Three Premier League matches. Three 1-0 wins. Three Daniel Sturridge goals. Three clean sheets for a defensive unit anchored by new goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. And, maybe most importantly, three chances to talk about Liverpool's strengths and areas for improvement with the knowledge that, despite the concerns we might have had, they managed to secure three points. It's a far better spot to be in than the alternative, which, after the past few seasons, we're plenty familiar with.
Liverpool 1: Sturridge 4'
Manchester United 0
Brendan Rodgers didn't have much of an opportunity to spring any surprises on the team sheet, with Tuesday's rash of injuries leaving Joe Allen, Aly Cissokho, and Kolo Toure out of contention and the club's late business in the transfer window--each of Victor Moses, Tiago Ilori, and Mamadou Sakho were in attendance--not yet settled. The only change was the one we expected, with Martin Skrtel replacing Toure in an eleven that was otherwise unchanged.
The match didn't even have time to get through its usual early frantic back-and-forth before Liverpool took the lead, as Daniel Sturridge continued his impressive scoring record with an instinctive headed flick past a helpless David De Gea. Daniel Agger had beaten Rio Ferdinand to Steven Gerrard's corner, and the Danish vice-captain's headed effort was redirected by a narrowly onside Sturridge.
An early goal hasn't always translated to maximum points for Liverpool, and Robin van Persie's overhead kick minutes later nearly drew the visitors level. Liverpool were positive throughout the half but created too few chances and conceded a worrying amount of set pieces, all of which thankfully went unpunished by United. The hosts weren't particularly ambitious in possession, content to recycle and retain rather than look for a killer ball. Liverpool managed to take a lead into the break after tempers nearly reached a breaking point, with a series of confrontations between the sides, all of which involved van Persie.
The taste of United dominance we got in the first half became the norm in the second, as Liverpool were intent on sinking back to protect the lead rather than venture forward in search of another to extend their lead. United enjoyed possession for lengthier spells, had a number of set pieces again, and had the upper hand for nearly the entire half. And somehow, Liverpool still held on.
There were only two chances of note for the visitors; Nani fired a left-footed bullet that Simon Mignolet punched away confidently in the 77th minute, and van Persie finally managed a shot on goal that could only find the side netting after he was played in on the right. Liverpool's only answer was a late Raheem Sterling strike that De Gea did well to tip over, and that didn't come until injury time. United's changes--Nani for Ashley Young and Javier Hernandez for Ryan Giggs--couldn't help them draw level, and Liverpool were able to see off the threat for the 1-0 win. Again
For all of Daniel Sturridge's goalscoring heroics, it was again a team-wide effort to seal the victory, with all involved tasked with protecting the narrow lead. The opposition made it unbearable, but Liverpool proved capable in a match that, for the third time in three weeks, we're left feeling they would have found a way to draw or lose in the past.
Sturridge's lack of fitness combined with Coutinho's off day and Aspas' lack of influence rendered Liverpool's attack mostly anonymous, with each of the three forwards spending much of their day tracking back rather than pushing play along. We'd hoped that Sterling's introduction would allow for more of a threat on the break, but he too found himself trying to win the ball back far more often than he had it at his feet.
The work of the midfield was important as well, and each of Lucas, Steven Gerrard, and Jordan Henderson were roundly excellent. There is simply no way to overstate the energy and workrate Henderson brings to this squad, again proving tireless both bursting forward and tracking back, running himself into the ground for the cause and popping up with a number of critical touches. Lucas' interventions were both timely and effective save for a thoughtless yellow card late which gifted United another set piece from a threatening position. And Gerrard again excelled on the big stage, proving both restrained and confrontational when needed, the latter coming most notably in his late first-half showdown with van Persie.
Praise must be heaped upon the defensive unit as well; Mignolet was very good in his decision-making on the day and resolute when tested, Glen Johnson was absolutely immense in his finest performance of the season before succumbing to an ankle injury, Daniel Agger and Jose Enrique were both good if a bit uncertain at times, and Martin Skrtel--he of the limited preseason minutes and the injury/"injury" discussion--proved the consummate professional while covering incredibly well for the injured Kolo Toure. Not to be forgotten was Andre Wisdom, who did exactly what was needed to see the match out after he replaced Johnson in a position in which he looked so uncertain against Notts County midweek.
There will almost certainly be a time this season when we're lamenting points dropped and chances missed, and while three wins in three to start the season feels awfully nice, Liverpool only have the small matter of 35 more to go. Their best-ever start to a Premier League campaign has to count for something, though, as it's reaping both practical and emotional benefits for a squad that's going to get deeper and healthier over the next two weeks.
After struggling so badly with belief in recent seasons, especially in narrow matches and against "top" sides, wins like today's are absolutely crucial. And, as it turns out, can be kind of fun. At least when they're not terrifying.