sturridge also impressed, following up Steven Gerrard's shot to poke past De Gea and working his socks off at both ends; at one point he tracked Danny Welbeck all the way into Liverpool's penalty area, and at the other end his movement impressed.
Pepe Reina was also very good, making a number of saves and recovering well from the collision with Shinji Kagawa to finish the match. Shaky at times from the back line, with a much more up-and-down performance from all involved. It's a hell of a thing to ask Andre Wisdom to start at Old Trafford, and while he struggled at times, I was proud of the way he improved as the match went on.
As for the very not-good parts of today, I think they're pretty clear--Liverpool's midfield was abhorrent and Stewart Downing and Raheem Sterling offered absolutely nothing in support of Luis Suarez. Maybe unfair to lump Sterling in with Downing, as he's essentially in the same boat as Wisdom, just with higher expectations, but the attacking unit in the first half was non-existent, and those two had a hand in that.
The midfield struggles fall at Brendan Rodgers' feet, as does the decision to continue to start Downing. Selecting Joe Allen in place of Jordan Henderson verges on criminal considering the form the two have been in, which couldn't be more opposite. Cries of nepotism don't seem to fall wide of the mark, barring major illness or injury for Henderson. The Welshman looked lost, and with Lucas off-kilter and Steven Gerrard less disciplined, Liverpool's midfield was at sea. That they looked better in the second half with only Gerrard and Allen is something I'm more prone to attribute to United sinking deeper and Liverpool showing more attacking intent than an indication that Lucas is the weak link. Far from it, as Jordan Henderson should be the first name on the team sheet when it comes to the midfield.
It's just not good enough as a total package right now, and that includes Brendan Rodgers. Forty-five minutes of navel-gazing and panic won't win many points, and neither will confounding decisions that alienate on-form players from the starting lineup. Questions need to be asked regardless of improvements that were made as the match wound down, or else Liverpool will continue to have the same sorts of struggles indefinitely.