This weekend’s marquee Premier League match saw Manchester United travel to Anfield to take on Liverpool, with a sizeable gap between the two sides in the league table. Indeed, the Red Devils trailed their Merseyside rivals by 16 points before their clash, having scored six goals fewer and conceded a whopping 20 more. They had only kept two clean sheets in the league, while Liverpool had not conceded a goal in ten of their league fixtures. Statistics are often used to paint a convenient picture, but in this case, they did not lie; Liverpool had leapfrogged United as City’s closest challengers, and even a win for United in this game would only hurt Liverpool’s title bid, not bolster United’s own credentials. Nevertheless, Jose Mourinho is still touted as a master of winning one-off games, so there was still a lot of interest in this game; not that a game between these two sides ever needs sub-plots.
Jose Mourinho once again surprised with his team selection; he selected a back three of Matteo Darmian, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly. The Ivorian was only selected because Chris Smalling pulled up during the warm-up with an injury, while Jesse Lingard played in midfield and Marcus Rashford partnered Romelu Lukaku. Paul Pogba was once again on the bench.
Liverpool’s midfield runs rings around United
There has been a lack of mobility in United’s midfield this season, as the likes of Matic and Fellaini have played regularly, and Liverpool took full advantage of this at Anfield. Mourinho’s team selection made it obvious that he was looking to match Liverpool’s front three man-for-man, but this left an obvious weakness in midfield. Nemanja Matic has been ineffective for months now, and even at his best he was never renowned for his nimbleness; despite pairing him with the terrier-like Ander Herrera, Liverpool found it simple to work the ball around United’s midfielders. Fabinho had a storming game at the base of midfield, passing, tackling and generally running the game, while Roberto Firmino performed his usual role of dropping deep to outnumber United in central areas. Both of these players were individual cogs in a very finely tuned machine, while United were a lumbering mess, forever attempting to put out fires and not preventing them in the first place.
Mourinho turned to his comfort blanket of Marouane Fellaini in the second half, further exacerbating this problem, while Pogba remained on the bench for the entire game. United were in desperate need of creativity and athleticism in midfield, which are Pogba’s trademark qualities, but Mourinho chose to embarrass him rather than use him, further illustrating United’s slide this season.
United sit off and damn their chances
This has been said so many times, especially on this site, that it feels like a broken record, but it bears repeating once again: Manchester United’s passivity makes it too easy to play around them. Almost all the top sides in Europe employ some form of pressing or the other, but the Red Devils have been timid this season; opposition sides are routinely able to walk the ball into United’s half before there is any sort of urgency shown. All three of Liverpool’s goals were a result of this baffling lack of intensity –
As the images above show, there was also a complete lack of discipline from the United players – failing to track back, not picking up runners, and just a general sense of apathy. More than the lack of any grand tactical scheme, it is this attitude that has been engendered by Mourinho which is the biggest reason for where United are at the moment.
Liverpool were fairly comfortable winners at Anfield, and while it was not as one-sided as their scarcely-believable shot count shows – the Reds took 36 shots on United’s goal, but most of these were hopeless hits from distance – they were still barely troubled by United. The visitors had very few attacking moves of note, and their lack of pressure on the ball invited Liverpool onto them, forcing the two late Xherdan Shaqiri goals which settled the game. This abject display proved to be the final nail in Mourinho’s coffin, as he was sacked early on Tuesday morning; on this evidence, it was undoubtedly the right decision, and it will now be interesting to see if these same players are transformed under a new, albeit interim manager on Saturday against Cardiff City.
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