Manchester United at least improved hugely in the second half, but Liverpool were abject throughout. Brendan Rodgers wants patience, but they look a side in disarray rather than regrouping before sustainable progress…
* “It’s clear how we want to work. I’m not one who chops and changes the philosophy – that’s something inherent in you. The idea and the philosophy is very clear on how we play. We want to be really creative – create opportunities to score goals while having a strong defensive organisation.”
Those were the words from Brendan Rodgers in the build-up to the game. Really creative? Score goals? Strong defensive organisation? Brendan, you’re a genius, nobody ever thought about doing that before.
On Saturday tea-time, Liverpool managed none of those three, an impressively s***ty hat-trick to complement the perfect one scored by Steven Naismith for Liverpool’s city rivals earlier in the day. As Rodgers and his detractors know only too well, it’s a great deal easier saying these things than doing them. Liverpool’s manager is cementing his reputation as a man who is highly capable of the former, but suspect at the latter.
Rodgers also spent his pre-match press conference demanding further patience in his project and therefore in his management, but this was the type of display that causes pen to be taken from top pocket and the P45 to be sent to print. Liverpool were not just lacklustre in attack and defence, but almost entirely without fight or cohesion. That’s unacceptable in a match of this magnitude.
“We showed good character to get back on the front foot,” said Rodgers after the match. Never change, Brendan. Unless you want to keep your job for much longer.
* The announcement of the two line-ups brought the news that had become the worst-kept secret in football since Friday night – a hamstring injury to Wayne Rooney. It was his replacement who caused the most shaking of heads – Liverpool were not the only ones with a big Belgian up front.
I have mentioned the word ‘negligence’ on more than one occasion this summer with regards to the Premier League’s biggest clubs. The increase in television revenue provides such an increase in disposable income that the Premier League’s elite have no excuse for a lack of squad depth. The best players in the world not wanting to join is one thing, but such paucity of options another completely.
So why have Arsenal only got one viable option in defensive midfield? Why are the reigning champions still playing John Obi Mikel? And, the pertinent question here, why do Manchester United have just two senior strikers?
Even the word ‘senior’ is generous with regards to Anthony Martial, given the patience Louis van Gaal has pleaded with the young Frenchman. If Wayne Rooney had been injured in a month’s time Martial may have got the nod from the start, but instead we had the ludicrous scenario of Marouane Fellaini starting as a striker in a United match of huge importance.
I’m in danger of getting quite angry about this, but the reason Martial’s transfer fee (however surprising) doesn’t really matter is because this is the image that best sums up United’s transfer funds. When money is no object, you don’t balk at the price tag. It is precisely that point that makes Fellaini’s role so ludicrous. There is logic to him being a Plan C or D, an option for the last five minutes when a goal is required, but not as the back-up front-line striker.
* The other selections of note were the inclusion of David de Gea and Danny Ings, both starting their first matches of the season.
Van Gaal had refused to be drawn on De Gea’s chances of returning to the side after his brief hiatus in the stands, but his new contract rubber-stamped the decision. The goalkeeper played vital minutes for Spain over the international break, and is comfortably United’s No. 1 in terms of ability. While Sergio Romero took his place on the bench, Victor Valdes now exists in a state of extended purgatory. It’s a great shame that a goalkeeper of such reputation has started one league game in 18 months.
“I’d have no qualms about putting Danny in,” Rodgers said on Friday regarding Ings. “He scored there last season, and he’s been a real bright spark since he came to the club. It’s going to take time for him to come in and adapt to the club but I would have no qualms about picking him because he’s a threat to the goal.” Evidently.
* If there was ever an image to best sum up the two managers, it is this:
Rodgers is the fistpumper, the Dad who thinks he’s cool but gives the game away by telling your mate that his jumper looks “sick”. His is the pre-match action of man who wants to belong on the biggest stage. “Yeah me and Louis, or King Of The Swingers as I call him, are mates. Me – lager, Louis – lager, Jose – lager, sometimes cider.”
Rodgers is the man who tells you that yesterday is history and tomorrow is a mystery. He’s the coach who wants to help them help themselves. This is the handshake of a man who is your friend first, and your football manager second. Probably an entertainer third.
Van Gaal is the yin to this yang. The Dutchman is the dominant handshaker, everything done his way whatever the result. It’s not that the old dog can’t learn new tricks, it’s that he doesn’t want to. Perseverence, not variety, is the spice of his life.
I am giggling even at the thought of the Dutchman’s look when Rodgers tried this affront to his personality, grabbing hold of his thumb like he was effecting an overly rough sex act.
* The game quickly settled into a predictable pattern, with Liverpool operating a safety-first policy by staying deep and leaving Benteke isolated up front. For their part, United kept possession but were guilty of being sluggish in their build-up. No surprises.
However, ‘wait and see’ isn’t the worst tactic against a Liverpool side, who retain their ability and desire to shoot themselves in the foot at regular intervals. Rodgers described his side’s defeat to West Ham before the international break as “self-inflicted”- those issues have not been fixed.
United’s first chance came when Simon Mignolet attempted to roll the ball out to Joe Gomez, but only succeeded in finding Juan Mata. The ball fell to Fellaini, whose effort was disappointing. Ten seconds later Martin Skrtel was caught in possession, as if determined not to learn from his team-mate’s mistake.
The reaction from Gary Neville on commentary was wonderful, indicative of a brilliant former defender frustrated by the mindlessness of his successors.
“Liverpool’s defenders need to realise that they aren’t very good on the ball,” was the angry assessment. Cue a million titters.
*After the 0-0 draw against Newcastle, Van Gaal declared that he was happy with the performance because United “dominated the game”. They scored no goals of course, but the manager saw this as the merest of flies in the ointment.
If there is any strict definition to Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ at Old Trafford, it is that the end is less significant than the means, or the result less important than the style. It is not that the results are unimportant, because clearly that is nonsense, more that, in Van Gaal’s mind, if the method is the perfected then the ending becomes a mere inevitability. Van Gaal’s method of dominance is to control the midfield through possession. That is why he described a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in April as United’s “best performance of the season” – they had the highest average possession in the Premier League last season.
Unfortunately for Van Gaal (and the bleeding eyes of all those in Old Trafford), domination without goals quickly becomes stagnation. It was Arsene Wenger who first coined the phrase ‘sterile domination’, with reference to Barcelona and in defence of his decision to sit back in the Nou Camp. In the first half, Van Gaal’s United redefined the term.
United shots on target per PL game: Fergie final season: 5.6 Moyes: 4.7 LVG: 4.5
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) September 12, 2015
United had 72% possession for the first 15 minutes, and still more than 60% by half-time. Yet they failed to register a single shot on target. They did manage 12 touches in the opposition area, but nine of these were close to the byline and caused no danger. When those in the Sky studio of hyperbole concede that they coudn’t wait for the break, you know it’s bad.
*Half-time brought a change from Van Gaal, with Memphis Depay removed in favour of Ashley Young. It had an instant effect.
Young has fallen slightly from his peak form of last season, but he remains a danger simply because he is so direct, and yet loses the ball comparatively rarely for a winger (seven in the second 45 minutes, a third of Depay’s total). His attacking of Nathaniel Clyne ‘drew’ a foul from the right-back (I’ve used the inverted commas because of the way Young went to ground).
The set-piece move was not particularly complex, Mata feigning to cross into the area but instead laying it to the edge of the box where Daley Blind could run on and shoot first time. Blind’s finish was superb, swept into the top left-hand corner to give Mignolet no chance of diving, let alone saving.
That said, Liverpool’s defence left so much to be desired. There is no issue with a side being defensive away from home, but it’s only likely to work if you can thwart the most basic of plans. Same old Liverpool, it must be said.
* That first goal meant that Juan Mata had scored or assisted every one of Manchester United’s Premier League goals excluding the own goal against Tottenham. At a time when Wayne Rooney falters and many others flatter to deceive, Mata continues to be the jewel in an often unflattering crown. On form, he is United’s best outfield player.
I also regularly forget that Mata only turned 27 in April. Many more years of wonder to come.
* United put the game beyond Liverpool’s reach when Joe Gomez scythed down Ander Herrera in the box, leaving the excellent Michael Oliver with no choice. It was a tired and foolish challenge with the Spaniard not threatening to cause any danger, and summed up Liverpool’s early evening. If you’re not doing the basics right, you don’t deserve to be considered as top four hopefuls.
Congratulations too to Herrera for his penalty, which was reminiscent of one of Alan Shearer’s best. I have all sorts of love for a spot kick that a goalkeeper would have to start by his post to have any chance of saving.
* However, it was Anthony Martial who added a wonderful gloss to the match with his debut goal. The Frenchman has this week been forced to carry his ‘next Thierry Henry’ tag around his neck like Coleridge’s albatross. He has no chance of losing it now.
Martial received the ball on the left wing, and promptly made Skrtel look stupid. Twice. The manner of his jinking run was in contrast to his simple finish, opening up his body to guide the ball past the goalkeeper and in to the far corner of the net. Y’know, like Thierry used to.
*After an international break during which he was England’s best player, Luke Shaw again showed his progress with another fine display. Rather like when Jose Hart beat Shay Given to be Manchester City’s No. 1 and two months later we all wondered why there was ever any doubt, it’s ludicrous to think that there was uncertainty in pre-season as to whether it would be Shaw or Blind who got the nod at left-back.
Shaw has arguably been United’s best player this season. With Depay struggling to make much of an impact against Liverpool, it was left to the full-back to provide the attacking impetus down the left flank during the first period.
The Opta image below indicates just how reliant Van Gaal is on Shaw’s attacking endeavours, despite Liverpool’s weaker full-back being on the opposite side of the pitch. Before the break, Shaw touched the ball in Liverpool’s half only two times fewer than Depay.
* When Christian Benteke arrived at Anfield, Rodgers rejected claims that Liverpool’s style would change.
“He can play football. His touch is good, his ability to bring players into the game — whether that’s with his feet or a little cushioned header — is a great skill. What he gives us is that threat in the box. When the ball comes in, he’s a striker in the area.”
Firstly, there is no doubt that Liverpool’s style has changed, if not Rodgers’ own ethos. Adam Bate wrote an excellent piece on Skysports.com examining how Rodgers’ sides’ average possession has decreased season-by-season over the last five years
Yet there is an even more obvious alteration from last season. In 2014/15, Liverpool effected 30.6 aerial duels per match in an attacking sense (the lowest in the league), but this season they have effected 37 aerial duels per match (the seventh-highest in the division). Rodgers might not be telling them to pump it long to Benteke as a matter of course, but they’re certainly mixing it up.
This change has certainly not yet brought the desired effect. Liverpool’s biggest issue last season was finishing. They had an average of 15.5 shots per match (ranking third in the league) and only Manchester City and Arsenal had significantly more shots from inside the penalty area than Liverpool’s 7.4.
Rodgers’ quote indicates that Benteke was signed to improve Liverpool in the penalty area, but that just isn’t the case. In fact, the number of shots both in total (12.4 per game) and in the area (5.6) have dramatically reduced. Those figures put them on a par with Watford.
In games such as these, Benteke is being asked to carry out an impossible task, isolated and given no service yet asked to create and score his own chances. He failed to have a single touch in the penalty area during the first half, and only three in the final third of the pitch.
When Liverpool finally attempted to attack once United had taken the lead, Benteke was able to get into the match. His stunning finish for Liverpool’s eventual consolation is testament to what he can achieve if provided with the service.
It’s a point that Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert might both make after entirely dysfunctional campaigns at Anfield. Rodgers has placed great faith in numerous strikers, but there is very little point in doing so if you aren’t going to give them adequate support. It’s like buying a sports car but driving with the handbrake on – why forego courage until you’re already fatally wounded?
*Despite Liverpool’s biggest flaws being in defence, this was also not a good afternoon for Roberto Firmino. Picked on the right of a front three, he failed to have a single shot or create a chance in his 65 minutes, and registered a passing accuracy of just 68%.
The Brazilian did make three more tackles than any other Liverpool player and ran back to harry United’s midfielders, but also frequently lost possession. It is early days, but Rodgers will have expected more from his summer arrival, particularly after hearing reports of how quickly he would settle in the Premier League. As the manager knows, patience is a rare virtue to find in defeat.
* For all the enjoyment of a home victory, Louis van Gaal must be crossing his fingers that Rooney’s hamstring injury is not serious. The striker’s form has been below woeful at club level so far this season, but at least he is a striker. On the evidence of this (and all that is logical and sensible), Fellaini is not the answer.
The Belgian tried hard, but failed to have a shot on target. On occasion he chested the ball to a team-mate and drew applause from the Old Trafford crowd, but that is the least we should expect. He’s playing up front for United, for goodness sake.
Gary Neville perhaps inadvertently summed it up best when Fellaini lost the ball in the penalty area after the ball bounced off his knee: “The best strikers anticipate that ball coming to them there.” He’s not even one of the best midfielders, Gary.
With Depay also struggling to impact on Premier League games (he lost possession more times than any other player on the pitch (21) despite coming off at half-time) and Martial coming in off the left to good effect, could Van Gaal consider moving Depay central and Martial on the left? It would at least provide the pace the manager insists his side needs.
* It’s happened. It’s actually happened.
Only 410 days after he was signed for £11m, 344 days after Rodgers said he would be “world-class” and 109 days after he was named in Ligue Un’s worst team of the season, Divock Origi has made his Liverpool debut.
* Manchester United supporters will understandably revel in victory, but they must beware of any form of complacency. Beating this Liverpool side in this form is nothing to shout about, and there is still a concern over Van Gaal’s insistence on possession over potency.
For now though, they’ll bask in the warm glow of second place and an arch enemy as far away from any perch as they’ve looked in years.
* For Liverpool, the inquest must surely begin. For all Rodgers’ insistence of patience, they look like a team and club in disarray rather than one regrouping before progress. Their last 15 Premier League matches have returned 18 points and only 13 goals. More importantly still, the means is as unappetising as the end result.
“That’s what we’ll get to, it’s death by football,” was Rodgers’ famous promise to Liverpool supporters in September 2012. Afternoons like these kill only pre-season hope and optimism, Brendan. Jurgen Klopp is waiting in the wings, and he’s coughing pointedly in earshot of the Anfield boardroom.
Daniel Storey – Follow him on Twitter here