* It didn’t take Manchester United long to slip back into old habits. The 3-3 draw at St James’ Park on Tuesday already feels like a weird acid trip (were they really that exciting?); Louis van Gaal’s side are straight back into functional results through dysfunctional means.
How fans feel on Sunday evening will understandably be dominated by the result, the 1-0 victory allowing United to stay on Tottenham’s heels in the race for the top four. Yet the overwhelming feeling for both sets of supporters watching this fare must have been dread. This is a derby that will always generate enormous feeling among both sets of supporters, but there was something very strange about Liverpool vs Manchester United as a fixture between teams in ninth and sixth in the Premier League. Crystal Palace and West Ham were the two teams directly above each side, Leicester and Tottenham the clubs sitting five places above. On this evidence, they deserve nothing more.
A better Liverpool would have beaten United. A better Liverpool would have finished their chances. A competent set of Premier League players would learn that it’s probably not worth letting Marouane Fellaini go free in the penalty area from a set-piece, or give Wayne Rooney the time to finish from seven yards.
On an afternoon when it was impossible not to feel gloomy about just how badly England’s two biggest clubs were playing, the match was settled on truths to which we have grown accustomed. United will play sluggishly, Liverpool will miss chances and shoot from too far out, David de Gea will bail out his team and, more often that not, Van Gaal’s side will get it done. That their victory was down to Liverpool’s set-piece deficiencies only completed the set.
* After significant pre-match discussion over how Van Gaal would alter his side for the trip to Anfield, the answer was very simple: He wouldn’t. This was the first time since March 2015 that United named an unchanged Premier League team. That was also for a game at Anfield.
For Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp chose to tighten up his midfield by recalling Lucas Leiva at the expense of Jordon Ibe. Ibe struggled against Arsenal on Wednesday, and Lucas’ selection made sense given the sheer number of attacking players in United’s team that prefer to drop deep: Rooney, Anthony Martial, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard. With Fellaini pushing on, that central area promised to be busy. And by that I mean frantic and scrappy.
* The question before the game was whether Van Gaal would take United back into their shell after Tuesday’s 3-3 madness. The initial answer seemed to sit somewhere between ‘maybe’ and ‘they look so bad that it’s difficult to tell’.
The Newcastle draw proved that Van Gaal is struggling to combine fluid attacking play with defensive solidity, but he has at least managed to perfect the art of neither at Anfield, if not both. United’s attacking during the first half comprised of launching the ball long to the isolated Rooney or hoping to win a set-piece and score via that means. It was, should it need stating, horrible to watch.
Their general play in midfield was even worse. The slow, methodical build-up that has been criticised so much by supporters was hard to stomach, but it at least beats sloppiness, uncertain first touches and hurried clearances. This was the sixth time in the Premier League this season that United have reached half-time without having a shot on target. Their first – and only – of the game would be decisive.
* United’s meek football – and we’re talking limpness like a piece of tissue paper in the rain – should have allowed Liverpool to exploit their weaknesses, but they wholly failed to take advantage. Plus ca change.
The first good chance came from a direct ball from Lucas, played beyond Adam Lallana. With De Gea rushing out and Chris Smalling unable to block Lallana off, the England international headed the ball towards goal with a distinct lack of power. The ball eventually found the feet of Firmino, who shot wide.
Later it was Firmino’s own long ball that got James Milner in behind, but he allowed the ball to bounce at least once too many, and screwed his shot high and wide. Even at that early point you sensed that Liverpool were acting like the baddie in a James Bond film, an incompetent failure to kill off the opposition always likely to bite them on the a*se. And so it proved.
This Liverpool profligacy is nothing new. They have had more shots than any other side apart from Manchester City this season, and yet sit in mid-table. They also rank fifth for shots on target, but 19th for shot conversion rate.
This reflects two distinct problems. Firstly the simple issue that they have missed chances, but also that they are taking their shots from too far from goal. Philippe Coutinho may be out of the side with injury, but his legacy of shooting from distance was paid tribute to by Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Lallana.
Liverpool’s entire starting XI against United has six Premier League goals this season. Truly putting the ‘false’ in false nine.
* I’ve described Liverpool’s formation as a ‘false nine’ there, but that’s actually inaccurate. Instead, it was more of a 4-2-4-0, with the four attacking midfielders (Roberto Firmino, Henderson, Lallana and Milner) all finding themselves as the furthest player forward on occasion. That left Lucas sitting at the base of midfield, with Can given the task of roaming around the pitch to effect the press on the man with the ball. The heatmap of those four attacking players looks like a dirty splodge on a piece of paper – all were interchanging at will.
While Liverpool were profligate, they did at least create chances before the break, with the fluidity of formation leaving United’s defenders unsure of who to mark. The lack of striker meant that Liverpool’s most advanced player was often 40+ yards from goal, meaning a direct ball over the top gave them space to run into. It also made the midfield incredibly compact, at least partly explaining the scrappy nature of the half.
* I don’t want to be unnecessarily harsh on Fellaini, but it’s difficult to know what he can possibly offer that Van Gaal thinks is beneficial to United’s team. I suppose Van Gaal would point to the goal, but the Belgian’s limitations arguably negate that contribution.
Fellaini’s first half focused on curbing the attacking enthusiasm of his teammates, giving away fouls and failing to stop Liverpool midfielders running beyond him. For a man with the physical appearance of a tree, his ability to lose the ball in aerial duels – even to Lucas – would be impressive were it not so utterly frustrating.
‘Feel sorry for Fellaini,’ Rob Dawson of the Manchester Evening News tweeted during the first period. ‘He isn’t a central midfielder.’ Feel sorry for us watching, Rob. There was little evidence of him being a footballer at all.
* Although few United players impressed, this is a match that should finally dispel any doubts Van Gaal has about Morgan Schneiderlin playing in the biggest matches. His calmness is even more vital when those around him are so disorganised.
Obviously you have to be slightly cautious about clubs’ ‘with or without player X’ records, but Schneiderlin’s is striking. With him in the side in the Premier League, United have won six and drawn five of their last 11 games. They have won one and lost four of their last six in which the Frenchman has not started. Don’t make the same mistake again, Louis.
* Given their impending transfer ban, Real Madrid may only have two weeks to sign De Gea from United, which seems a highly unlikely end to a long-running saga. With a large nod in the direction of deliberately poor administration, United have survived the onslaught. They must be eternally grateful, offering up daily sacrifices to the God of dodgy fax machines. Where would United be without their goalkeeper?
De Gea’s second-half exhibition began with a save with his feet from Can, before the same player forced him to tip the shot away from goal. The resultant cross was batted away like a basketballer turning away a shot.
Goalkeepers suffer more than any other players in the current media age, where the middle ground is dead. Every save makes you the best ever, every mistake evidence of just how “overrated” you are. A reminder that it doesn’t really matter if De Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world or not, more that he is as good as United (and Spain) need him to be.
That said, Van Gaal was not as impressed. “He is always reaching a very high level,” said United’s manager of De Gea. “But I can’t say he has done a lot today. He stopped the balls he had to stop.” Cheers gaffer.
* He might adorn the cover of the latest FIFA computer game, but nothing defines Liverpool’s lack of star quality than Henderson wearing the captain’s armband. Captains lead their team by example in the biggest matches, and those playing in central midfield should have the ability to grab a match by its scruff. Henderson falls far short on both counts.
Henderson runs around a lot, which is lovely. He passes the ball pretty well too, although gave it away with 20% of his attempts against United. But that’s about it. He does also regularly shoot from distance (five times in all against United, hitting the target on only one occasion) and commits fouls. It’s not enough to strike fear into opponents.
If there is a defining image of Henderson etched into my mind, it’s him loudly mouthing the word “f**k off” as he marches away from a referee after giving away an unnecessary free-kick 40 yards from his goal. That’s not a great look for captain of club and starter for country – I’m wearing my ‘Dele Alli fan club’ badge with pride.
* On a similar theme, what is Adam Lallana?
Is he a chance creator? Because he has created them at a slower rate than 84 other Premier League players this season.
Is he a goalscorer? Because he has scored once since December 2014, during a home defeat to Crystal Palace in May.
Is he a tackl… okay, he’s definitely not a tackler.
As far as I can tell, the bedrock of Lallana’s Liverpool career has been his ability to run down a touchline, do a Cruyff turn to stop the ball and then lay it back either to a right-back or central midfielder.
In fairness, he’s got that down to a tee. Just a shame he’ll be 28 by the end of the season and cost £25million.
* The silver lining to a dark cloud hanging over Anfield was the continued excellence of Firmino. The Brazilian might have been ploughing a lone furrow but, as on Wednesday, he was the key to everything positive about Liverpool. Now more settled in England, Klopp will need that form to continue.
Firmino created five chances against United, two more than any other player on the pitch. Yet it is his speed of thought that is his most useful asset; his one-touch flicked passes are the hallmark of a seriously talented player.
* In the latest show of mutiny from Manchester United supporters, Ander Herrera’s substitution was booed and jeered, his name sung repeatedly as a reaction to his removal.
In truth, Herrera did not play well. He had one weak shot before the break, and failed to create a single chance. Yet that misses the point entirely when Fellaini is left on the pitch. Talk of the ‘United way’ has been overstated over the last few months, but it isn’t unreasonable to prefer players for whom every second touch is not a tackle.
* If Liverpool’s missed chances restricted their chances of winning the match, their embarrassing defending at set-pieces meant they lost it. Quite why Henderson thought it would be a good idea to let Fellaini jump virtually unaided is unclear, and the Belgian’s header came back off Simon Mignolet’s bar. Rooney was then the second United player in far too much space, and he thrashed home his finish.
Rooney was largely poor again (although was left isolated), but an improved goal record makes him a very useful part of United’s team again. This was the first time since March 2012 that he has scored in four successive games. The ultimate smash-and-grab victory had its denouement.
* Call me a sucker for football romance, but there is something deeply pleasing about a professional footballer standing in the away end of a crowd to support his teammates. It at least tries to address the common wisdom that the gap between fans and players is growing ever wider. I’d love it for my club, and I love it at others.
Watching Phil Jones celebrate at the end of the game, cheering his congratulations to Rooney and De Gea as they came to thank the away support, warmed the heart. Keep up his form and injuries, and Jones will get plenty of chances to repeat the trick.
* United’s problems will never be alleviated should they continue to play in this way. There are 18 clubs in the Premier League more clinical than Liverpool, and they should have been punished. One shot on target is simply not good enough, whatever the result. This was a smash-and-grab win surpassed only by Newcastle at Bournemouth this season. It would be foolish to think that all was well.
On that note, here’s Louis van Gaal after the match: “We can do it [win the title]. This game shall give a big boost to players, fans and everybody in the environment of Manchester United.”
Oh for fu…
* Big problems for Klopp, who must now decide whether to try and solve them in the January transfer window. If not, this is a club in danger of limping towards the end of the season.
“It feels really bad,” he said after the game. “It’s a derby, and in a derby you have only one job – to win it. That’s the only way to be satisfied.” The performance (besides the finishing) was good in parts, but this United team were there for taking.
Another reminder that it will be a long-term project for Klopp to make this Liverpool side great again. There are only so many turds you can roll in glitter before the smell of faeces takes over.