Manchester United picked up the bragging rights in the 200th competitive meeting between these clubs while Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku picked up the headlines for Manchester United.
The Red Devils were made to weather an early barrage from Liverpool. However, José Mourinho got his team and his tactics correct and ran out the day having frustrated Manchester United’s close rivals.
The result meant Tottenham were able to move past Jürgen Klopp’s side into third place with questions once more being raised regarding Liverpool’s defensive capabilities.
For Manchester, it was a case of: No Pogba, no problem while Alexis Sánchez failed to make any significant impact on proceedings as his team benefited from a workman-like display which ground out victory.
But what did we actually learn from Saturday’s lunchtime feast at Old Trafford?
1 United and hungry
Manchester United’s early approach to the game was to sidestep Liverpool’s Gegenpressing style by dropping the ball deep to David de Gea to draw Liverpool’s players up the pitch and knocking the ball long over the Red’s midfield to stretch their formation.
The reason this worked so well wasn’t just down to Liverpool’s inability to capture the ball high up the pitch and quickly exploit any transitions in play, it was down to the Manchester players hunger for winning 50:50 balls. Manchester won the majority of second-balls during the first half and looked the side far hungrier to win possession and win the game.
There was also a sharpness in anticipation by their defensive players to cut out Liverpool’s attempted passes through the lines. Both Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic dominated the central area with McTominay making five interceptions and Matic winning six tackles in performances which set the tone of the game.
2 Crying foul
Klopp was left to bemoan what he believed was a stonewall penalty for his team when Mané fell over a challenge by Marouane Fellaini with 9 minutes of normal time remaining. The movement of Mané was reminiscent of an American Footballer trying to get his feet into the end-zone and while penalties have been awarded for similar situations, it was far from a clear foul by the Belgian.
There were three other contentious decisions which went against Liverpool in their opponent's penalty area with a Valencia handball, a tumble by Adam Lallana and an early attempt from Ashley Young to swap shirts with Salah. Of the four claims, only the latter had any real merit as a clear foul on a Liverpool player with the other three debatable either way.
With shirt-pulling a hard offence to spot by a referee and something which often goes unpunished in many matches, Young could be said to have taken advantage of this grey area and perhaps it’s time the FA looked at ways of addressing this type of foul.
With Manchester United suffocating any forays by Liverpool with weight in numbers and a highly disciplined formation, the away team were kept at arm’s length and constantly forced to shoot from long-range. That Liverpool’s final shot on target was made in the 31st minute is an eye-catching fact given the statistic they had over 72% of possession during the second half.
While Liverpool were far more inaccurate with longer balls than Manchester United, they weren’t able to exploit the space behind United’s defence in the same way as their opponents. With Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané unable to run into space, Liverpool lost a lot of their usual attacking verve. While Roberto Firmino provided yet another classy performance for his team, no other Liverpool player was able to operate in the tight areas produced by Manchester’s zonal marking.
Liverpool were also made to pay for a lack of composure in the game, particularly after the interval. In trying to force a high tempo on the match, they often chose the wrong options and ran into problems against a well-drilled defence. With more nous and patience they could've carved open at least some half-chances as the match wore on. However, their hurried efforts fell neatly into Mourinho’s lap for much of the final 45 minutes.
4 Spacial Mata
While Liverpool’s players struggled to find any room for manoeuvre at Old Trafford, Juan Mata showed exactly why Mourinho chose to recall him for this fixture. Mata did what Liverpool players couldn’t and it proved to be decisive in creating space in Liverpool’s back-line.
Having started the game on the right side of attack, he was switched with Sánchez to a more central role after 10 minutes. He then predominantly played just off the left wing, providing valuable assistance for his side to use Marcus Rashford as their main outlet.
With Emre Can given the responsibility of marking Mata, the Spaniard was able to slip his man on several occasions and looked to exploit the space left behind Trent Alexander-Arnold who tracked Rashford back into deeper positions.
After going a goal behind and having been stung several times by Mata’s movement, the Liverpool defence then seemed to pay careful attention to both him and Lukaku who had caused a host of early problems for the Reds centre-backs. This caused three defenders to be sucked into a central position for Manchester’s second goal, allowing Rashford far too much space to fire the ball into the net after Virgil van Dijk had dispossessed Mata in-front of goal.
5 Manchester United don’t need a strong identity
One particular argument that has been consistently levelled at Mourinho’s side this season is their lack of identity in the way they play. Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham have all shown a very clear way of playing but Manchester United seem to lack such an over-arching philosophy or style to their game.
What Mourinho does instead, is pick a team and a style that’s specific to their opponents. While many regard this as a form of anti-football, it’s proving highly effective in exploiting weaknesses in the side’s they play.
Aesthetically pleasing football has become something much sought-after this season, largely due to the style and grace currently being exhibited on the other side of Manchester. But with a choice between style-over-substance or hard-earned trophies, the history books tend to favour the latter.
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