* This was no perfect performance from Liverpool. It did not have to be. This was a game littered with mistakes. Quality was evident in the build-up from both sides, but neither registered a pass completion higher than 81%. Liverpool and Manchester United shared ten shots on target from 30 total attempts. But the visitors were set one objective and duly accomplished it.
It was not easy, of course. While the pressure in the first leg was on United due to their faltering form, it was shifted onto Liverpool for the return. No matter the opponent, they had to defend a two-goal lead in front of a raucous and vocal support.
It showed. Liverpool were overawed early on, and United were bright. The two sides shared opportunities, but the Reds looked more panicky in defence, and United sensed their chance. When Anthony Martial scored after half an hour, the hosts needed just one more goal to level the tie.
The ghosts of Liverpool past were threatening to engulf their European hopes. But the promising embers of Liverpool present prevailed. Under previous management, this side would crumble under pressure, allowing their opponents back in and frittering away their game plan. Not so under Jurgen Klopp. As we have witnessed in the Premier League, the German has instilled a fighting spirit into his players in just five months. United were the side in the ascendancy. Liverpool panicked at first, but their increased mental strength paid dividends in the end. Philippe Coutinho’s goal effectively ended the tie, but the Reds managed the game excellently from thereon in.
* With the pressure off, the change was palpable. As had been the case in the second leg in the last round of the Europa League against FC Midtjylland, United had nothing to lose. They won 5-1 in their most impressive attacking display of the season against the Danish side. Free from the shackles of expectation again on Thursday, United were direct, incisive and threatening. Just as it should be.
The most frustrating aspect of Louis van Gaal’s reign is that he and his players are capable of going forward, of taking the initiative in games and not seeking to simply find a breakthrough via an opposition mistake. The Dutchman does not trust himself or his players often enough to allow them to express themselves.
With Champions League qualification in severe doubt, the FA Cup provides the final opportunity to garner reward from a difficult season. Perhaps Van Gaal will loosen the chains against West Ham next Tuesday – what is the worst that could happen? Then again…
* For all the talk of overthrowing a 2-0 deficit, of rewarding the long-suffering fans, of not enduring further embarrassment at the hands of their bitter rivals, of evoking a memorable European night at Old Trafford, Van Gaal failed to pass the first test. A central defensive midfield of Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick is hardly synonymous with victory.
“We don’t think about conceding a goal,” Van Gaal insisted on Wednesday. At best, it is wilful naivety. At worst, it is inexcusable neglect. United’s task was to score two goals at one end and stop Liverpool at the other. Their opponent’s only remit was to score once.
Fellaini must receive plaudits for his improvement on Thursday, but he should never have started in the first place. At least not with the immobile Carrick at his side. The two have now started eight games together in all competitions this season, winning just one.
What must Morgan Schneiderlin be thinking? The Frenchman has started 27 games for United this season, of which they have lost just four. They have scored 42 goals and conceded just 21 with the former Southampton man in the centre. United have lost seven of the 18 games Fellaini has started, and eight of 23 with Carrick present from the beginning. Liverpool counter-attacked at will, bypassing the pair completely at times. Schneiderlin’s reading of the game and breaking up of play would have been invaluable.
* The starting line-up from the hosts was quite remarkable. Despite spending nearly £250million on new players since being appointed in summer 2014, only three Van Gaal signings started at Old Trafford. Anthony Martial was the only starter bought in the last two transfer windows.
Was Bastian Schweinsteiger not signed for his experience in such high-pressure matches? Is Memphis Depay truly behind Marcus Rashford in the pecking order? And where was Angel Di Maria? Ah, never mind.
Therein lies perhaps the biggest indictment of Van Gaal’s reign. For one of the most important games of his tenure, only three of his own purchases started. In Fellaini, Guillermo Varela and Juan Mata, David Moyes signed as many. In David De Gea, Chris Smalling and Michael Carrick, Alex Ferguson also provided the same number. Ed Woodward should be ashamed.
* For Liverpool, just the one change. Alberto Moreno’s injury in training on Wednesday forced Klopp’s hand. But who would he select at left-back? With Jon Flanagan not a part of the club’s European squad, it was a straight choice between Brad Smith and James Milner. Talk about a double-edged sword.
Experience was the victor. In a time of crisis, Milner was the man Klopp trusted. In the German’s own words, it was Smith’s “first time in Manchester”; starting him would have represented a monumental risk. And Milner is the able lieutenant. I’ve been one of the most vocal critics of the vice-captain, but he does have a role in the club’s future. It just cannot be as a regular starter.
* “I cannot risk it. I’m a long-term coach.”
Van Gaal’s remark above continues to look ill-advised at best. With Marcus Rashford scoring twice on his professional debut against FC Midtjylland in Europe, his manager dismissed claims that the striker could start the next game against Arsenal. He did. He scored twice.
Not only did Rashford start the Arsenal game, he started the next fixture. And the next. And the next. The 18-year-old has now started all of the seven games since his debut; Daley Blind is the only other player used as regularly in that sequence.
Rashford was not lacking in effort at Old Trafford. He was handed a more familiar role as a central striker after his nightmare right-wing berth at Anfield, and the improvement was discernible. But as impressive as the forward has been since being handed an opportunity, caution must be exerted. To expect a previously untested 18-year-old to regularly lead the line for a club with Champions League ambitions is unfathomable. The forward is backed in some bizarre circles as a candidate for England’s Euro 2016 squad. Burnout, anyone?
* Brendan Rodgers must wince with each passing Liverpool game. Not because of their clear improvement under his successor, but because of the identity of their most important player. Mamadou Sakho was often marginalised by the Northern Irishman, but the central defender was brilliant again. He is one of Rodgers’ biggest mistakes, and one of Klopp’s greatest successes.
Six tackles – only one player made more. Twelve clearances – at least seven more than any other player. One interception and one blocked shot. Sakho was the immovable object against the rather resistible force. Whether it was Martial, Rashford, Lingard, Mata or Fellaini, the 26-year-old stood firm while Liverpool’s defensive panic of old returned. Coutinho’s excellent goal was the memorable highlight, but Sakho marshalled his side to this victory.
Sakho made his first start of the season in mid-September under Rodgers. Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren were the preferred pairing at that point. As the latter continues his own improvement, there is no longer a place for the former in the first team. He will have to settle for a place on the bench.
* “I think that call will split opinion 50/50 I’d say,” was BT Sport pundit Michael Owen’s offering on the first-half penalty. The irony was not lost on the former England striker as he accused Martial of exaggerating the contact from Nathaniel Clyne.
Frankly, there can be no argument. Clyne clearly impeded Martial, with the Frenchman’s trickery and turn of pace bemusing the England international. The right-back flailed a lazy leg, Martial was tripped, and the spot kick was correctly awarded. No Howard Webb needed on this one, fellas.
* The concession of the penalty was not Clyne’s only mistake. The right back was uncharacteristically troubled, struggling with the pace and dynamism of Martial and Rashford.
There are numerous deficiencies which Klopp must address in the summer, but adequate reinforcements in both the full-back positions are a growing necessity. Moreno has failed to establish himself on the left; Clyne has not looked his assured self of late on the right. Jon Flanagan is an able deputy – and perhaps has an argument to start in place of Moreno – on either side, but Klopp’s options are limited. The club are one injury away from the inexperienced Smith starting. Another player sidelined, and that would be another step closer to Emre Can at right-back again. And nobody – except everyone outside of the red side of Merseyside – wants that.
* It did not require a footballing tactician to pin-point Liverpool’s main weakness, but it did take Van Gaal half an hour to act upon it.
The Dutchman will surely soon come to the realisation that Juan Mata is no right winger. The Spaniard lacks the pace and the requisite direct style to attack a defender, preferring instead to play behind the striker and pick a pass. With Milner forced into an emergency left-back role, Van Gaal’s insistence on pairing him in a battle with the 27-year-old beggared belief.
Jesse Lingard was equally unproductive starting in a central role, and the eventual switch was obvious. The 23-year-old posed a far bigger problem for Milner, and Mata, while his recent struggles continued, was more effective to an extent. As long as he is a guaranteed starter, he must be played in the centre. And he is still, somehow, a guaranteed starter.
* Is Philippe Coutinho the most frustrating player in the Premier League? The Brazilian had a poor first half, marred by wayward touches and chaotic passing, yet was Liverpool’s most potent threat. David De Gea was equal to a powerful low drive after 20 minutes, but the Spaniard was given no chance on Coutinho’s second visit.
As masterful as the Brazilian’s goal was, his mistakes must not be airbrushed from this tie. His indefensible pass across the area resulted in United’s opener, and his frustration levels visibly grew with every error. One of Klopp’s main objectives in the coming seasons must be to harness Coutinho’s remarkable skill, but the 23-year-old must learn to sacrifice his risk-taking instincts, at least in his own half.
* But yes, the goal. Liverpool had their chances in the opening 45 minutes but, as it did at Anfield and has throughout the season, their scoring touch betrayed them. United were impressive in attack, and managed to half the deficit. As clichéd as it is, Coutinho could not have chosen a more crucial time to score an away goal. You could almost sense the atmosphere being sucked from the home crowd.
While United took half an hour to appropriately target Liverpool’s weak point, the visitors sought to exploit the struggling Varela from kick-off. Coutinho, Milner, Roberto Firmino and Daniel Sturridge took turns targeting the left-hand side. The right-back pushed forward with reckless abandon, foregoing his defensive duties in a way only a man with 44 career first-team appearances can. It was no surprise that he was removed at the break. Coutinho remained, and was a constant menace in the second period.
* For a microcosm of the stark difference between the two managers, examine the substitutions. Van Gaal, chasing the game throughout, brought on two full-backs and a central holding midfielder. Klopp, defending a two-goal lead, brought on a central midfielder and two strikers.
United’s bench was a sight to behold; where were the match-winners? Where were the game-changers? Would RoShaun Williams be sent on in the desperate search for one more goal? Would Van Gaal look to Antonio Valencia to transform the tie? Memphis Depay was the only attacking player among the seven substitutes, and he has scored seven goals all season. The other six had just two between them.
Stories emerged of the differing approaches between the two managers on Wednesday. Where Van Gaal dealt with the first leg at Anfield as if it were a Premier League tie, choosing not to travel until the day of the game, and training at their own Carrington base, Klopp addressed the Old Trafford leg as exactly what it was: a European tie.
When Van Gaal sent Schweinsteiger on for Carrick after 70 minutes – his final substitution – was he looking to hold onto a draw? With nothing to lose, why was Depay not introduced? Were the like-for-like changes to both his full-backs made in order to shore up his defence? Whatever the reason, it was in direct contrast to Klopp. Divock Origi and Christian Benteke were sent on within the final 20 minutes as the German looked to emphasise his side’s superiority.
Van Gaal sought to defend a draw in a game that his team had to win. Klopp tried to win a game that his team could afford to draw. The tie was over, but Klopp wanted victory in the game, too. Such an attitude is infectious and admirable.
* Eight separate players have scored for Liverpool in the Europa League this season. Six started at Old Trafford, and Christian Benteke made it seven when entering as a late substitute. Can you name the other?
This was billed as the season in which Jordon Ibe would progress at Anfield. With Raheem Sterling departing for Manchester City, there was an available berth for a young, explosive English winger, and Ibe was earmarked as the perfect replacement.
“He’s definitely a player that we want to really create into a top-class performer,” said former manager Rodgers in July of last year. “You see how exciting he is, but he still has a lot of potential and work to do. He’s one that certainly will feature heavily this year.”
Rodgers would likely not describe 16 starts in all competitions by mid-March as “featuring heavily”. Four of those starts came under the Northern Irishman, and he was sacked in October. For all the promise, Ibe – an unused substitute at Old Trafford – is failing to deliver.
At just 20, it is to be expected; Ibe is still learning, and under a new manager with different demands. But the fact remains that the Englishman is the only natural winger in the squad. Even in a formation which requires two wide players, Ibe is struggling to earn his chance. He played just 47 minutes in the league since January, and his last start came against West Ham in the FA Cup early last month. When Lazar Markovic returns from his loan at Fenerbahce, Ibe’s task will be made even more difficult. A loan could be beneficial for all parties next season.
* One of Van Gaal’s travelling band of full-backs continues to disappoint. Matteo Darmian promised so much after joining in the summer from Torino, but his regression since October has been startling.
Varela, 22 and with just ten United appearances to his name, was favoured at right-back. Marcos Rojo, recently recovered from injury and continuing to impress, featured on the left. Darmian, who started the first 11 games of the season, reprised his role on the periphery.
The Italian has started just one of the last ten games, that coming in the 1-0 Premier League defeat to West Brom. With the return of Antonio Valencia, Darmian finds himself further down the pecking order. Another Van Gaal signing; another failed signing.
* Seven points. That is the gap which separates Liverpool from fourth-placed Manchester City in the race for that coveted Champions League qualification spot. With momentum firmly behind the Reds, an unlikely charge is growing more possible with each passing game.
At this stage of the season, priorities must be set. Mauricio Pochettino put the potential for a Premier League title ahead of Europa League progress at Tottenham. Klopp must surely do the opposite.
Second in the Czech league. Second in Ukraine. Fourth, fifth and sixth in La Liga. Fourth in Portugal. Second in Germany. Only the latter should worry Liverpool as they progress to the final eight. Klopp’s beloved Borussia Dortmund are the rightful competition favourites in the latter stages, but his new flame should fear no-one. As is always the case, the Europa League is a worthless competition – until you catch a glimpse of the trophy in the distance.