Jurgen Klopp and his men arrived at Old Trafford riding a high wave as the in form Premier League team, and with just one loss in their last 20 matches, it was clear that the 200th meeting between the two most decorated clubs in English football would be a very exciting contest to say the least.
The slender two point lead United carried into the game made it more spicy than it already was. It was potentially a race to be the best among the rest.Embed from Getty Images
Manchester United had a big week coming up with two potential knock out games in the form of Sevilla and Brighton, and Mourinho’s side were quietly confident leading into this fixture, especially considering the manner of their victories against champions Chelsea, who almost did a number on them, and Crystal Palace. The free-scoring forwards of Liverpool in Mo Salah, Saido Mane and Roberto Firmino had 45 goals between them, and it demanded United to be tactically spot on to nullify this threat.
As always, it was expected that Jose Mourinho wouldn’t pull any rabbit out of the hat and would rather ask his team to sit deep and counter not letting Liverpool run riot. After the full time whistle it would seem that the inevitable had occurred, but that was hardly the case before United tactically dissected Liverpool.
Liverpool despite playing free flowing attacking football with a flair have had their defensive worries which is why Van Djik was signed for £75m. The only drawback being that in a back four he would also have a partner, in this case Dejan Lovren. Lukaku dominated the whole match with Lovren, bullying him, winning headers off him and turning him over and over. Lovren never had a chance with those first balls against Lukaku, but what Liverpool failed to deal with was even the second balls which Lukaku fed into Rashford or Mata.Embed from Getty Images
Rashford had a dream day but Trent Alexander Arnold unfortunately was the closest witness to it. Rashford, even before scoring, had made several runs in behind him but the first blow came in the 14th minute when a Lukaku header from a De Gea long ball was anticipated beautifully by him. He forced the young defender to commit before turning inwards and slotting the ball past Karius. One would have thought Liverpool would have realised what was happening by now.
Mourinho had masterminded, lets call it, a direct but efficient way to nullify Liverpool’s high press which was an integral part of their game. They had the highest tackles in the opponent’s half in the Premier League which allowed them to feed the ball into their forwards who would just exploit the spaces in behind and demolish the opposition.
With the long ball approach, United had completely by passed their high press, taking out the entire Liverpool midfield in a single go. They directly engaged with Lovren and Arnold who were the prime targets and consequently the culprits at the end.Embed from Getty Images
After the first goal, Liverpool were desperate to hit back but showed no signs of swapping Van Djik and Lovren which proved to be costly. They did come hard at United but Matic and young McTominay did brilliantly to cut off supply forward. It was yet another testament to McTominay’s growth as a bright mature academy player. Despite being deep at the back, United broke free yet again with a long ball from De Gea, and Rashford slotted one more past Karius as the Stratford End rose in jubilation. You could see it on Klopp’s face that his side had taken the fall and that proverbially the battle was won. I don’t say this, the facts screamed this:
- Since the inception of Premier League football, United had scored first 352 times and lost only three times.
- This season United had only conceded six goals at Old Trafford in the Premier League (only one in the second half).
- United had lost only one match this season at Old Trafford
- This season United had won every match they had scored first
- Only four visiting teams had scored at Old Trafford in the Premier League.
Mata had the opportunity to make it three before halftime as he attempted a Deja Vu overhead kick. Van Djik and Lovren who fell asleep to the danger were relieved to see the shot float wide. Manchester United then looked to make it to half time unscathed.Embed from Getty Images
So naturally after half time, United just sat back defending. The defence did an excellent job tracking all the runs the Liverpool forwards made. Although Bailly conceded a cheap own goal, setting that aside his defending was spotless and he was a much needed presence at the back with crunch games coming up. Smalling although was his usual nervous self to start with, he improved and settled in as the game went by. Young was the star man at the back doing a perfect job on Salah, the highest scoring forward in Premier League, Salah hardly had any opportunity to come in from the right and shoot, always being tracked back and haunted by the ever present young.
Although there were a few controversial moments which according to many should have led to Liverpool penalties, i strongly believe none of them warranted one. Rashford was tipped to receive a second yellow which according to me was not justified either.
Klopp made a few changes and tried replacing his full backs in order to force a comeback but there are very few better than Jose Mourinho when it comes to defending a 2-0 lead at home. Football is all about winning a match and though it wasn’t easy on the eye, United still had the same number of shots on target(2) as Liverpool and the latter having nothing to show for the 68% possession they had.Embed from Getty Images
I find the hypocrisy comical when Juventus are cheered on for a clearance but United are termed as pragmatic or hanging on for putting up a defensive masterclass. United were completely in control at the back as Liverpool despite having the ball never put De Gea in any danger.
Liverpool had scored 34 goals away prior to this fixture but never really did justice to those numbers or to the reputation they had built up before this game. Klopp was emotionally compelled to leave the technical area close to the end but was spared the blushes as the referee let him off with a warning.
Ultimately when you have to beat a side and know that they thrive in open spaces, why would one especially a man named Jose Mourinho ever play into their hands that too after having a 2 goal advantage. Say what one may, Mourinho clearly had the last laugh as United have managed to nick 4 points off Liverpool and prove yet again that Liverpool might have the pace and possession but clearly lack clinical precision and penetration.
Written by Keerthan Chandra.