When he last prepared for a game against Manchester United, it occurred to Brendan Rodgers that he might be sacked.
It was December; Liverpool’s first eagerly awaited Champions League campaign in five years was drawing to its messy conclusion. The team were drifting in mid-table and the comments on the Liverpool Echo website were becoming increasingly vicious.
Liverpool’s manager knew Steven Gerrard would be rejecting what always seemed a pretty half-hearted offer of a new contract. There would be fallout from that.
The players on whom Rodgers and the club’s transfer committee had lavished considerably more than the £75m they received from Barcelona for Luis Suarez were by and large failing.
Lazar Markovic appeared an expensive luxury; Emre Can barely played. The ex-Southampton pair of Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana, who had cost around £50m, were spending increasing amounts of time on the bench. The club’s owner, John W Henry had possessed the guts to sack Kenny Dalglish, which at Anfield was seen as a form of regicide. What he could do once, he could do again.
Liverpool vs Manchester United combined XI
Liverpool vs Manchester United combined XI
1/10 David De Gea
Simon Mignolet is hugely improved in recent weeks but David De Gea is arguably the best goalkeeper in the Premier League and easily Manchester United's most important player.
2/10 Emre Can
The versatile German is a true box-to-box threat, even when deployed as one of three centre-backs in Rodgers' back three. United have huge problems at the back, with Antonio Valencia beating Rafael to the right-back spot. Can, only 21, is a crucial piece in allowing Liverpool to play their 3-4-2-1.
3/10 Chris Smalling
As previously stated, United have defensive problems but the England defender has been a rare bright spot for Van Gaal, playing some of the best football of his United career. Phil Jones still seems erratic, while Marcos Rojo is not fully fit and Jonny Evans still suspended. Mamadou Sakho is a good defender but prone to mistakes.
4/10 Martin Skrtel
Skrtel has his critics but he has overcome poor form early in the season to become a real leader for Liverpool. He isn't always the best when in possession but he is an old-fashioned stopper, and a fierce competitor.
5/10 Jordan Henderson
With Steven Gerrard heading closer and closer to the exit, Henderson has really filled his role as captain and leader with a string of inspirational performances. The England man, whether playing wider right or in the middle, is a brilliant threat from all over the pitch, great in possession, ferocious in the tackle and has an eye for goal.
6/10 Michael Carrick
Divides opinion everywhere but surely proved against Tottenham just how important he is (and has been in the past) to United's success. Carrick was absolutely superb in possession, dictating the game and giving the inexperienced Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb the run-around. Created the first and scored the second, United played their best football of the season because of a masterclass by their veteran midfielder.
7/10 Ander Herrera
Adds the legs and bite, as well as a touch of class, to the United midfield, even if he has been under-utilised by Van Gaal. Daley Blind is clearly a favourite of the Dutchman but Herrera's engine and tenacity give United a pace in their play that is sorely missing when he doesn't play.
8/10 Philippe Coutinho
Since being given the freedom of the park in Rodgers' new formation the Brazilian has excelled, scoring wonderful goals and seeing his relationship with Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling flourish. A real match-winner, United will have to keep a keen eye on Coutinho. Ashley Young has been fantastic for United this season and deserves a mention but he is not quite playing at Coutinho's level.
9/10 Wayne Rooney
What a surprise, Wayne Rooney has been sensational playing as a striker. He may well be extremely capable of playing in midfield but United lose much more than they gain by deploying their captain deeper; he was brilliant against Spurs and Liverpool will view him as the main threat.
10/10 Daniel Sturridge
Hasn't exactly set the world alight since returning from injury, with only three goals from 12 matches, but he loves big matches and has starred in previous games against Liverpool's biggest rivals. Marouane Fellaini was excellent against Spurs but he has been very up and down this season.
There was little danger of Henry, who had bet the farm on a young, charismatic but inexperienced manager, removing him. However, Rodgers acted.
He dropped his goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet; he adopted a radical 3-4-3 formation that deployed Can as a makeshift centre-half – Rodgers had seen him employed in that role for the German Under-21s. Markovic became an unlikely wing-back.
The manager has dealt with Gerrard skilfully, highlighting his contribution as one of the Anfield greats, perhaps the Anfield great, while emphasising that Liverpool will flourish without him.
It is the same with Raheem Sterling, who announced he would not be discussing Liverpool’s offer of a new contract until the summer. If Sterling wants to try his luck in Madrid or Paris and reject an offer of £100,000 a week, he can. Liverpool will go on.
They lost 3-0 at Old Trafford. It was their last defeat in the Premier League. That was more than 100 days ago. “I was impressed by how we played at Manchester United,” said Rodgers. “The result wasn’t great but I was pleased by how dynamic the team was. We looked fast again.”
Rodgers’ overhaul of Liverpool was radical. When a sportsman is in trouble, his instincts scream at him to be conservative, go back to basics, trust in what you know and grit it out. Though he hated the term, the template for that approach was Everton’s “Dogs of War” under Joe Royle, who dragged the club clear of relegation and beat Manchester United in the 1995 FA Cup final.
“If it works for you, it works for you,” said Rodgers. “If it doesn’t, you could be out of work. It’s a risky game but then I have taken risks all my life to get to where I have. The position we were in, I felt I had to be radical.
“My experience as a youth coach comes into it – 15 years of travelling the world, international tournaments where you come up against all kinds of different systems. That was my apprenticeship. When I moved into senior management I felt I had seen most systems.
“The way I work is about being creative. I can’t then go and watch my team slug out a result. I love the beauty of football. From a young age, I have enjoyed seeing skilful players beat people.”
When he was younger, Rodgers enjoyed going to the Nou Camp to watch the Barcelona of Louis van Gaal, the one that won La Liga and the Copa Del Rey in his first season. “I have always been impressed from afar by the bravery and courage he has as a coach,” said Rodgers. “He wants his team to dominate the ball and have the courage to play. That is the most difficult thing in football: to get a team to work that way while being defensively strong.”
In Catalonia, Van Gaal had to work in the shadow of Johan Cruyff, who loathed him. His predecessor, Bobby Robson, found himself undermined by Cruyff’s supporters in the Catalan press, who wanted him back as manager.
Van Gaal found the best way to face down the critics was to beat Real Madrid. Of his six Clasicos, he lost one, his last. It has been the same in England. Manchester United’s best performances have come against the Premier League’s great powers – Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford, Arsenal at the Emirates.
Liverpool v Manchester United is the nearest Van Gaal will get to an English Clasico. There is one essential difference. In Spain the game decides titles, in England it does not.
Since Bill Shankly held off Manchester United to win his first championship in 1964, the two teams have occupied first and second place just three times. This time they are fighting for fourth.
Asked if he could deal Liverpool a fatal blow to their Champions League aspirations, Van Gaal smiled. “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “It shall last to the end but Liverpool need another victory after their loss against us.
“That was their last loss – in December. It is unbelievable and they have played more or less the same system for 12 or 13 weeks.
“I have played that [3-4-3] system. It is not new and we played with that system against each other in December. But we had played it for much longer so we won, I think.”
Reds on a roll
Since December’s league meeting at Old Trafford, Liverpool are unbeaten while United have lost just twice.
Premier League form guide – last five games:
10 Feb Tottenham (h) W 3-2
22 Feb So’ton (a) W 2-0
1 Mar Man City (h) W 2-1
4 Mar Burnley (h) W 2-0
16 Mar Swansea (a) W 1-0
11 Feb Burnley (h) W 3-1
21 Feb Swansea (a) L 2-1
28 Feb Sunderland (h) W 2-0
4 Mar Newcastle (a) W 1-0
15 Mar Tottenham (h) W 3-0Reuse content