* Some might consider it the jab at a rival manager in a press conference. Others might think that it is when he deliberately obfuscates the point in a post-match chat. A few critics might think it is coercing his club into spending more money on players. But really, this was Jose Mourinho in his element.
Mourinho’s managerial raison d’etre in 90 minutes: Identify the flaws in the opposition and exploit them to gain an advantage, with attacking efficiency a must. Then grind out victory through a blend of excellent defending and shithousery. The opposition is left believing that they should have won a game they have lost, and yet it happens too often like this to be a fluke. He wouldn’t want it any other way.
Liverpool supporters will argue that their team merited a draw, but United kept the second best attack in the country quiet for long periods. Liverpool’s last shot on target of the match came in the 31st minute. There were hopeful shouts for penalties, and one could well have been given, but United earned this victory. They now have second place, for all that is worth, safely in their hands again.
* The team news brought genuine surprise, and not just because of the absence of Paul Pogba. Eric Bailly started his first game for United since November 5 and Marcus Rashford started his first Premier League game since Boxing Day.
Juan Mata was also selected, ending a run of him being left out of the team for United’s biggest matches. Real Madrid (n) – no start; Liverpool (a) – no start; Tottenham (h) – no start; Chelsea (a) – no start; Arsenal (a) – no start; Manchester City (h) – no start; Tottenham (a) – no start; Chelsea (h) – no start; Liverpool (h) – start.
There were notable absentees for Liverpool too. Dejan Lovren appears to have completed an unlikely redemption in Jurgen Klopp’s eyes by being preferred to Joel Matip in defence, the type of decision that makes Liverpool supporters repeat ‘in Klopp we trust’ as a mantra to dissuade the nagging doubts; more on that later. Jordan Henderson had not recovered from his dead leg in time, and it was James Milner picked over Georginio Wijnaldum.
* Rashford has had to wait for his chance. In recent weeks, Mourinho has been keen to stress that his young forward has done nothing wrong and still has plenty of time on his side, but that doesn’t mean Rashford won’t have been frustrated by his lack of game time. When you’re only picked for matches against Derby County and Yeovil Town, you begin to wonder whether your manager believes that to be your level.
Rashford’s chance came after Mourinho chose to change formation, bringing Alexis Sanchez into a central role behind the striker with Rashford left and Mata right. It worked a charm after less than 15 minutes played. Romelu Lukaku won his header, flicking the ball on in the perfect channel just inside the full-back.
Rashford timed his run perfectly, but it was the second touch that made the goal. By flicking the ball back with the instep of his left foot, Rashford wrong-footed Trent Alexander-Arnold but also pushed the ball far enough away from his body that it negated the need for another touch before shooting.
That was crucial to two things: Alexander-Arnold had no hope of getting back to block the shot, and Loris Karius was not fully set to make a save. The German wouldn’t have had a chance anyway, such was the power and accuracy provided by one sweep of Rashford’s right boot.
* The goal was important for Rashford not just because it came so soon after his recall to the starting XI, but because it continued his record of scoring big goals in big games for United. Six of his 15 Premier League goals for the club have now come against other ‘big six’ teams.
There’s also the statistic about his composure in front of goal against the best teams:
29% – Marcus Rashford has scored with 29% of his shots in the Premier League against 'big six' clubs, compared to a 10% ratio against the other teams. Talent. #MUNLIV
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 10, 2018
Both are incredibly useful habits to pick up, and are sure to impress his manager. Mourinho has a special place in his heart for players who respond positively to being challenged.
* If the identity of the first goalscorer was significant, the same applies for the man who assisted it. In the build-up to the game, Lukaku spoke at length to Sky Sports about his intention to forge a reputation as a forward who offers more than just goals.
“I think it is something I have always said, that I’d like to give more assists and be more of a player who is evolving in the game,” Lukaku told Thierry Henry.
“I think that was the next step in my game. I always score goals, but I always thought that I would give really nice assists at Everton. And at United, you have a bigger chance to give more assists.”
Good timing, young man. Lukaku’s goal record in the biggest matches and his number of goals overall have both been called into question this season, but it’s also worth pointing out that Manchester United have hardly provided him with service in such games this season. Lukaku might point out that his is a selfless and thankless task at times. He is now back in rude health.
Harry Kane has scored ten more goals than Lukaku in the Premier League, but no striker has as many assists in the league as the Belgian’s seven. Mourinho appreciates that kind of contribution.
* Unfortunately, we’re going to have to talk about Liverpool’s defending again. Alexander-Arnold has not suffered many setbacks in his brief Liverpool career, but the young Scouser will have learned some difficult lessons from his battle with the young Mancunian.
He was at fault for the first goal, too slow to react to Lukaku’s header and therefore caught the wrong side of Rashford as he bursted forward. That led to him over-committing in the tackle in a bid to atone, and he sold himself.
But Alexander-Arnold was also guilty in Rashford’s second goal. When the ball broke to the forward and he struck the ball, watch the slow-motion replay. Alexander-Arnold turns his back on the ball as Rashford hits it. It was a reflex reaction, but a faulty one. Hanging out a foot when you aren’t looking where the ball is going only increases the chance of a costly deflection.
* And then there’s Lovren. The Croatian has spoken twice this season about the difficulty he has in accepting abuse from his own supporters about his poor form, and we should sympathise with him over that. The central defender has also had his house burgled twice in the last two months, with his wife and children both home the last it happened. These incidents can affect a player’s mental state.
Yet we must also assess that Lovren has moments in matches – and sometimes entire matches – when he is completely off the radar. The concentration, positional sense and discipline all drain away. It is as if he is a computer that has been un-programmed.
This was one of those games. Lukaku bullied and bruised him in aerial duels including before both of United’s goals, and from that point on Lovren lost his head. The image of him jumping into two challenges in five seconds on the touchline with 20 minutes remaining reminded of an aggressive five-a-side player frustrated by his diminishing ability and determined to leave his mark. It was embarrassing, and caused Klopp to scream at him.
If Lovren must take some blame, so too must Klopp. I understand the theory in picking two physical central defenders against a striker like Lukaku, but Matip is the better player. It was the wrong call to pick Lovren, and it cost Liverpool the game.
* In stark contrast to Lovren was Bailly, who was magnificent and a candidate to be recognised as Man of the Match. That’s particularly true given that this was his first start in over four months.
It is slightly ironic given the conclusion that directly follows this, but Bailly brings a level of calm to United’s defence. That’s both because of his own concentration and decision-making in choosing when to challenge and when to step back from his man, but also because he breeds confidence in those around him. It’s no coincidence that Chris Smalling had one of his best games in recent weeks.
Saturday morning brought rumours of United making summer bids for Toby Alderweireld, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Samuel Umtiti, but they should be candidates to play alongside Bailly, not instead of him. If the Ivorian can stay fit – and that is a pertinent question – Mourinho must build the defence around him.
* Which only made Bailly’s farcical own goal all the more unfortunate. It was out of the Phil Jones playbook, an acrobatic, double-speed version of Djimi Traore’s famous finish for Liverpool against Burnley.
Normally, such mistakes stem from a defender putting himself into a false position to avoid using their weaker foot, such as Jones’ recent mishap against Tottenham. This was actually the opposite. Mane’s cross was fired at Bailly, who made the call to go with his weaker foot.
Rather than connecting with his instep and going out for a corner, the ball hit Bailly’s heel and went behind his right leg and past David de Gea. The goalkeeper could do nothing to react.
* From that moment on, Mourinho’s plan was entirely predictable. Fellaini was introduced for Rashford as United switched to a 4-3-3 formation. A central midfield of Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Fellaini is a tribute to Mourinho’s entire ethos.
United sat back, with a bank of four and bank of three creating a defensive screen of seven players. All of those seven were often within 25 yards of United’s goal, even in open play. Leaving Mata and Sanchez to start counter attacks and Lukaku to chase down lost causes was hardly adventurous.
But at 2-1 up, that doesn’t matter. The Manchester United supporters who are a little uncomfortable with Mourinho’s football have never expected all-out attack, and they have no problem with grinding out results against rival clubs. Their issue was that defensiveness should come as a necessary response to the match situation, rather than the overall strategy. This was the right balance.
* Having been challenged to break United down, Liverpool’s front three was, mostly, thwarted. They had reasonable – although hardly certain – shouts for a penalty when Fellaini and Sadio Mane collided and when the ball struck the hand of Antonio Valencia, but the inevitable fallout in which refereeing decisions are placed under the microscope for a three-day period by a support desperate to cry foul is best avoided.
“In the two decisive moments we were not good. In other moments we were good,” said Klopp after the game. “I think it was a clear penalty between Fellaini on Mane. At least one point would have been absolutely fair for us.”
It’s no surprise that Klopp believes his team were hard done to, but he’s also correct in his assessment that Liverpool were poor in the crucial moments of the match. That rather ebbs away at the sympathy for the end result.
The most disappointing attacking performer was Mane, whose inconsistency continues to frustrate as much as his brilliance wows. Mane has the ability to beat his man and play wonderful passes through the lines to teammates, but is just as likely to play a ten-yard pass to the feet of an opposition player. He did the latter far more often than the former at Old Trafford.
There is a joy to be found in unpredictability, but not when you are chasing a game and require exactness to break down a stern defence. Klopp will be frustrated. There have not been many, but this was a day on which Philippe Coutinho was missed.
* That is not to say that the ending wasn’t tense. The noise made by the home support at Old Trafford when the fourth official announced that there would be six added minutes was exceptional, a mixture of sharp intakes of breath, groans and irritated tutting. But United did hold on, despite Liverpool forcing corner after corner and sending up central defenders to put pressure on De Gea.
The quality of United’s defending was epitomised by the relatively low number of shots Liverpool had. Despite having 72.8% possession, completing 297 passes to United’s 111 and with 41.9% of the game being played in United’s third of the pitch in the second half, Liverpool were restricted to shots from distance that were generally blocked. Liverpool had just three shots of any kind after the 74th minute.
In their 30 matches this season, Liverpool have averaged 7.1 non-blocked shots per second half. Despite having all that territory and possession at Old Trafford, this game ranked 27th out of Liverpool 30 games for their number of non-blocked shots after half-time; they had three. United did their job brilliantly.
* In Winners and Losers on Monday, I praised Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for his response to a dreadful first two months as a Liverpool player, and remarked that he’s probably put himself back in the World Cup picture. I’m pretty sure he’s trolling me now.
This was the return of the Arsenal Ox, just when Liverpool needed it least. He was clumsy in possession, regularly giving the ball away and unable to drive forward without having it nicked off him by a United midfielder. His substitution came as a show of mercy from Klopp, who must have wished that he’d have started Wijnaldum in his place. Two steps forward, one more back.
* Rashford will take the headlines because that’s how news and football works, but Ashley Young was the game’s best player. He was tasked with keeping the Premier League’s most potent attacker quiet, and Mohamed Salah was subdued throughout. Who woud have thought he wouldn’t get a name-check until the penultimate conclusion?
That’s entirely down to Young. No player on the pitch made more tackles, no player on the pitch won possession more often and no United player had more touches, proof that Young was able to get forward as well as shackling Liverpool’s best player.
It would have seemed extraordinary at the start of the season, but right now Young really does deserve to be England’s first-choice left-back. Danny Rose and Luke Shaw are not playing enough games, while Ryan Bertrand is having a difficult season at Southampton. Young is quickly becoming Mourinho’s teacher’s pet.
* A quick point to end with, but an important one. I’m aware that taking the lyrics of football chants serious is mostly a fool’s game (not every team can be by far the best you’ve ever seen), but those United supporters singing for Liverpool fans to “sign on” really would be better advised to keep their mouths shut.
Manchester is in the top 10 for unemployment, has seen homelessness increase sharply in recent years and a report last year showed that 25% of children in Salford were growing up in poverty. Across Liverpool, a similar picture.
The North West is an area that has suffered through the decline in industry over the last 100 years and rightly feels abandoned by a succession of governments who have exacerbated the North-South divide. You’re all on the same side here.
I know that the fans singing those songs are just trying to banter off a set of opposition supporters, but mocking unemployment and poverty is a stupid way of doing it. Manchester and Liverpool, as much as some supporters might like to ignore it, have far more than in common than that which divides them.