* For 90 minutes, it felt like Manchester United were back to square minus one. Gone was the excitement of Marcus Rashford’s rise and Memphis Depay’s resurgence. Gone was the defensive resilience that was the basis for United’s autumn success. Gone was the solidity in central midfield. Gone were the quick bursts in attack that had given supporters hope in recent weeks. Back were the bad old days. Back were the miserable defeats.
Liverpool were excellent during their 2-0 victory at Anfield, every bit the typical performance from a Jurgen Klopp side filled with energy and desire. But they did not need to be. United were rotten, bereft of any fight against their greatest rivals. They played if counting down the days until the summer and Louis van Gaal’s eventual departure.
Liverpool’s second goal epitomised the match. Disinterest from United, neither proactive with the ball or reactive without it. Brilliant from Liverpool, keen to expose the obvious deficiencies of their opposition. It might just have killed the tie, nothing more than United deserved.
The most obvious conclusion from Thursday night at Anfield is that current league position counts for very little. One manager has their team on the up, a squad trusting their new coach to bring back the good times. The other has run out of hope. If you can’t get your players up for Liverpool away, you don’t deserve much Old Trafford patience.
* FA Cup finals, League Cup finals and matches that help to decide league titles, but never in Europe. This was a new step for English football’s most antagonistic fixture. The temptation was to belittle the match as evidence of how far both sides have fallen, and it is clear that both would have preferred their first continental meeting to be in the Champions League knock-out stages.
Yet there is also an argument that, should Manchester City find their form, these two matches are the most important remaining games in both Liverpool and Manchester United’s seasons since the Europa League winners are afforded a Champions League place. Progress through to the quarter-finals and both sides would fancy their chances.
“It is no different, although Liverpool against Manchester United is always a big game, traditionally I think, historical, and now, especially as both teams fight for a Champions League position so it’s a big game for both sides I think,” said Louis van Gaal, while Jurgen Klopp described it as the “mother of all games”. Van Gaal’s claim that the meeting showed the strength of the Premier League was highly optimistic, but this was UEFA’s flagship match of the round in either of its competitions.
The Europa League is treated as an odd beast in England, mocked far more than it is in the rest of Europe. “Thursday nights, Channel 5” or its equivalent is not a chant you would hear in Germany, Spain or Netherlands. Local rivalry and hatred is plenty enough reason for supporters to be desperate for victories, but Europa League progress added an extra incentive. Anyone unconvinced that this was a special night needed only to listen to United’s away support competing with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It made the hair stand up on your neck.
* There were widespread groans at Marouane Fellaini’s inclusion in United’s central midfield, but in Van Gaal’s defence the Belgian did assist Wayne Rooney’s winner at Anfield in the league this season. The presence of Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren made fans at Anfield feel a little more comfortable in neutralising the threat. It hardly needed neutralising.
In Liverpool’s side, James Milner paid the price for his uninspiring form and stupid red card at Crystal Palace with his place in midfield, with Adam Lallana playing a more reserved role than usual. Liverpool’s left flank of Alberto Moreno and Lallana looked all sorts of dangerous against Guillermo Varela and Rashford.
* Rashford may have been tasting his first fixture against Liverpool, but he should have scored after 15 seconds. Depay did brilliantly to outwit Nathaniel Clyne on the left wing, and sent in a sensational cross.
Rashford’s only excuse was that he cannot have expected Moreno to let the cross drift over his head, but the youngster will soon learn to expect a mistake from Liverpool’s left-back. The ball hit him on the knee and drifted wide. It was the most involved either United player was all evening.
Michael Owen deserves every single one of those 10 kilograms of horse feed he's paid to commentate on each game.
— TBN Sport (@TBNSport) March 10, 2016
* When Jordan Henderson was rightly booked after three minutes for his studs-up challenge on Morgan Schneiderlin, Michael Owen predictably resorted to the tired cliche: “You just can’t do that with foreign referees, go in with your studs up.”
What gives Owen the right to be so blatantly stereotypical with no reason? The challenge merited a yellow card, so it made no difference at all what nationality the referee was. His quote worked without the word “foreign”.
God damn those bloody foreign referees, knowing the laws of the game and getting decisions right. And they have a sleep in the afternoon. Lazy!
* Carlos Velasco Carballo’s refereeing style may have been questioned before and during the game, but he got the big call of the first half absolutely spot on. On BT Sport, Trevor Francis angrily claimed that the foul started outside the box, but it might have been worth him learning the rules first.
The phrase ‘soft penalty’ is also an odd addition to football’s vocabulary, given that it means precisely nothing. Was a foul committed? Yes. Was at least part of that foul committed in the box or on the line? Yes. Does it matter if it was ‘soft’ or ‘hard’? Erm, no.
It was also utterly stupid from Depay, who got the wrong side of Clyne before trying too hard to atone for the initial error. Van Gaal will have been fuming (or at least look like he was emitting a sound that an injured dinosaur would make).
* On first viewing it looked like a(nother) wonderful save from David de Gea. On second viewing you wanted to slap Philippe Coutinho around the face and send him to his room.
When Daniel Sturridge played the ball across goal, time suddenly slowed as you waited for Coutinho to roll the ball into the vacant net. There is no doubt that De Gea did magnificently well not to give up on the chance, but it should have been academic.
Johan Cruyff once said that playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is. The Dutchman was talking in more general terms than the style of players’ shots, but the quote is applicable to Coutinho’s effort. If he had side-footed the ball with his left foot rather than stabbing into the ground with the outside of his right boot, Liverpool’s lead would surely have been doubled.
* The patronising of referee Carballo didn’t end with Henderson’s early booking. Before half-time, there was audible surprise that he had got most of his decisions correct. “He’s actually done really well,” was the message, as if this was a competition winner rather than an experienced official.
Carballo refereed the Europa League final in 2011. He refereed at Euro 2012. He refereed at World Cup 2014, including the quarter-final between Colombia and Brazil. If anything, Owen and Francis, he’s more qualified for his job than you are for yours.
* De Gea has been United’s best player for some time, and he reinforced that again. While every one of his teammates looked limp and lifeless, he kept Van Gaal’s side in the contest.
Shortly after the Coutinho chance, De Gea came to spread himself and thwart Sturridge. Five minutes before half-time, Lallana’s shot was parried away from close range. After the break, he tipped over an effort from Moreno. None were world-class saves, but De Gea is the second best in the world (behind Manuel Neuer) for making difficult saves look easy and closing down a striker’s target.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, but United really would be at least three places lower in the Premier League without their first-choice goalkeeper. Jesus saves, but De Gea pounces on the rebound.
* United’s recent form might have saved Van Gaal’s job – a run of four successive victories was followed by defeat at West Brom in mitigating circumstances – but it was back to the dark days of December during the first half. There was no cohesion between midfield and attack, no obvious strategy other than launching it long to Fellaini (which didn’t work) and no bite in central midfield.
Liverpool had 71% possession before the break, and yet still made more tackles than their opponents. While Emre Can and Jordan Henderson looked like they were determined to make up for regular defeats against United, neither of United’s central midfielders looked arsed, frankly.
* It was therefore no surprise to see Michael Carrick brought on at half-time, but Van Gaal’s tactical shift did cause some consternation.
Rashford may have started his United career with a bang, but it didn’t take Van Gaal long to suck the joy out of something so wonderful. Rashford was stuck out on the right wing, forced to play as an auxiliary full-back more than a forward. Unsurprisingly, he struggled to adapt.
Rashford had just 15 touches of the ball during his 45 minutes, and completed only four passes, seven fewer than any of his teammates in the first half. Weird that playing a young striker as a right winger with defensive responsibilities might not work.
In response, Van Gaal opted to put Carrick in central defence and play with a 3-5-2 formation with Depay as a nominal centre forward and Anthony Martial and Juan Mata on the wings. Even that wasn’t simple, because Fellaini was expected to push forward. 3-1-3-1-2? 3-3-1-1-2? Who chuffing knows? Did Van Gaal?
* If United thought the situation would improve, they were wrong. Substitute Carrick had his own role in their downfall.
When Henderson’s cross came in from the right, Carrick was ultra-casual as he gently volleyed the ball out from the six-yard box rather than send it clear upfield. It was a criminal error, the ball falling at the feet of Lallana, whose pull-back found Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian made no mistake.
For Firmino, a fabulous run continues. He has now contributed eight goals and four assists in his last 13 games for Liverpool. A slow start to life in England has been blown away.
3 – Roberto Firmino has scored in three consecutive games for Liverpool for the first time. Form.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 10, 2016
* It’s not that Liverpool players have a reputation for simulation, but there were at least three diving incidents in the space of 15 second-half minutes.
Firstly, Coutinho broke past Depay before tumbling to the ground, offering little in the way of protest when the fifth official communicated his naughtiness to the referee. Clyne was next, going to ground theatrically despite Fellaini making no contact with his swipe on the touchline. It was a wild kick from the Belgian, but he can count himself unfortunate to be punished (that time). Finally, Henderson went over in his own half and was told to get to his feet.
In fact, the Henderson incident was crucial to the match. Having appealed for the decision – and therefore trying to con the official – he should have been shown a second yellow card and sent from the field. These bloody foreigners, coming over here from Sunderland and rolling around on the ground. And they have a sleep in the afternoon. Lazy!
* The game’s best player was undoubtedly Lallana, who continues to frustrate by looking sodding brilliant once every five matches. It might be enough to make Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad.
Lallana is perhaps the most obvious confidence player in the Premier League. If he’s had a good game, you will see him spend the last 15 minutes tapping the ball around with fancy tricks and skills, taking on an opponent and beating him. He’s what I would call an ‘Ole’ player, as if hearing the crowd chant that word gives him the energy to perform. Too often he can go quiet when his side are struggling, but against United he was superb.
It was not just that the midfielder created more chances than any other player on the pitch, or that he assisted Firmino’s goal by nudging the ball through the defender’s legs. Instead, it was Lallana’s willingness to demand the ball and to hassle and harry his opponent that will have most impressed the watching Klopp. Just do it more often, Adam.
* Whoever Van Gaal’s replacement is and whenever he arrives, forcing Fellaini out of the club will be an easy way of earning some immediate goodwill. I’d say that this was a good night for the Belgian’s detractors, but is there anyone left but Van Gaal who thinks Fellaini should be starting for United?
The best thing that can be said about Fellaini’s night at Anfield is that he was not sent off, which was only really down to fortune. He should not have been booked for his ‘challenge’ on Clyne, but still committed four other fouls. All could have been worthy of a booking.
In an attacking sense, Fellaini was the albatross around United’s neck. Defensive midfielders and defenders continually looked for his chest or head without any modicum of success, until a cross finally found him in the penalty area seven yards from goal. Fellaini headed wide, naturally.
No shots on target, no chances created, one tackle for every half an hour played and 12 misplaced passes out of 44, most of which were played short, backwards or both. What is Fellaini supposed to be offering other than a lightning rod for the ire of every United supporter in the land?
“I have to say that Fellaini was one of the best players on the pitch,” said Van Gaal after the game. I really could go on all night about just how many different types of b*llocks that statement is. A baffling managerial reign, encapsulated.
* Ending on a sour note, I’m afraid. Don’t blame me.
“The Sun was right, you’re murderers,” was the chant sung by a number of United fans, enough in number to be heard.
What f**king possesses somebody to do that? What sort of ignoramus do you have to be to mock the death of football fans? Where is the scrap of awareness to realise that any of those 96 supporters could have been your mother, your brother, your father or your friend? Naturally, a minority of Liverpool supporters responded with their own vile chants, like savages who can work on no other basis than ‘an eye for an eye’.
It’s just one big bloody sigh, and I couldn’t give a shiny sh*te who started it. Have a look at yourselves, it’s a football match. I know it’s exciting and you really want to win and them to lose, but you’re embarrassing yourselves and your families.
Football is bloody brilliant. It’s just a shame that it brings out the worst in such a large number of shuddering f**k knuckles. Good night.