Having now lost their last two games and burnt through much of the goodwill fostered by a strong first month, Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers find themselves facing something of a selection dilemma—and not the one at the back. There may be very real squad depth issues Rodgers has had to cope with in defence due to a series of fullback injuries, but the bigger problem lies further up the pitch. The real problem is at positions that haven't been ravaged by injury and where, in theory at least, the club's summer dealings should have given the manager the options he needs to navigate a season without European commitment.
The real selection problem heading into the weekend doesn't come at the back, where the use of three centre halves to combat Liverpool's fullback injury crisis at the very least appeared a promising tactic against Manchester United, but in midfield and at striker, positions where Rodgers does have depth and options. Or at least where he should have, given he and his scouting staff just spent the better part of £15M bringing in a pair of players to provide depth there. Iago Aspas at a hair under £8M and Luis Alberto for just short of £7M aren't nailed-on starters—at least not yet in Alberto's case—but they cannot have been intended to be no more than expensive ornaments for Liverpool's bench.
In the end, though, that's just what they've seemingly become, with Alberto largely relegated to U21 action and Aspas out of favour after he failed to impress when asked to play a more peripheral role than he had at Celta. If the players ahead of them on the depth chart at their natural positions were fully fit and on form, it wouldn't be an issue. The problem is that they quite clearly aren't, with Steven Gerrard having appeared to have reached the stage in his career where going all out for 90 minutes even once a week is a difficult ask and Daniel Sturridge carrying a knock that shows no signs of improving with the manager asking the striker to play every minute of every match.
For Gerrard, despite looking exceptionally ineffective—and perhaps even infuriatingly indifferent—against Southampton on the weekend, it was no surprise that he found just that little bit extra in the early going on Wednesday against United, and as a result he was one of the most effective players on the pitch throughout the first half. Unfortunately, it was just as unsurprising when the second half saw Gerrard fade out of the match. It was so bad that, by the end, Kolo Toure was storming the United penalty area and desperately trying to wave Liverpool's captain forward to join him while a spent Gerrard hung back, unwilling or unable to commit himself to the attack.
It didn't help, either, that Lucas was removed in the second half after a highly dubious yellow card began to hinder what had been a solid display for the Brazilian. With the club's defensive specialist in midfield gone along with Gerrard's legs, the captain seemed to have no confidence in his ability to get back in coverage should Liverpool turn the ball over. And so, as a result, he appeared to choose simply to not commit himself forward. Past the 70th, 80th, and finally the 90th minute, with Liverpool reverting to something of a 4-3-3 and Toure the nominal defensive midfielder, Gerrard just sat back, forcing the willing but not especially threatening defender to be the one pushing on for a late equaliser.
Daniel Sturridge, meanwhile, looked punch-drunk on the ball for much of the night. Uncertain at times, stumbling at others, it seemed as clear as at any point this season that whatever knock the England striker began the year with and that kept him out of action over the last international break remains an issue. Sturridge has shown an admirable desire and determination to play through the discomfort and delivered a series of effective performances despite being at far less than 100%, but on Wednesday, two games in a week appeared to be asking far too much of a player who probably shouldn't have started and who at the very least should have been taken off in the second half.
What's worse is that when the match ended, Rodgers still had an unused substitution in hand along with one exhausted and increasingly ineffective captain, one injured and increasingly ineffective striker, and £15M of hand-picked depth options at their positions still sat on the bench. Perhaps, being that the match was against Manchester United, Gerrard simply had to start. Perhaps, given the return of Suarez, Sturridge needed to play with an eye towards rediscovering their chemistry. Neither, though, needed to go the full ninety—against either United on Wednesday or Southampton last Sunday. Neither has needed to play every minute of every match so far this season.
Now, Liverpool face a trip to Sunderland on Sunday and a third match in eight days, where Rodgers will have to choose between a pair of players who appear unable to handle the workload he's given them and a pair of pricey depth options he has clearly shown he isn't confident enough to play for even a minute in place of either starter. It seems a winless situation for Rodgers, but that's only because of choices already made. Neither Sturridge nor Gerrard should have had to play 180 minutes this week. They shouldn't be asked to play 90 minutes every game. Now that they have, and especially with Liverpool having lost the last two matches, Rodgers is left with a dilemma of his own making.
More from The Liverpool Offside:
- Rodgers And Out
- Manchester United 1, Liverpool 0: Hernandez Goal the Difference
- Rodgers Confident of Suarez Commitment
- Everything's the Worst: Familiar Ground Edition
- Ayre Talks "Difficult" Suarez and Contract Extension Plans