Liverpool vs. Manchester United: United Played Well Despite Loss

Fred was undoubtedly the best player in a match in which Man Utd certainly did compete, but were kept at arm's length by Liverpool's quality. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Fred was undoubtedly the best player in a match in which Man Utd certainly did compete, but were kept at arm's length by Liverpool's quality. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) /

Despite losing the game, Manchester United played well against a Liverpool side which is clearly one of the best, if not the best, teams in world football.

The rhetoric before the game suggested a that Liverpool were going to dispatch United in the manner they had done in Mourinho’s final game at the club. Manchester United were missing two of their most crucial players from their draw at Old Trafford this season, with both Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay sidelined. Liverpool were almost full strength. They had been rested for an unprecedented eight days.

And yet, United started the game the better team. For the first thirteen or fourteen minutes of the game, Manchester United were moving the ball better, and were looking the more cohesive unit. Solskjær had once again got his tactics spot on, lining United up in a 3-5-2 shape that was out to nullify Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, who have been Liverpool’s most creative players. And it worked, to a certain degree. Alexander-Arnold only managed two crosses from open play all game. United managed to properly nullify the right side of Liverpool’s attack due to the combination of Brandon Williams’ tenacity and stamina, Luke Shaw’s (somewhat surprising) positioning and skill as a third center back, and Nemanja Matic’s defensive positioning. Salah didn’t get any joy against Shaw at all.

It was rather dismaying to see that Manchester United, despite having played so well, conceded to a set-piece, and that too due to their own tactics. It has been mentioned many, many times that the zonal marking system lets United down too often, and doesn’t have many significant benefits. And it did so against Liverpool as well. I think pretty much everyone knows the threat that Virgil van Dijk has from set pieces, and yet United let him have a free run at the penalty area. Poor Brandon Williams is many things, but he can’t really hold off Van Dijk in full flow.

The problem is that United knew that already. Virgil Van Dijk is clearly a threat from set pieces (especially with Alexander-Arnold’s delivery), and yet it is Brandon Williams and Fred, two of the shortest players at United, who are supposed to be blocking Van Dijk. It’s a baffling decision by the coaching staff, who had the luxury of two players capable of keeping Van Dijk at bay in the form of Nemanja Matic and Harry Maguire, leaving one free. It’s baffling especially because everything else was so meticulously planned, and yet the simplest thing, one that a layman could tell you, wasn’t done. United did end up correcting that later by putting Matic on Van Dijk, but by then the damage had been done.

From then on, Liverpool had one of those 15 minute flurries in which they throw everything at the poor team standing in front of them. They had the ball in the net two times in that flurry, but both were disallowed. The first was a rather controversial one, with Van Dijk adjudged to have fouled David de Gea in the build up to a beautiful Firmino curler (with a dash of shambolic defending from Lindelöf, who wasn’t able to clear the ball). The only thing I have to say to that is that if Van Dijk had fouled de Gea, then Calvert-Lewin had definitely fouled de Gea in the build up to Everton’s first goal at Old Trafford in the match between them in December.

The second was a beautiful team move in which Wijnaldum ended up being just fractionally offside. But throughout that period, United managed to hold on, and got a foothold in the middle of the park themselves. In the 40th minute, they created a wonderful chance, with Martial playing a Juan Mata-esque pass in behind to Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who pulled the ball across the six yard box, but Andreas Pereira was unable to put the finishing touch to the wonderful move.

Liverpool began the second half energised, and subjected United to another period of intense pressure. United were indebted to some brilliant goalkeeping from David de Gea and some rather poor finishing from Mohamed Salah to emerge from that period unscathed. What was surprising about that period (and the first half) was the fact that Liverpool were getting so much joy down the left, on Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s flank. Most of the time, United have left Wan-Bissaka to do his thing in the right back slot, and he’s done it supremely well. Against Liverpool, though, for the first time, he looked a bit leggy. He seemed unable to get back to position after going up against Andy Robertson. That meant Liverpool, and especially Sadio Mané were getting acres of green space. To be fair, Lindelöf acquitted himself well whenever he came up against Mané, but it was especially concerning the Wan-Bissaka didn’t look himself in the game. Obviously, he had a couple of his customary sliding tackles, but United’s right flank hasn’t looked this insecure all season. This was compounded by the fact that Fred was also not there to help Wan-Bissaka out a lot of the time. He was playing as more of an 8, bringing the ball forward for United and driving them forward rather than sitting in front of the back four.

Despite the weakness of the right flank, United managed to survive the fifteen minute spell of pressure from Liverpool, and in the last twenty-five minutes of the game, began to exert some pressure of their own, keeping the ball better and beating the Liverpool press better. Fred and Matic were crucial to this, as they provided the defensive base and provided the means of beating Liverpool’s press. Over the past few matches, Matic has looked much sharper than he did before, and it was his partnership with Fred that got United out of their half. But United’s real hero in this game was undoubtedly Fred. He was very, very composed on the ball and always seemed to find a way out of every situation. He always had a pass lined up, and found the pass nearly all the time. The majority of his passes were forward passes as well. His touch map and his pass map shows us that he had literally covered every blade of grass on the field, helping his teammates get out of tight situations and driving United forward.

In the 58th minute, Anthony Martial created another wonderful chance, this time for himself via a one-two with Pereira. He showed great control by taking on Pereira’s chipped pass on the edge of the area, only to blast the shot over the bar with his laces, where many would have expected him to coolly use the inside of his boot to pass into the net. It was certainly the biggest chance United had in the game. This was a lack of composure rather unbecoming of him; it was often Marcus Rashford who was accused of not taking such opportunities.

One of the biggest criticisms that Manchester United and Solskjær have faced this season is their inability to convert set-pieces. This was on show here, with Fred the chief culprit in the lackluster corners and indirect free kicks. They had quite a few of these chances in the second half, and were especially guilty for not converting an excellent Juan Mata corner from the right, which Roberto Firmino (one of the shortest players on the pitch) cleared from between three United players.

The second goal doesn’t really do justice to the way United played, to be honest. I think 1-0 would have been the right score line on the balance of play. Liverpool only really dominated the match for about 30 minutes (although they easily could have gotten anywhere from 3 to 5 goals in those periods), but United acquitted themselves pretty well for the rest of the game. Also, for all those people who were saying that Dan James should’ve taken one for the team when Salah was on his way to scoring the second goal, what was the point of get sent off on the 92nd minute of the match, with pretty much no prospect of winning? Salah did very well to keep his body between the ball and James, and any foul would have resulted in a direct red.

Overall, it was an entertaining and competitive game of football, and United matched up to Liverpool, although Liverpool did keep United at arm’s length in United’s periods of ascendancy. United did pretty well for a team missing three of their best players. After all, Manchester City were dispatched 3-1 at Anfield, and Liverpool played much better that day than they did against United. That in itself is credit to the way Solskjær lined United up, and is credit to his tactics.

All stats courtesy of WhoScored.

Next. Manchester United finally agree deal with transfer target. dark

Who was your man of the match for Manchester United?