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The Old Trafford effect; Liverpool fail to learn from previous experiences

September 20, 2010

Dimitar Berbatov rises highest to head home United's winner and compound Liverpool's misery

Liverpool’s performance against Manchester United was not only as painful and frustrating to watch as the national team’s abysmal display in the World Cup this summer, but it was also rather confusing. A new-look side, yes. A number of players still getting to grips with playing with each other, yes. A new system, yes. But even so, where was the adventure?

That adventure served the Reds extremely well two seasons back when they trounced United 4-1 at Old Trafford with Fernando Torres running Nemanja Vidic ragged, so much so that the Serb was sent off, the start of an amazing mini-run of 3 matches against the Reds, and 3 red cards. On that day, Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool were flying high in the Premier League and had strong aspirations to claim their 19th top flight title. They were a side brimming with confidence, playing the brand of football that every fan across the country would love to see their football team play. Unfortunately, the class of 2008/09 is fast being forgotten in the midst of a new, less exciting, and less confident Liverpool side.

This performance, perhaps not the result, is a great example of the troubles Liverpool have faced, and certainly will face for the entirety of the season, in my opinion. The Liverpool of two or three years ago would have come straight out the blocks like a rampaging bull, and got stuck into the old enemy from the outset. Instead, Hodgson’s boys sat back and allowed Manc to have a great deal of possession and ‘get their eye in’, so to speak, in the first 10/15 minutes. History suggests that the teams to have a go at United, and push men forward are on the whole more successful than those who sit back and try to soak up the pressure. It ain’t gonna work for 90 minutes, especially at Old Trafford. Something has to give in the end.

Liverpool were of course punished for such a strategy. A sustained period of pressure eventually told as Dimitar Berbatov headed home a corner from the left with a little help from some schoolboy marking from Fernando Torres. What made the opener even more unbearable for Liverpool supporters was not only the timing of it (2 minutes before half-time) but also the belief that the Reds were starting to eek their way back into the match. A 5 minute spell of some decent passing and slick interchanging in the final third, balanced out by a couple of awful crosses from Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky, seemed to have consolidated a foothold in the match for the visitors, but United were to do what United tend to do; spoil the party.

A second, and more spectacular Berbatov goal seemed to kill off Liverpool; certainly I was resigned to defeat. It was only then that Liverpool started to play a bit. It can be argued that the introduction of Frenchman David N’gog had some effect on the way the Reds responded after Berba’s wonderful over-head-kick. Even the out-of-sorts Torres looked a shade livelier and a tad more dangerous. Indeed, he won a penalty (which was converted by Steven Gerrard) after cutting inside Jonny Evans, and then caused John O’Shea to haul him down on the edge of the area in a challenge that on another day could have seen the Irishman soldier off for an early bath. Gerrard was to stick that away as well, but only after Manchester United’s wall had invited the stand-in England captain to slot straight through it.

From 2-0 down and playing like they’d rather be in another country, Liverpool had found the resolve and the desire to get back into the game, albeit from two set-pieces. It just goes to show that when a little bit of pressure is applied on United’s back four, spaces open up, mistakes start to appear more frequently and Vidic and co. generally look a little more vulnerable. Even in 7 minutes, Liverpool made United’s defence look like that of Wigan Athletic. Therefore, a little more adventure from the start wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Who knows what 45 or 60 minutes of attacking football could have done for the Reds on Sunday, and this is my point. Instead of teams going to the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ to shut up shop and stick in there for a long, hard battle, I’d like to see more adventure, more bravery and more ruthless attacking football. As I said earlier, trying to hold out for 90 minutes against the technical class of a Berbatov, a Rooney, a Scholes and such like simply ain’t going to work. Rangers may have done it in mid-week in the Champions League, but a weaker United side and more than half-an-eye on Sunday’s derby were certainly contributing factors to the predictable outcome of that match.

Teams should learn from this display, they should take heart from the 7 minutes of decent football that Liverpool (a rather mediocre outfit, lets face it) conjured out of nowhere, and they should come to Old Trafford believing that they can get something out of the game by employing tactics that are generally seen as unorthodox for a visiting side in Manchester.

My worry for Liverpool is that they don’t have enough good players to play like that against the United’s, the Chelsea’s and the Arsenal’s of the Premier League, especially away from home. At Anfield it’s a different kettle of fish. A great fanbase, the expectancy of a home fixture that naturally results in a more attacking mindset, and a greater desire to put on a show for the faithful. However, Maxi Rodriguez, Lucas Leiva, Christian Poulsen – are they good enough to play the type of football that will win Liverpool football matches? Well, that’s for another day.

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