It seems an age has passed since Liverpool visited Old Trafford and emerged rampant 4-1 victors; In fact it was less than four years ago in March 2009. The crushing pressure of the modern football industry means that a club cycles through teams with relative frequency, only four of the Liverpool squad from 2009 are still at Anfield, yet even so the gulf between the two clubs has rarely been greater.
However, under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool slowly, tentatively, seem to be gaining ground. The woes of the second Dalglish era are gradually being covered over and there are signs, although they were second best on Sunday afternoon, that the jigsaw that is Brendan Rodgers’ Anfield ‘project’ is starting to take shape.
Liverpool enjoyed a relatively successful festive period, picking up convincing wins at home to Sunderland and Fulham and utterly dominating a ragged QPR side at Loftus Road on December 30th. The danger in modern football analysis often seems to be that opinions on a side fluctuate almost entirely to extremes. For example, one week Paul Lambert is praised for bringing a fresh and exciting youthful look to his Aston Villa side after defeating Liverpool, yet within a fortnight Alan Hansen is deriding their inexperience and damning them to the relegation.
It seems unfashionable to simply define a team as being inconsistent, or just having a ‘bad day at the office’. Instead, the favoured clichés all focus on either exuberant praise or damning criticism. It may appear to be inarticulate to state that a team are ‘doing alright’, but there is a similar inaccuracy in crassly exaggerating a team’s success or plight.
This is precisely the case with what Brendan Rodgers is attempting to achieve at Liverpool. One week they are praised for dispatching Fulham with professional composure, next match they are ridiculed for being thumped by a combative Stoke side. In either case, the verdict on their state as a club has to be complete.
It seems more accurate to detect that such traits are typical of a side beginning to find their feet under relatively new management and with a similarly new approach to playing football. Liverpool’s performance at Old Trafford was in a sense a microcosm of their season: tentative and nervy in the first half, but dangerous in the second. United went in at half time cruising, they went in at full time relieved.
Too often reliant on the admittedly outstanding Luis Suarez in the first half of the season, Liverpool have now the attacking options they so desperately lacked at the start of the campaign. Daniel Sturridge had a flying start to his Liverpool career in the FA Cup, but faced with a far stiffer test at Old Trafford we saw what Liverpool fans should expect.
He took his goal well; pouncing after David De Gea could only palm out a low Steven Gerrard shot, and linked promisingly with Suarez in the final third. At times, however, he was profligate in front of goal; twice firing wide at the near post, and lacked composure when faced with a decent chance to level from a narrow angle.
Sturridge, like Rodgers’ Liverpool side, is by no means the finished article. He will score goals just as Liverpool will win games. Likewise, he will be profligate in front of goal, just as Liverpool will lose matches during the remainder of the season. What both player and club have however, is an opportunity to progress if they remain focussed and aware of their status as a club on the mend.
They are by no means there yet, or even close, but this should not be seen as a calamitous judgement on Rodgers’ work at Anfield. Under his management they are undoubtedly playing better football. Youngsters such as Henderson, Shelvey, and the exciting Raheem Sterling, are performing well on a more regular basis, and the club are certainly moving in a positive direction.
Defeat at the hands of arch rivals Manchester United will no doubt hurt the Anfield faithful, yet they are witnessing a gradual upturn under Rodgers which should, and surely will, be allowed the time to progress further. With a greater array of striking options and an increasingly impressive team work ethic, there are reasons to be quietly optimistic at Anfield. They aren’t plumbing the depths many lowered them too during their stuttering start to the season. On the other hand, they are not world beaters who will put in a serious challenge for the top four this season. They are ‘doing alright’, and will continue to improve as long as expectations remain accurate. Next up: Norwich City. Suarez hat-trick anyone?