Liverpool are flat-track bullies unable to find nastiness when up against the top teams

Liverpool are yet to beat a top-10 side this season

The mysteries of Liverpool's defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday were still surfacing when the stadium had emptied and Brendan Rodgers was explaining how he had motivated his team. "At half-time we reinforced the fact that they are really good players," he said.

It comes to something when a Liverpool player needs to be told that – and as Rodgers disclosed this fact it was hard to avoid going back to the conclusion, which has been taking shape for weeks, that what this reshaped side lacks is spine, spirit, nastiness even. Playing the ball around is fine – and Ian St John is among those who talk of this Liverpool team as being the best in possession that he has seen for years. But there is a reason why Liverpool are yet to beat a top-10 side in the Premier League this season. They're flat-track bullies, comfortable seeing off the weaker sides in the division but devoid of the character to put a foot in, as well as play football, when they're up against it.

The timidity on show at Old Trafford was no more discomfiting than the anaemia Liverpool displayed in losing 3-1 at Stoke City – their previous challenging encounter – on Boxing Day night. "It's not all about football," Rodgers said, late that night, admitting his side lacked character in defeat. "You've got to earn the right to play, especially coming here. We have big character and players but tonight it was not too easy." They didn't learn.

Stewart Downing yesterday ducked the question, when asked if this had become a significant part of the Liverpool deficit this season, though judging by his overall contribution to the squad he was perhaps not the best man to ask. "The way the manager has got us playing, it will take time to bed in," he said. "The encouraging things are the way we are passing and moving. That is good."

But Downing's answer did suggest some appreciation that football is about determination, resolve, desire – and not just the ball. "When Manchester United don't play well, they will win," he said. "They struggled in the second half yet they won the game. That is what we can learn. Being hard to beat when we are not at our best. When we do play well, we murder teams. But when we don't play well, we don't exactly get results. That is probably a learning thing for us."

The education may take a season and perhaps more. Liverpool have to accept a campaign of mid-table mediocrity because the size of Rodgers' task – rebuilding a giant in a harsh spotlight, just as Liverpool seek to recover from several years of civil war and strife – is quite simply the biggest in the Premier League.

The six-million-dollar question is whether Luis Suarez is willing to hang around while the club reach Champions League standard. If the answer is yes, then there is plenty of promise in the margins: not just the potential Daniel Sturridge has already shown, but the products of a fine Liverpool academy. Young Jordan Ibe's and Ryan McLaughlin's displays in the recent 4-1 win over Internazionale which sealed progress to the knockout stage of the NextGen tournament proved that much.

The landscape is also skewed in Liverpool's favour by the fact that Arsenal's and Chelsea's implosions actually create the prospect of a sneaky top-four finish, despite the 24-point deficit leaders United have opened on them. The title race, monopolised by two Manchester sides who are not of vintage quality, is fairly drab but Liverpool's unfolding season has potential to be a more absorbing story than any other.

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