Brendan Rodgers boasts an exceptionally talented footballing mind. He knows an absurd amount more about football than you do. He's got ideas, he's got moves, and he's got enough about him to establish a proper era at Liverpool Football Club. Like it or not, the last few years have been his footprint.
This is the guy who bypassed everything we knew about Captain Fantastic and connected it with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. Early, often, and undeniable, Liverpool's 2013/14 offensive attack knew no equal. Rodgers has his reverent moments, let us make no mistake.
That said, yesterday brought a hideous 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford in a fixture that the better part of a billion human beings watch each time through. Not only that, but it's a defeat that follows on the heels of a 3-0 embarrassment at Anfield to a thoroughly standard West Ham United side. And that shit just doesn't wash, does it?
As near as makes no difference to a year ago, we were noting the shape of a Brendan Rodgers team after a loss to Manchester United. At the time, Rodgers saw fit to mold his Liverpool squad into an unexpected system. That system employed three central defenders, effervescent wings on each side, and a large amount of ball savvy attackers providing capable possession betwixt it all. And it worked. To the tune of 13 games unbeaten and a run at the top four, it worked.
That dynamism stood out during the middle of last season, just as a lack of dynamism stands out now. The 65th minute at United's home turf demonstrated just how little dynamism Rodgers is interested in these days. Roberto Firmino -- perhaps one of the three or four most talented players on Liverpool's books these days -- comes off for Jordon Ibe, like for like. Not because Firmino seemed tired, not because the substitution indicated a wildly different tactical permutation. Just because Jordon Ibe was coming on for Roberto Firmino.
The trick would be repeated minutes later when the precocious Divock Origi replaced Danny Ings. Now, the change made sense from the angle of Ings appearing off the pace as the second half wore on, but it was nowhere near a demonstration of Rodgers changing the approach, forcing the issue, shifting the angles, or otherwise shifting a tactical landscape that was ripe for the taking.
Liverpool stayed. Liverpool went like for like. Liverpool dully swapped out parts in a system that wasn't working, acting as if they had no other options. Make no mistake, Liverpool didn't just lose to Manchester United here, folks. Liverpool never arrived to play Manchester United to begin with. Or at least not with any plan to beat them.
One of the moments, perhaps the only moment, in the game that people will note as proof of Liverpool's quality is the facemelter by Christian Benteke. It was the sort of goal that Ronaldinho etches onto his bucket list. It was also an indication of the state of Liverpool's season. Christain Benteke: 32.5 million signing, isolated with five United defenders around him and desperately trying to make something out of nothing with a bicycle kick from the top of the box. Because nothing else was working. Because it was as good a position as he'd received the ball in all day. And with it, he managed to make something out of yet another piece of nothing.
Can he be a sensational striker? Yes. Certainly that finished bicycle -- if nothing else -- eradicates any lingering doubt about whether Benteke is capable of making this Liverpool career work. But the fit of said striker within the rest of the attack, and team? Doubts abound. In particular because Benteke, whether because the team are having trouble playing to his strengths, or he's having trouble playing towards the team's, looks every bit as isolated as any other striker has over the last calendar year.
And then the rest of the evidence. It's not that Liverpool are a free flowing, attacking side, cutting corners defensively. Nor are they a stout, defensively rigid side giving up some offensive ability. Things are failing to gel in both directions. Perhaps that is an issue that can be fixed with time or different matchday selections. Perhaps it is an issue that will plague Rodgers' team throughout. Regardless, this lack of identity, this lack of shape or cohesion, has consistently presented Liverpool with more problems than the players can collectively solve this year.
Last time Liverpool lost at Old Trafford, Rodgers struck oil with a move to three at the back. He changed the shape of play, and it worked. It remains to be seen whether the Northern Irishman saw something yesterday that will provide another key to some season-saving mad science. Keep going down this path of poor results and worse performances, though, and the question becomes less about whether Rodgers can figure it out, and more about whether ownership can convince a new manager to do so in his stead.