Liverpool transformed after Old Trafford loss
LIVERPOOL v MAN UNITED
(Tonight, 9.30pm, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub Tv Ch 227)
Old Trafford was the lowest point for Brendan Rodgers. Outplayed and out-thought by the erratic Louis van Gaal, the Liverpool manager was tipped for the sack.
The Reds went down 3-0 on Dec 14, utterly humiliated by Manchester United. Liverpool had reached rock bottom. But the lowest point proved to be the turning point as Rodgers vowed to save his season (and his job).
As the two heavyweights meet again, here's a look at how Liverpool found their winning formula after the United horror show.
1 FOUR INTO THREE DOES GO
The myth is more romantic than the reality. As United knocked the goals past Liverpool's plodding back four, a lightbulb allegedly exploded in the dugout.
Rodgers followed the bright light and declared, from this day forward, the Reds would play with three at the back. Unfortunately, the real story was less sexy.
The game at Old Trafford saw Rodgers pick three centre backs (the previous game, a drab 0-0 draw against Sunderland, was the death rattle for the back four).
Rodgers' formation was right, but the timing and personnel were off. The fixture was a rare occasion when Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata were all on the pitch and firing (they all scored).
Plus, Glen Johnson cannot carry the right side of a back three. He can carry a tractor, perhaps, but not a defence.
He lacked the pace to cover the space vacated by a fullback, forcing Jordan Henderson to track back and negate his attacking impact.
But even in that slightly misleading 3-0 defeat (Brad Jones was perhaps at fault for two of the goals), Rodgers saw a faint spark in the formation.
He kept tweaking, dropping Johnson and trying Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho, but he persevered until he found the cohesive triumvirate of Dejan Lovren (sometimes), Martin Skrtel (reliable) and Emre Can (a revelation).
Finally, Liverpool had a solid defensive platform.
But the foundation was laid at Old Trafford.
2 MINDING THE GAP
Leading up to the Old Trafford debacle, Liverpool had laboured. The creative ingenuity of the previous, heady campaign had vanished.
Luis Suarez's departure and Daniel Sturridge's injury hadn't helped, but it wasn't only the strikers.
It was the supply line.
As he demonstrated so successfully in the Champions League, Suarez's workrate defies belief.
Barcelona craved his industry just as much as his invention. He drops deeper and drags markers into the inside channels to create space for star man Lionel Messi.
He performed a similarly selfless role at Liverpool, but it was often buried beneath that phenomenal avalanche of goals. The gap the Uruguayan left in front of goal was no smaller than the chasm left over his shoulder, between the lines.
Neither Philippe Coutinho nor Raheem Sterling had the requisite toolboxes to fix the hole.
Rodgers tried pushing last season's quarter-back, Steven Gerrard, further forward, but the 34-year-old's legs betrayed him.
Rodgers needed an extra body in midfield. So he sacrificed his preferred 4-2-3-1 and went with 3-4-2-1 (or 3-4-3).
The overriding consideration for the three centre backs was not defensive.
Rodgers needed to mind the midfield gap. He found a new supply line.
He found Jordan Henderson.
3 HOLDING OUT FOR A HENDERSON
Liverpool needed a hero. Few expected it to be Henderson, charging through the midfield, his cape flapping in the breeze.
It's worth returning to the Old Trafford game to remember where Henderson was, set adrift on the right and left to play night nurse for two ageing men. He had the slowing Gerrard beside him and Johnson's girth behind him.
Henderson endured a personal Battle of the Alamo. They attacked from all sides. He was vulnerable, exposed and essentially wasted.
By the end of the month, Liverpool had hit upon a winning formula and discovered a new, spiritual leader.
Against Swansea, Henderson was shifted to central midfield and granted a licence to roam. He was a Liver bird released. He fed the voracious front three who gorged on the post-Christmas feast.
Adam Lallana helped himself to a double and Liverpool strolled into the New Year with newfound optimism. They won 4-1. More pertinently, Gerrard never left the bench.
4 REDS RISE AS GERRARD FALLS
Liverpool's favourite son failed his family at the unpopular neighbour's house and he knew it.
At Old Trafford, he was bypassed in central midfield by Marouane Fellaini and, of all people, Wayne Rooney.
Gerrard's unshakeable commitment to the club cause and his manager's unswerving loyalty clouded the judgment of both men.
Last season, Henderson did most of his fetching and carrying and the quarterback role suited both his Hollywood passing and pedestrian pace. But Liverpool's initial lack of attacking momentum left the captain painfully exposed.
Rodgers moved him into central midfield and even dropped him in the hole, but the truth was increasingly self-evident. The Reds were better off without their inspirational talisman.
His recent injury offered an unwelcome confirmation. The original comic book hero still had his moments, notably against Tottenham.
But he missed games against Sunderland, Aston Villa, West Ham, Everton, Southampton, Manchester City and Burnley and Liverpool won them all except for the draw against Everton.
He's still an enigmatic presence and always lifts his game when United roll into town, but he belongs on the bench.
5 FORTUNE FAVOURS THE BRAVE
Both Rodgers and van Gaal have been accused of many perceived failings this season, but never a lack of fortitude.
They make bold decisions. The only difference being the Liverpool manager made his earlier. Against Man City, Rodgers picked Lallana, Alberto Moreno, Lazar Markovic, Lovren and Can, an unthinkable scenario before Christmas.
Rodgers persevered with his new boys. He tweaked their positions along the way but, by the time they hosted the champions, five of his pre-season signings featured in the 2-1 victory.
Van Gaal was forced to make a similarly brave decision, but in the opposite direction. For their win against Tottenham, he left his new kids on the chopping block and backed his old guard.
Van Gaal went back in time, but Rodgers went back to the future. At Liverpool, the kids are all right.
LIVERPOOL ON A 13-MATCH UNDEFEATED RUN IN THE EPL AFTER THEIR LOSS TO MAN UNITED ON DEC 14
- Arsenal (home, 2-2)
- Burnley (away, 0-1)
- Swansea (home, 4-1)
- Leicester (home, 2-2)
- Sunderland (away, 0-1)
- Aston Villa (away, 0-2)
- West Ham (home, 2-0)
- Everton (away, 0-0)
- Tottenham (home, 3-2)
- Southampton (away, 0-2)
- Man City (home, 2-1)
- Burnley (home, 2-0)
- Swansea (away, 0-1)