Having been outplayed by Swansea in the first half, Liverpool were fortunate to enter the break level a week ago. Running out the same personnel in the same formation and having been outplayed just as thoroughly by Manchester United on Sunday, Liverpool were less fortunate. Or they were fortunate to only be down one to a side that, as with Swansea, couldn’t have been called lucky if they’d scored two or three.
It was a disappointing showing, perhaps more so given how predictable it really was. Liverpool had run out mostly the same midfield against Blackburn in the FA Cup two weeks previously, only with Emre Can pushed up in place of Joe Allen, and the result had been a dull draw where Liverpool largely failed to control the middle despite their numerical advantage. Blackburn hadn’t looked likely to win the match, either, but then they were the Championship side.
A week later, with Can back in the defence and Allen in midfield, came the match against Swansea and a lucky, largely undeserved victory. A week after that largely disappointing showing, Brendan Rodgers selected the same four in the middle to face Manchester United, and for the third time in three matches Liverpool’s personnel completely failed to control the middle of the park despite having a numerical advantage there.
There were other problems. Alberto Moreno had the off-night of his life and Raheem Sterling—who Rodgers recently said was poorly suited to playing wingback—looked invisible playing wingback. Daniel Sturridge, goal aside, provided little movement or quality up top and grew increasingly frustrated as he was left increasingly isolated. For the third match in a row, nothing seemed to be working. Only this time, the opposition was better.
Whether it’s personnel or tactics or simply overplaying the same core group of players—players like Emre Can, who at 20 years of age looks increasingly jaded from his heavy workload at a position he’s only filling in at—it was clear at the half against Swansea that this was a Liverpool side in desperate need of a tweak. All of which made it surprising to see an unchanged eleven running out against United just as they had against Swansea.
Rodgers has had some brilliant managerial moments in his time at Liverpool. He has done some unexpected, unorthodox things and gotten great results. Abandoning any hint of defensive solidity in favour of a holding midfielder judged for his attacking qualities helping to fuel an offensive madhouse last year was something few managers would have tired. Rodgers tried it, and it brought Liverpool as close to a title as they’ve been in more than two decades.
This season, a switch to three at the back was just as unexpected; just as unlikely. And it’s been, over the past few months, arguably just as effective. Yet despite those moments of brilliance and his clear promise, there remain frustrations born of a seeming stubbornness. Even the change in approach this season, successful as it’s clearly been, came months after it had become clear that something desperately needed changing.
Things clearly needed changing this week, too, and they didn’t against United. The same box-four midfield that had been dominated in the first half against Swansea was again dominated. Then, Steven Gerrard—a player Rodgers seemingly continues to judge for his career contribution rather than his play this season—came on to put the final nail in the coffin, consigning Liverpool to a defeat earned in the first half and at best hugely denting their top four chances.
The fortunate thing, both for Rodgers and for Liverpool, is that there are now two weeks in which to figure out what comes next. Two weeks to figure out what this Liverpool side needs to do to click back into gear after their recent slump in form. There were always going to be dropped points at some stage; Liverpool’s top four chances were always going to take a hit. What matters now is fixing the problems quickly and finding the way forward again.
The stubbornness that saw Liverpool fail against United in exactly the same manner in which they’d failed against Swansea and Blackburn is disappointing, but if the problems can be fixed in time for Liverpool to earn all three points on the road against Arsenal they may quickly be forgotten. Personnel; formation; tactics. This is a Liverpool side in need of a change. And that change can’t be as long in coming as it was in the autumn.