* “Everyone thought Liverpool had won the title and when the team bus drove through the streets to get to the ground, there were flags everywhere,'” said Cesar Azpilicueta when recounting the day that Liverpool let it f***ing slip against Chelsea. There has been talk of destiny, romance and Steven Gerrard writing his own script on what felt like an inexorable march to the title. There has been a similar vibe building in recent weeks, with a top-four place place seemingly becoming so inevitable that second place became the new goal.
No pundit gave Manchester United a chance in the build-up to this fixture, last week’s 3-0 win over ‘only Tottenham’ dismissed as though they were playing the Spurs of Jason Dozzell and Justin Edinburgh rather than the very able team currently just one point behind Liverpool.
The almost-inevitable consequence? Over-confidence spilling over into negligence.
* Phil Thompson’s Liverpool-Manchester United XI was typical of this over-confidence, with just three United players selected. Just how did the team in fifth get so very much better than the team in fourth? In the build-up to this game, the narrative has been clear: Louis van Gaal is a chump who is fluking results and Brendan Rodgers is some kind of necromancer. Oh we do like a narrative being turned on its head.
* Rodgers typically gave himself a massive amount of credit for changing Liverpool’s tactics at half-time against Swansea on Monday night, which then makes it utterly bizarre that he started the game against Manchester United six days later with the original formation that was brutally exposed by rookie manager Garry Monk on Monday.
They were incredibly lucky to leave Wales with three points after Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson had initially been dominated so easily, so why believe that a Champions League and multiple La Liga winner would somehow fail to see the frailties in Liverpool’s midfield box? Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata delighted in moving betwixt and between Liverpool’s frozen lines.
It’s easy to laugh at any notion that Steven Gerrard should have started the game after the inexcusable brainfart of his red card, but that clearly would not have happened if the captain was on the pitch from the start. And that very, very early unravelling might not have happened either.
* “In that game I played Raheem Sterling in one of the wide roles and it didn’t suit Raheem so I’ve got to then go away and think how do I put him into the system and make it work for him,” said Rodgers when discussing his first use of his innovative 3-4-3 formation in a 1-0 win at Newcastle in November.
It seemed that he went away, came up with a solution that did work and then breezily went back to his original plan as if something would have magically changed in the interim. Why? To shoehorn Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling into the same team? Or to teach Sterling a lesson about holding the club to ransom over wages. After all, who pays a wing-back £150,000 a week?
Whatever the reason, it’s a ridiculous idea that has escaped inquisition because Liverpool have been winning.
* It was clear within five minutes that Sterling was both unhappy and unsuited to the role. There was some petulant waving of hands when the ball did not come his way, nothing as energetic as a trot when Daley Blind went past him, and at one point in the first half he had completed just two of his eight attempted passes. Funnily enough, putting your joint top scorer at wing-back does not fill your joint top scorer with joy. It turns out that leaving him on the bench does not work out fantastically well either.
* “How does he deal with such a massive physical presence who is brilliant at bringing the ball down out of the air?” asked Gary Neville this week as he pin-pointed Emre Can v Marouane Fellaini as a battle that could decide the match. We had the answer within about 12 seconds, when Blind’s first ball forward was aimed at the head of Fellaini, who was predictably pushing onto Can. The Belgian won the first battle and emerged victorious in the war.
Neville was not the only one to pin-point that potential weakness and yet there was no response from Rodgers, who negligently left Can exposed. The poor lad never even wanted to play centre-half, never mind have to contest aerial battle after aerial battle with an afro-haired man mountain. When Blind left him on his arse, we wanted to give the boy a hug.
* “We beat Liverpool by their own weapons with pressure on the ball in the first half,” said Van Gaal after the match, making it clear that it was United’s plan rather than sheer enthusiasm that led to an opening half-hour in which Liverpool were never allowed the luxury of a second to think.
While Liverpool turned up at Anfield with momentum and narrative in their armoury, Van Gaal had a clear tactical plan to disrupt Liverpool’s natural game. Perhaps Sam Allardyce had a point when he said that Rodgers “looks like he won’t adjust” to the opposition? When he perhaps needed to protect Can from Fellaini or unleash Sterling on Phil Jones – a man fooled by the simplest of shoulder drops – he decided that what was good enough to beat Burnley would be good enough to beat Manchester United. After all, this is the team that would have had a chance of winning the Champions League (if only they hadn’t got knocked out).
* Wayne Rooney had already exposed the sleepiness of Alberto Moreno with an offside run before Juan Mata did the same when the “false right-winger” (thanks Louis) caught Moreno in full gob-open nap mode for Manchester United’s opening goal. A delightful ball from Ander Herrera was finished by a footballer oft-criticised for his lack of pace but not for his lack of class. And what a lovely finish it was, Mata’s 12th Premier League goal for United coming with his 19th shot on target. Given the chance, that delightful boy can shoot.
* That goal not only highlighted the danger of playing with wing-backs – Moreno was far more concerned with the non-threat of Antonio Valencia than the actual threat of Mata – but just how easily Allen and Henderson were bypassed in the Liverpool midfield. Henderson made just one tackle in the whole of the first half and at the half-hour stage had touched the ball less than any other player on the pitch. That is abysmal for any central midfielder, never mind one touted as one of the finest in the Premier League. Talk of Henderson potentially joining Manchester City as Yaya Toure’s replacement now looks even more laughable.
* His ball for Daniel Sturridge that led to Adam Lallana’s chance was pretty bloody good, mind. It was the first time Manchester United lost their shape and did at least rouse a shell-shocked Anfield. What followed was ten minutes of 147mph football that made me say ‘somebody’s going to do something stupid here’ out loud in the office. The only surprise was that it wasn’t Fellaini.
* Gerrard has an “encyclopaedic knowledge of this fixture”, apparently. There’s a new entry under R for Really Sodding Stupid after a rush of blood that led to a stamp that led to a red card after less than a minute of the second half. You can imagine exactly how animated Gerrard was in the dressing-room ahead of coming out to write his own script in the second half. Sometimes having a fan in the team is a double-edged sword; you can care too much.
* After a weekend of yet more refereeing ridiculousness, what an incredibly good performance from Martin Atkinson at Anfield. He was absolutely right to send off Gerrard regardless of venue, perpetrator or his time on the pitch and he was absolutely right to ignore reactionary calls for a red card for Phil Jones for a purely clumsy tackle. Oh and he was definitely right to laugh off hysterical shouts for a booking when Angel Di Maria lost his bearings and caught the ball on the pitch. That’s not yellow, fellas; it’s comedy.
Neither Liverpool fans nor players had any idea of the seriousness of Gerrard’s transgression and their indignant reactions would have made it easy for Atkinson to ‘even things up’. He didn’t. ‘Man does good job’ really does deserve applause sometimes.
* “The man that Steven is, he has apologised, and we move on,” said Brendan Rodgers, by no means alone in giving Gerrard credit for taking “full responsibility” for what his leg did. ‘Man does good job’ deserves applause but ‘man says sorry for being a d***’ really shouldn’t.
We have a bizarre obsession in this country for ‘fronting up’. Whether you have stamped on somebody’s leg, cheated on your wife or mowed down a pedestrian, you get brownie points for saying ‘yes, that was me, I did it’. We know you did it, Stevie. You don’t have to take ‘full responsibility’ for us to know what you were fully responsible. Oh and we seem to have missed the apology to the man you actually, you know, stamped on.
* Liverpool actually looked a lot livelier after Gerrard’s dismissal, with Sterling allowed to play a little further up the pitch and United forgetting to press. But wind was taken elegantly out of their sails by Mata’s second, for which Moreno must take some responsibility once again after losing him in the middle of a one-two with Di Maria.
But never mind the defensive bollocks, feel the sumptuous half-bicycle-kick from Mata. If you have seen a lovelier goal this season then you really must have a better memory than me. So that’s 13 Premier League goals for United from just 20 on-target shots. Sloppy.
* Talking of shots on target, Liverpool managed only one – their goal. Now do you give Coutinho credit for the pass, Sturridge credit for the finish or berate David de Gea for being beaten at his near post? While you ponder that, I would prefer to focus on Liverpool managing only one shot on target at home. For the Premier League’s in-form side, they were nullified awful easily.
But should we be too surprised? Six goals in their last six games hardly screams ‘free-scoring’, and neither does a list of top PL scorers at the end of March that reads Sterling 6, Gerrard 6, Henderson 5. For all the talk of a Midas touch from Rodgers, he hasn’t made anything turn to goals yet.
* This is conclusion No. 16 and I haven’t even mentioned the rottenness of Wayne Rooney, Mario Balotelli being held back by a fan, Martin Skrtel’s late and naughty on De Gea or Di Maria’s bizarrely impressive haul of nine assists despite being basically awful.
I take full responsibility.