Brad Jones and David de Gea headlined Liverpool’s Premier League visit to Manchester United on Sunday. There were two goalkeepers involved, but only one outcome was possible.
Manchester United defeated Liverpool 3-0 at Old Trafford in a total reversal of the teams’ last meeting (the Reds’ win by the same score in the same stadium in March). While Sunday’s scoreline doesn’t necessarily reflect the balance of play between the teams, it aptly demonstrates how far Manchester United has climbed and how far Liverpool has fallen in nine months.
The two goalkeepers were central figures for different reasons. De Gea, 24, has been Manchester United’s best player in 2014-15 and currently is in the best form of his English soccer career. Liverpool created a host of scoring chances and converted none. Raheem Sterling, Mario Balotelli and the Reds’ other goal-shy attackers are partly to blame, but De Gea still made eight saves and was the consensus pick for man-of-the-match honors.
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Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers’ decision to drop Simon Mignolet to the bench and thrust Jones, 32, into a pressure-packed situation was the subject of all the pregame headlines. Jones, a longtime backup, hadn’t played a Premier League game in 21 months. The word “gamble” is a massive understatement in Jones’ case.
Jones didn’t let down his manager, his teammates or himself against Manchester United, but he didn’t do anything to fill them with a sense of security either. At times, Jones handling was shaky and his distribution was wayward, but he also made a few stops when called upon. Jones would have had to make world-class saves in order to prevent the offside Juan Mata or in-form Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie from scoring. Jones was nowhere near that level Sunday.
The difference between De Gea and Jones is in the effect they had on their teammates and the outcome of the game. De Gea denied Sterling from close range in the 12th minute. Rooney scored the opener 25 second later. Liverpool was wasteful in front of goal throughout. Manchester United was clinical. De Gea was brilliantly assured inside of his penalty area and masked his team’s deficiencies. Jones had something resembling the opposite effect. The goalkeepers’ stories overshadowed other aspects of the game because the contrasts were so clear and consequential.
Liverpool’s defense remains suspect because of individual mistakes — which Manchester United ruthlessly punished — as opposed to overall disorganization. Liverpool is struggling to score goals because its top strikers either are injured, just returning from absences, unfamiliar with their surroundings or a combination of all three. Meanwhile, the game seems to bypass Liverpool’s midfield, which has become a burial, instead of a breeding ground, for the Reds’ attacking and defending ambitions.
Liverpool has been suffering from a confidence deficit for months, which brings its flaws into the limelight. Sunday’s loss only will dent the Reds’ confidence further and push them deeper into crisis. Rodgers must improve his team’s morale immediately before working on technical, tactical and physical improvements. If he fails to do so, results and performances will continue to lag behind both the sensible and unrealistic expectations that surround his team, and the Brad Joneses world will continue to show that miracle work is beyond the scope of their abilities.
Thumbnail photo via LiverpoolFC.com