One team coming off of a second place finish trying to shake the disadvantage of losing its best player to remain at the same elite level. The other, a club so used to winning, hoping a young core and new manager can redeem a season that didn’t include qualifying for Europe.
The paths of these two Premier League clubs (Liverpool the former, Manchester United the latter) met in Miami on Monday night to battle for the International Champions Cup, with the Red Devils finishing atop, 3-1. As prestigious as the name sounds, the tournament has little significance (except that United’s win extends Louis van Gaal’s undefeated stretch in his first games in charge). Yet the minimal importance of the match did not hold the teams’ managers back from starting most of their regular players.
This game comes in the middle of a transfer window in which both sides are in transition stages; Brendan Rodgers, having lost his most valuable player and the Premier League’s top striker in Luis Suarez, has already spent a bit of money in an attempt to alleviate the loss of offensive excellence. Mainly, he has bought Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, and Dejan Lovren, all from Southampton.
The only of those three slipping on the yellow Liverpool kit in Miami was Lambert, who will be a main component in the effort to replace Suarez. Yet Lambert made little headway in that effort on Monday; instead, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling were the main threats to United’s goal, but boy, what threats they were. Coutinho showed excellent ball control and had a constant connection with Sterling, whose speed and persistence quickly wore down Manchester’s back line.
Considering it lost 3-1 to a seventh-place team that hasn’t greatly improved, Liverpool is not in terrible shape: Simon Mignolet was one of the best keepers in Europe last season; the team has a plethora of capable center backs, with the two who started on Monday (Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho) looking in good shape; and fans should not be overly concerned about Lambert’s display in Miami, as Daniel Sturridge will surely be a spark after an impressive performance in Brazil.
Even though the Red Devils were the better of the two sides on Monday, they’re in a more uncertain state approaching the start of the new season for a few reasons. First, Rodgers seems a good fit at Anfield, while United is already on its third manager since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down. Second, van Gaal’s formation change of using three in the back doesn’t work well with this roster; after selling its three most experienced defenders (Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, and Patrice Evra) the team is stuck with youngsters on defense who have potential but aren’t polished enough to handle the complexities of this formation. Finally, United’s central midfield lacks leadership and stability. Darren Fletcher looked timid in his start on Monday, and with the prospects of Marouane Fellaini and Shinji Kagawa leaving this summer it’s possible Ander Herrera and Tom Cleverley will be the best options for van Gaal in the deep midfield role, which is not promising for a team trying to claw its way back into Champions League play.
Overall, these two teams are in similar stages of building towards becoming contenders: close, but still a couple major moves away. But don’t expect either Rodgers or van Gaal to be content with that status.