Saturday 22 October 2016

Liverpool undone by lack of ambition

Rodgers' struggling side pays the price for playing as if scoreless draw was desirable

Dion fanning

Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30

Daley Blind scores Manchester United’s side’s first goal in the win over Liverpool at Old Trafford last night
Daley Blind scores Manchester United’s side’s first goal in the win over Liverpool at Old Trafford last night

In his new autobiography, Steven Gerrard explains his feelings when Liverpool played Manchester United at Anfield last season.

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He was sure he would be recalled to the starting line-up for the game but instead Brendan Rodgers told him a few days beforehand that he couldn't change the side that was doing well for him.

Gerrard warmed up during the first half with the United fans chanting about his lowest moment in football: his slip which cost Liverpool the title the previous May.

"The anger in the caged animal grew and grew," he writes. "United were swaggering, Anfield was very quiet. It was obvious I would come on at half-time.

"We had stood off United in the first half and made very few tackles. It went against everything built into my DNA. Tackling and collisions mattered against Manchester United."

Read more: Chelsea's title defence looks doomed already as Martial hits the target first time

So when Gerrard came on for the second half, he made two immediately and within 38 seconds he had been sent off.

If he had been on the sideline last night, or even if he was watching from his home in LA, which used to belong to Mariah Carey, Gerrard would have felt some familiar urges.

If Gerrard was on the field, he might have decided in the opening minutes that Manchester United's possession needed to be disrupted by a tackle or a collision.

During the first half, he might have done something reckless, which would have been in keeping with the spirit of games between the two great clubs of the north of England.

Read more: United banish talk of unrest

United could, at least, say they had ended the game in keeping with their traditions when Anthony Martial came on and scored on his debut.

Before Daley Blind opened the scoring three minutes into the second half, they had contributed almost as little to the match as Liverpool, but the context of the game might have explained Brendan Rodgers' approach.

Liverpool had a gameplan that depended on United being unable to break them down. It was an unadventurous route which revealed much about Rodgers' current position at the club. He has entered the crisis management stage of his time as Liverpool's manager. Liverpool's defeat at home to West Ham before the international break demonstrated how fraught things will be for Rodgers this season.

Liverpool had started the season with a couple of wins, and most commentators were impressed by their defensive organisation against Arsenal, but one calamitous defeat was enough for the failings of last season to be swiftly recalled.

A scoreless draw yesterday would have allowed Rodgers to hail the fighting qualities of his side. At half-time, neither side had managed a shot on target, so in one dreary sense everything was going according to plan. But despite a stunning Christian Benteke goal which briefly brought Liverpool back into the match, it was hard to find much to praise in a limp performance.

Read more: Liverpool legends turn on Brendan Rodgers

Rodgers has said his new signings need time, but after last season he must have known that he won't be given much of it to demonstrate that he can build another team.

Before his goal, Benteke was anonymous as was Roberto Firmino, while Danny Ings was stranded on the wing. The sale of Raheem Sterling will cost them this season, but Liverpool's lack of ambition was a questionable approach against a Manchester United team undergoing their own soul-searching.

If Liverpool played as if a scoreless draw was desirable, it is sometimes hard to know what Manchester United desire under Van Gaal beyond the most expensive players in the world. And if they are not the most expensive players in the world, Manchester United will make them so.

Despite a hamstring injury that kept Wayne Rooney out of the game, Anthony Martial started on the bench, but when he came on, his contribution guaranteed the points.

Van Gaal said Martial was a player for the future last week, but an initial fee of £36m puts pressure on the people who have spent that money, not just the player, so there will have been a general sense of relief at Old Trafford last night in many ways.

After the defeat to Swansea, United couldn't afford to lose yesterday, but it swiftly became clear that Liverpool hadn't come to Old Trafford to achieve victory, and they may regret the conservative approach.

By the end, things were more reckless. Liverpool were making the tackles and collisions which are in keeping with some of the traditions of the fixture. Joe Gomez jumped into one to give away a penalty and James Milner picked up a booking and announced he was playing when he charged into Ashley Young.

Tackles and collisions matter when Liverpool play Manchester United, but this was a game where the result mattered most of all.

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