What We Learnt: Manchester United 2, Liverpool 1

Rashford (14’, 24’); Bailly OG (66’)

The biggest game of the season for any football fan this. Dubbed “the battle for second place” by the idiot in charge of United’s twitter account, today’s match would all but guarantee the victor 2nd place and therefore Champions League football next season. It’s a bit annoying that we lost then, isn’t it? Let’s see what we learnt from a particularly irritating trip to the red side of Manchester. Here’s The Anfield Talk’s Chris (@Kingstopher97) with what we learnt in Saturday’s disappointing defeat. 

United show Liverpool how to defend

Virgil Van Dijk was never going to fix the Liverpool defence all by himself. There has been genuine improvement though in recent weeks. Today however, we saw a little bit of the “Old Liverpool” – Trent Alexander-Arnold has been excellent for us this season, but we all seem to have forgotten that he’s still only 19. Bad games will come and he will learn from them – it’s just a bit irritating that one of them had to come today. Lovren however is not 19, so his issues are far less forgivable.

Where Liverpool struggled, United certainly did not – barring Bailly’s bizarre own goal they were generally strong, despite coming under some very intense pressure in the second half. Forgive me for the blasphemy, but we could learn a thing or two from them about game management – grinding out 3 points regularly is a valuable ability to have, and their defensive solidity this season is the ONLY reason they are in 2nd and we are in 3rd.

Front three aren’t invincible

Over the past few weeks you could have been forgiven for thinking that our front three are unstoppable. They probably are on their day, but unfortunately for us today was far from it. Firmino was typically industrious in and out of possession, but he had clearly been earmarked by Mourinho as a threat that needed nullifying and as a result barely touched the ball in the United penalty area. This is true too of Mo Salah, who had an entourage of United defenders (helped by Ashley Young’s miraculous transformation into Paolo Maldini for the afternoon) mob him within seconds of his getting the ball. Then we come to Mane, who after an upturn in form in recent weeks turned back to the slump – I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed him be so wasteful in possession. Clearly our attacking force is not entirely unplayable.

Karius is a better tackler than Lovren

Dejan Lovren has followed a very peculiar pattern this season. First, he will play well for a few weeks, then as everyone starts wondering if he could secure a regular spot he comes out to do press duties, generally waxing lyrical about being up for the challenge of the next opponent. He will then capitulate entirely in the following match and make us wonder how we allowed ourselves to start trusting him, and the cycle repeats. Lovren is 28 and should be in his best years as a defender – what’s worrying is that, at least in terms of his Liverpool career, this is his best year so far, and yet basic errors and a lack of concentration continue to permeate his game. Lovren was at the very least partially at fault for both goals today, and, despite some improvement late on in his tackling, his capacity for a howler and apparently inability to hold the defensive line (my god, the number of times he played United attackers onside by dropping three yards behind the defence was beyond count), are making his long-term prospects seem more and more untenable.

Contrast that with Loris Karius, who when given the chance to earn his place on the teamsheet seizes the opportunity with both hands – despite conceding 2 goals today, Karius, at fault for neither, had a very strong game. This was epitomised with a world class tackle late on near the halfway line, amidst 3 onrushing United players, to keep us from conceding a third goal. One of these players is slowly proving he can be trusted moving forward – the other is certainly not.

Keita can’t come soon enough

One of the main reasons our previously lethal attack seemed so impotent today was through a distinctly average outing by the Liverpool midfield. All provided legs and industry, but not one provided any creative spark. Oxlade-Chamberlain made the odd good run, Can threw in some strong challenges and Milner had some nice touches, but ultimately the front three were left to fend for themselves. This was probably why Mane struggled as much as he did – most of his passes and possession only came when he dropped into the middle third of the pitch, so it’s a small wonder that the natural winger found difficulty.

What is perhaps more worrying is that the substitutes didn’t really improve matters – Lallana’s fancy feet did a good job of distracting the fact that he kept going down blind alleys and missing obvious passing opportunities, while we witnessed a familiar non-event in a Wijnaldum away performance (though to be fair he was put on initially at Right Back). This was a concerning performance from a Reds midfield, crying out for Naby Keita’s creative ability; you must wonder too why Henderson wasn’t starting, particularly given his strong recent form.

Still a place for Negative football

Bloody Mourinho. We all hate him, but he got his tactics absolutely spot on. Firmino and Salah were pocketed, Mane was cast adrift and forced to try and do it himself. He just knew that the odd counter attacking chance could lead to a goal, and it led to two nearly identical ones. Make no mistake, I’d much rather watch Liverpool week in, week out than United, but you cannot argue with their ability to play the tactical game and win ugly. Mourinho has a knack for, rather than forcing his team to win matches, forcing the other team to lose them. And today that was more evident than ever.

Cause for positivity

The second half showing was far stronger than the first, with us hunting for loose balls and forcing errors from the Mancs. Had a few particular decisions around the penalty box gone our way (cheers for that Mr. Pawson), we could well have still come from behind for the win. We are still comfortably in the top 4 and in the final 8 of the Champions League. Don’t think our season is over just because Marcus Rashford remembered how to play football for 10 minutes.

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