There were pieces that were disappointing, pieces that encouraged, pieces that looked lost, and pieces that were on-form, but, yet again, it was a set piece that decided Liverpool's fate as Javier Hernandez redirected a Wayne Rooney corner to give the hosts the winner in the 46th minute. The return of Luis Suarez dominated the headlines, but it was the same old problems as Liverpool couldn't get the goal they needed and saw their League Cup campaign come to an end at Old Trafford.
Manchester United 1: Hernandez 46'
Among the disappointing pieces was the inclusion of Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge in the starting eleven; both have played every minute of every match so far this season, and while the occasion--or at least the opponent--might have demanded their presence, their respective dropoffs over the past week indicated that a rest simply had to be on the cards. Rodgers' shift to a 3-5-2/3-4-3 was an interesting wrinkle, though, as it allowed the returning Suarez to partner Sturridge in attack with Victor Moses in support, and Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel, and Mamadou Sakho at the back.
The defense would be called into question early, with United pressing relentlessly for the opening ten minutes. Some smart work defensively rebuffed any threat, and Liverpool eventually weathered the storm while doing some excellent forward pressing of their own. A chipped cross from Jose Enrique nearly found Sturridge at the far post but for the slightest of headed touches from Chris Smalling, and a deeper ball from the left wingback minutes later met Suarez on the far side, but the Uruguayan's first touch gave David De Gea just enough time to close down effectively and smother the subsequent toe poke.
It was mostly Liverpool for the rest of the first half, with Henderson and Enrique doing solid work on their respective flanks, and the three-man defense proving resolute when tested. Without a goal to make the possession count, though, it was level at the break, and the visitors were punished for a familiar failing immediately after the break.
Wayne Rooney's corner found an unmarked Javier Hernandez in front of goal; the Mexican striker had completely shed Jose Enrique with a clever bit of movement, left alone to redirect past Simon Mignolet and put United in front. Chances for Liverpool in the next ten minutes were fruitless, first as Sturridge was played in by Moses only to be stifled, and next when Henderson found himself with time and space from twenty-odd yards and pushed an effort wide.
United managed a chance or two of their own, but it was again Liverpool who should have scored; De Gea saved well from a diving Victor Moses header on 71 minutes, and a free kick by Luis Suarez hit the top side of the crossbar moments later. Mignolet was called into action to deny Wayne Rooney shortly thereafter, and with tired legs finally failing, Liverpool had no response, ultimately fading over the final ten minutes along with their hopes at advancing to the fourth round of the League Cup.
Losing to Manchester United always stings no matter the setting, as does the fact that Liverpool once again concede on a set piece due to sloppy marking. They've now conceded six goals on the season, and half of those--first against Notts County, then against Southampton on Saturday, and finally at Old Trafford--have come on set pieces. It's been a joke born out of nervousness rather than actual humor, but there's no more joking to be done. Brendan Rodgers and his staff need to address this. Now.
What also needs addressing is Rodgers' insistence on playing his captain every minute ever, especially with his form and energy levels dropping off so dramatically in the last two matches. No surprise that the story has been similar for Daniel Sturridge, who looked out of sorts for most of the day. Gerrard was good for most of the first hour, but it's clear that both are in need of rest. Playing through pain might work, but playing through tired to the point that it's having a negative impact on both player and club certainly doesn't.
Aside from those areas, though, it was a largely passable, if not positive, showing for Liverpool. The switch to three at the back appeared seamless, with each of Mamadou Sakho (who was wonderful), Martin Skrtel, and Kolo Toure impressing, and Enrique having one of his better matches on the left and Jordan Henderson transitioning expertly to a wingback role. Lucas opened well before fading and being taken off with just over twenty minutes to play, and Victor Moses--in a different position than we've seen to this point--was slightly disjointed but had good energy and very nearly got Liverpool level. And on his return, Luis Suarez showed as many glimpses of promise as he did of rust, causing problems for the United defense, himself, and his teammates in playing the full ninety.
The result is disappointing, sure, but if they can continue to improve the pieces that were better today while addressing a few other major areas of concern, this could potentially turn out to be an important--and moderately enjoyable, despite the loss--part of moving Liverpool forward.