16 Conclusions: Liverpool 2-0 Manchester United

Date published: Sunday 19th January 2020 8:15

1) Liverpool are going to win the league. Welcome aboard, even those of a nervous disposition or an aversion to risking a jinx. These next four months are nothing more than a title procession.

 

2) Logic dictates that complacency is most prevalent when there is room to falter. Mistakes creep in, the subconscious tells you to preserve energy, and awareness of the safety net beneath you means it’s more likely to be used. That is human nature.

Room to falter is rarely as spacious as a 13-point lead with two games in hand and less than half a season remaining. The sides in second, third and fourth all losing points gave the team in a distant first even more of an excuse to drop off when the mess in fifth visited. If Liverpool were to take their eye off the ball for just long enough to cause a momentary stumble in their sprint of a campaign, this was the weekend, the game and the opponent.

Yet their standards, if anything, rose – particularly from that Tottenham game. The start of the second half told the story of a team built on insatiable hunger: Liverpool, already leading 1-0 at home and rarely threatened, had seven shots and hit the post before anything was mustered in response. They could have just beaten Manchester United 5-0. And the odds that you’d have gotten on that outcome before the game, used alongside the EnergyBet promo code, would have seen you make a fortune. But that wasn’t to be.

 

3) But they could have drawn 1-1. Said response, when it eventually arrived, was almost enough. Fred whistled a shot just wide after intercepting a Trent Alexander-Arnold throw-in, before Anthony Martial blazed over from ten or so yards after a one-two with Andreas Pereira crowned a fine team move.

Liverpool repeated their trick of beating a direct rival while being simultaneously irresistible and irrational. They raised the bar against an expensively-assembled and handsomely-paid team before spending spells being dragged down to their level. Those imperfections, the remnants of chaos that Jurgen Klopp sought to channel early in his reign, make them infinitely more compelling to watch than your typical winning machine. They are cartwheeling across tightropes when they could just stroll to safety; you can point out issues with the method, but can hardly argue with the results.

 

4) It is difficult to know how to quantify United’s performance. Shorn of his best striker and most important player (because of his own mismanagement), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used a five-man defence which did not concede in open play until everyone was thrown forward in the final seconds, and a fast forward line which created no chances on the counter-attack but a handful with patient build-up.

Alexander-Arnold – assist from a corner aside – and Andy Robertson collectively had one of their weaker, less impactful games at full-back. Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane combined gloriously at times, with their inability to score more down to wastefulness than anything else. And United had opportunities to equalise.

They had more control and embraced the ball far more openly than Tottenham a week before them. Yet they did not enjoy that same period of sustained dominance or pressure at any point, their patterns of play still lacking that distinguishing feature. And while Jose Mourinho can point to the defence of having been in the job a matter of months with no new signings, his successor at Old Trafford has no such excuse.

United, again, just kind of existed. Against this opponent, that will never be enough. Even if they had managed to equalise, Liverpool had about four gears to shift through whereas United were constantly on the brink of stalling.

 

5) The gulf was no more obvious than when assessing Liverpool’s poorest player. Robertson was far from his best, miscontrolling a pass from Virgil van Dijk in the first minute to lose possession and only becoming more error-strewn thereafter. His distribution and decision-making was weak, his threat and defensive effectiveness close to non-existent.

Yet the players directly up against him – Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka – were worse. The former was tireless but had no shots, created no chances, completed no dribbles, attempted one more pass than David de Gea and did not find a teammate with any of his three wayward crosses. The latter was tormented throughout.

It was not that United didn’t find a way of exploiting Liverpool’s weak point. It was that they couldn’t. They are – were – neither ruthless nor good enough to take advantage.

 

6) United started well enough. They actually had more possession in the first ten minutes, avoiding that trademark rampant Liverpool start that lays the foundations for the rest of the game. The home side’s struggle to find a foothold was as much down to United disrupting their rhythm, pressing in packs and showing confidence on the ball, than it was their own mistakes.

Perhaps telling is that Firmino did not complete a single pass until the minute of the opening goal. For just under a quarter of an hour, United did a commendable job of holding Liverpool at arm’s length before having it summarily broken.

 

7) The problem with facing this current Liverpool side is that any plan has to be enacted to perfection across 90 minutes. They are the Premier League’s most daunting mountain: no matter how good your equipment, how effective your approach or how suitable the climate, a single mistake will see you lose your footing and slide straight back down.

So as adequately as United started the game in open play, their set-piece naivety and fallibility cost them. Van Dijk absolutely bullied Brandon Williams, Harry Maguire was altogether too late to respond and David De Gea was completely rooted to the spot.

The debate over the benefits and drawbacks of zonal or man-marking was laborious a decade ago. The truth is that any system is suitable provided it is implemented properly and with a modicum of common sense. In no world should a 5ft 7ins full-back be left marking someone nine inches taller, let alone when someone with more consistent deliveries than an overworked midwife is standing over the ball.

Four minutes later, Liverpool won a free-kick in a threatening position just right of centre. Van Dijk was almost on the end of it once more but the difference was that Maguire was shadowing him and did enough to thwart the chance. That should really have been the case for the goal.

 

8) But then that is the nature of trying to beat this particular game of whack-a-mole. Whereas Manchester City’s strength at their peak was the almost mechanic way of scoring the exact same goal – dragging opponents out of position before a wide forward squares it for a teammate to score from six yards – Liverpool are the exact opposite. They have so many different ways of inflicting pain and pressure that succumbing to one of them is inevitable.

It could be a Firmino flick, some Salah magic, a sudden burst and finish from Mane, Divock Origi tripping over his own shoelaces and accidentally arsing it in or Georginio Wijnaldum finishing a sublime team move. It could come from a press, a counter-press, a Gegenpress or just some impressive skill. The only certainty is that it will happen.

In this instance Liverpool took the simplest route – Alexander-Arnold crossing for a Van Dijk header – to extend their run of scoring in consecutive Premier League games to 31. You can cover as many holes as you like but you will run out of plugs long before they run out of ideas.

 

9) The goal rocked United. They had 20.7% of the ball in the ten minutes thereafter, with neither James nor Martial having a single touch. Only Maguire (4), Victor Lindelof (3) and Luke Shaw (2) completed more than one pass for the visitors, who feared an onslaught. Without the strange intervention of VAR that would have come to pass, as Craig Pawson joined the rest of us in admiring Firmino’s finish in the 25th minute, only for the goal to be disallowed on the grounds of a foul from Van Dijk on De Gea.

He didn’t impede him – not really. And it most certainly was not a clear and obvious error from the referee even if he did.

Wijnaldum’s strike in the 36th minute was justifiably ruled out for offside as Liverpool continued to impose themselves, making the country’s fifth-best team look amateurish. Had they scored in that short spell straight after the goal – as they so often do – then the hosts could have won this by four or five. Much like a boxing match between Phil Bardsley and Wayne Rooney, only referee stoppage prevented a near-catastrophe.

 

10) It is worth revisiting that blistering start to the second half. No United player had more touches than De Gea (9) from the 46th minute to the 56th, the Spaniard spending his time either saving from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, tipping Jordan Henderson’s uncontested effort onto the post or taking both a breather and a goal kick after another fortunate escape.

The game’s pinnacle came soon after. With an hour gone and United managing to emerge unscathed they continued to take risks in search of an equaliser, buoyed by the aforementioned attempts from Fred and Martial. Then Liverpool pounced. Firmino dropped so deep he was about ten yards from his own area; Maguire rushed out so far he was about 80 defenders away from being considered close to the world’s best.

The touch from Wijnaldum to embarrass the United captain was sumptuous. It was like a Jaguar overtaking a broken-down lorry on the motorway in its simplicity and inevitability.

And as for Maguire’s tracking back, he had barely returned to the shot by the time Mane’s effort trickled past the post. He is the perfect new captain for this painfully average team whose flashes of excellence only conceal more regular moments of ineptitude.

 

11) United failed to cope with Firmino’s perpetual movement all game. The Brazilian constantly slipped into midfield, in turn dragging at least one central defender out of position and creating space for a teammate to run into. This time Maguire was the victim and Wijnaldum the benefactor, but Lindelof and Shaw were similarly targeted and Oxlade-Chamberlain just as happy to capitalise.

The thing with Firmino is that he is good enough to either lay the ball off or carry it himself. He completed twice as many dribbles (6) as any player, so often driving from midfield or out wide at fearful opponents.

It is pertinent that a striker perceived as being the first line of defence did not make a single tackle, interception or clearance. He did not have to. And unencumbered with that side of his game, his skill really flourished.

He is not the Premier League’s best player, nor probably even Liverpool’s. But Firmino is the most unique and potent threat for the world, European and soon to be English champions. Takumi Minamino has both the ideal role model and an almost impossible act to follow.

 

12) Fred was perhaps the only real positive United can glean from this game. Shaw was passable as a centre-half and Pereira had his moments as something of a false nine – albeit there was a far greater emphasis on the ‘false’ – while Nemanja Matic was not quite the disaster most anticipated after a seventh-minute booking.

His midfield partner was an unlikely driving force. Fred was United’s leader in terms of chances created (2), dribbles (3), tackles (3), interceptions (4) and crosses (3), and completed more passes (59) than every teammate bar Matic even attempted.

United needed the Brazilian to replicate his performance at the Etihad in December to stand any chance of a result. They let him down, not the other way around. It is almost inexplicable to type but their midfield should probably be built around him, at least in the short term.

 

13) Chants about The Sun and “murderers”, and responses pertaining to ‘Munich’, are fucking abhorrent. Stop it.

 

14) Solskjaer described United as “excellent” and Liverpool as “nervy” in the final half an hour. How damning, then, that United did not come particularly close to equalising, and indeed saw the deficit doubled.

They had more shots and more possession than Liverpool in that time but there was no sense of inevitability. Liverpool donned a cagoule and strolled in the rain as opposed to weathering any sort of storm.

And as for his post-match suggestion that, on the basis of today, the gap between the two sides is “not 30 points”: it’s January 19 and United have lost more Premier League games this month than Liverpool since August 2018.

It was a two-goal defeat at Anfield that convinced United to part with Jose Mourinho little over a year ago. The same scenario should produce the same result, but Solskjaer and United are the deluded girlfriend in this relationship of convenience: both are convinced they can change the other, and neither are equipped to do so.

 

15) By the time Alisson was assisting more league goals than Jesse Lingard has since Boxing Day 2018 – and running further than Matic had all game to celebrate – Liverpool’s latest success had been secured. They now have more points than in 11 of their previous Premier League seasons and more wins than in every campaign but for 2001/02, 2005/06, 2008/09, 2013/14, 2016/17 and 2018/19.

They are now seven games from the Premier League record for consecutive clean sheets, five from the record for most consecutive wins (having already embarked on the second-longest such run ever this season), and a victory against West Ham away from doing what United’s Treble winners and Arsenal’s Invincibles never managed in beating every team at least once in one season.

This is also the first time they have beaten each of the previous season’s top six at least once in the same league campaign since 1995/96.

Conclusion: They’re alright.

 

16) But nothing outlines Liverpool’s progress more than their results in this month in particular. This is already the most games they have won under Klopp in any January, and they have three fixtures left to play.

Those first two winters of discontent were toughest, with 2016 featuring three wins from nine games – the only one of which in the league was the 5-4 against Norwich – as well as the arrival of Steven Caulker. 2017 brought a single victory from nine matches: 1-0 in an FA Cup replay against Plymouth.

Even last campaign the defeat to City and draw with Leicester, alongside defeat in the FA Cup, marked a rare blip. Klopp has learned an awful lot – and taught us plenty more – over four years in this country. How to cope with this ludicrous schedule is his most endearing and enduring gradual lesson.

Matt Stead

 

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