Liverpool 3-1 Manchester United: Match Report
With the title race perfectly balanced at this point of the season, Liverpool welcomed their old foes Manchester United to Anfield in the middle of the very hectic month of December. A win would take the Reds back to the top of the Premier League table, while any other result promised the bragging rights to the mid-table visitors.
Jurgen Klopp was facing a few defensive issues. Joe Gomez was out with a broken leg, Joel Matip was out with a broken collar bone, Trent Alexander-Arnold was out with a foot injury. Many had predicted James Milner to appear in the right-back slot, but he was left out as a precaution due to a slight muscle problem. However, Dejan Lovren was ready to come back into the side, as was finally the case with the much-maligned Nathaniel Clyne.
United manager Jose Mourinho had quite a few problems of his own. Diogo Dalot, Matteo Darmian, Victor Lindelof, Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez, Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling all had different injury issues and couldn’t face Valencia four days earlier in the Champions League. They were all doubts for the Anfield visit too. In the end, Dalot, Darmian, Lindelof and Smalling all made the starting XI, while Martial made the bench.
It was no big surprise, really. Mourinho is known for giving out false impressions about his team’s fitness levels. It was a flexible line-up, initially arranged in a 3-5-2 shape.
However, Smalling got injured again during the warm-up, and Eric Bailly was given an unexpected start, with Phil Jones coming in his place to the bench.
The First Half
Liverpool opened the game up very well and pushed United back a lot in the first few minutes, but they didn’t make it count. United got the ball behind Alisson from a free-kick in the fourth minute as a cross by Dalot escaped everyone and hit the back of the net, but Lukaku tried to play the ball deep offside and the flag was rightly raised.
A minute later Firmino combined nicely with Keita before letting one fly, De Gea parried it out wide and Mane returned it in towards Salah, but the Egyptian was crowded out. Then Rashford had a go from a long way out, but it was an easy catch for Alisson. Then Salah caught Lindelof in possession and sprang a counterattack. He employed Mane who couldn’t shoot, but Fabinho did and had it saved by De Gea. From the consequent corner a scramble ensued, but United held out. It was a very lively opening period.
Mourinho’s familiar tactics, where De Gea launches a goal-kick long for Lukaku to drop deeper and release Rashford in behind with a header, though successful last time round at Old Trafford, failed time and again as Lovren didn’t have to follow Lukaku out of position – Fabinho was there to challenge the Belgian striker for the ball and no hole opened up in the back line.
Liverpool’s high pressing was relentless, and United simply weren’t finding a way to play through them, so hoofing it long and trying to take it from there still made most sense for them. But all in all, they looked under constant bombardment from the Reds, who had taken seven shots in the first 20 minutes and kept De Gea, Lindelof, Bailly and Darmian very busy. But there were still no goals.
In the 24th minute, however, Liverpool pushed United back strongly, and eventually Fabihno produced a lovely lobbed pass in behind where Mane was making his run. The Senegalese got away from Young easily, controlled the ball perfectly on his chest and slotted calmly past De Gea.
Two minutes later Robertson played a one-two with Firmino and showed his heels to Dalot, who had no option but to clip them from behind and get into referee Martin Atknson’s book. From the ensuing free-kick another box scramble arose a good chance fell for Lovren on the edge of six yards, but Bailly stopped him with some hearty last-ditch defending.
It took United half an hour to organize a half decent attack, but after Herrera employed him well, Lukaku ruined it with a poor pullback.
But things never go as smoothly as they should against United. In the 33rd minute, Alisson inexplicably dropped a tame cross by Lukaku and wrapped the equalizer up for Lingard.
Not that the setback affected Liverpool players much, but it certainly gave United a boost and they seemed to be putting a bit more effort from that point on.
Five minutes later, Lukaku failed to hold the ball under pressure from Van Dijk, and as Keita went to pick it up, Lukaku took him out with a lunge and earned a yellow card.
But the visitors from down the road were now finding confidence with every move forward, and in the 40th minute Herrera had a go from range, but Alisson isn’t the one to quake in his boots after making a mistake. Fabinho retaliated a minute before the break but Lindelof got in the ball’s way. Mane got through towards De Gea in injury time, but the flag was rightly raised.
The Second Half
Marouane Fellaini was introduced for United from the start of the second period instead of Dalot. Darmian moved to his preferred right-back spot and Young dropped a bit deeper to form a back four. Fellaini joined Herrera and Matić in the middle.
The change worked for the visitors. They had now more stability and better shape, but Liverpool’s domination seemed undisturbed. Firmino almost gave the Reds the lead again with some superb dribbling and a cunning shot, but De Gea stretched down and saved it.
On the other hand, exciting moments in front of De Gea’s goal, now in front of the Kop, became slightly less frequent. It should be said that Robertson wasn’t having a very good game offensively, at least not according to his usual standards. He often got into great positions, but his delivery, usually fantastic, left a lot to be desired.
Nevertheless, as the game wore on, the Reds pushed the battle front within the touching distance of United’s box, and Mourinho’s team was again defending as resiliently as a Mourinho team can. Around the hour-mark, Liverpool had several consecutive corners and took several shots from decent positions, but it was Fellaini who came closest to scoring with Young delivering a good cross from the left towards the far post, and Robertson got ahead of the Belgian to clear it out for a corner. The corner produced another one and United pushed hard to turn the game around, and it was Liverpool’s turn to produce some resilient defending.
In the 68th minute, Liverpool had an unexpected chance for a counterattack as Fellaini’s pass hit the referee and came to Mane, but Mane’s diagonal pass towards Firmino was intercepted.
Two minutes later, Keita made way for Xherdan Shaqiri.
Liverpool continued attacking and Fabinho tried one from 35 yards, but De Gea was alert.
With 18 minutes remaining, Wijnaldum switched sides with a lovely long diagonal for Robertson who gave it to Mane down the flank. Mane’s skill left Herrera for dead and he entered the box and pulled it back.
It got a double deflection before falling perfectly for Shaqiri to hit from 12 yards. Shaqiri’s shot got deflected as well and cheated De Gea, bounced of the underside of the bar and into the net.
Wijnaldum almost scored another one two minutes later, but his drizzling shot from 20 yards went just outside the post. Then Herrera and Fellaini combined well to threaten at the other end, but Herrera’s cross found none of his teammates.
It was time for Mourinho to give Anthony Martial a chance, with Herrera making way.
Liverpool were still the dominant team, but United now played a bit more decisively, adding numbers to their attack. And yet, 10 minutes from time, Shaqiri’s luck held out for one more moment. A quick, intricate attack provided the Swiss international to shoot from the edge of the box, and his shot this time bounced off Bailly before going past De Gea and nestling in the net.
Klopp then pulled Mane out and sent in Jordan Henderson, and Mourinho replaced goalscorer Lingard with Juan Mata.
In the last several minutes, the frustration of United players was clear to see, and some of them were lucky to escape cards. The only thing worthy of mention in the three-minute stoppage time was a shot by Salah that scraped the roof of the net.
And as Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton looked on from the Anfield stands, Liverpool pummelled their legacy into the ground to the thunderous sound of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
Despite all of Mourinho’s antics and blame-diverting strategies, the agony of Manchester United is very much a real thing and long may it continue. There was nothing, absolutely nothing that the once successful Portuguese manager could do to prevent his team from getting battered in this game, and the final score can rightly be considered as a flattering one for them. At this point, the sixth place where they currently sit seems some way above their actual level.
As for Liverpool, they deservedly go back to the top of the table. The game that Pep Guardiola probably saw as a moment when the Reds may drop two or three points has betrayed him, and Klopp’s men charge above his again.
It was a very good game by most players. It was nice to see Clyne on the pitch again and playing well. Alisson had an awful howler, but he showed immense mental strength not to allow it to hinder his performance further, and just as he saved his team in the dying seconds against Napoli, they now returned the favour by not letting his mistake remain of any importance.
Shaqiri once again proved his value to this team. His goals may have been lucky, but given the effort he constantly put in to make something happen, he fully deserved it. Not to mention the fact that United’s goal was also a lucky one.
Be that as it may, the first Manchester United game of the season is done and dusted for Liverpool, and they now move on to face Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Molineux on Friday.
We Walk On.