Vishakh’s latest “The Manchester Musings” column.
A point gained, or two points dropped?
The answer lies somewhere in between for both Manchester United and Liverpool after the latest edition of the M62 derby at Old Trafford.
While a win for either team would have been a real statement of intent to the rest of the league, the draw is more of the same- the status quo.
Liverpool were certainly not at full strength, with Nathaniel Clyne injured, Sadio Mane at the African Cup of Nations, Joel Matip withdrawn due to confusion over his international clearance, and Philippe Coutinho not 100% fit to start.
Manchester United lined up pretty much as expected with Marcos Rojo returning from injury to partner Phil Jones, and Matteo Darmian at left back.
The first half was scrappy – neither team really took the game by the scruff of the neck.
United started a bit deep, trying to build their passing out from the back. While this worked over the previous month through the winning streak, it was always going to be challenging against a relentless Liverpool press.
Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba were tasked with ‘beating the press’ by quick passing and dribbling respectively, but they were hounded by the front six Liverpool players.
Anthony Martial was also targeted as an outlet, but Alexander-Arnold had good support from his teammates to avoid getting isolated.
United did create the first big chance of the game, when Henrikh Mkhitaryan played a through ball to Paul Pogba.
The French midfielder let the ball roll across him, but scuffed the shot wide with his left foot – it would have been a big goal, changing the entire complexion of the game.
Pogba was then the culprit for Liverpool’s goal.
An outswinging corner from James Milner was meant for Dejan Lovren who had escaped Pogba’s marking (not for the first time).
Rather than the ball meeting Lovren’s head however, it hit Pogba’s right hand which was outstretched, and Michael Oliver had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
James Milner made no mistake and scored his sixth PL goal of the season.
United did respond well, with a couple of key chances. Mkhitaryan found himself in almost the same situation as Pogba, but his left foot shot was struck at Mignolet who made the save with his left hand.
Ibrahimovic had a free-kick from just outside the box as well – the low shot was hit with power, and Simon Mignolet did brilliantly to save low down to his right. At half-time though, it was 1-0 Liverpool.
Wayne Rooney came on for Michael Carrick at half-time to try and provide some more spark, but the second half continued in a scrappy manner.
Neither team could keep the ball for a sustained period of time, and even the chances created were not clear-cut by any means.
This type of game neither suited Juan Mata (brought on for Martial) nor Wayne Rooney, and it was beginning to show.
Around the 75 minute mark, Marouane Fellaini was introduced in place of Matteo Darmian, and the game changed.
Jose Mourinho recognised the need to beat the press in a different way – bypassing it completely through direct, aerial football.
While it was a bit agricultural (De Gea/Valencia/Jones launching balls up top from their own half) to begin, United did get into the game a lot more.
An Antonio Valencia throw in was played quickly with Ander Herrera on the right hand side (Valencia was offside when the ball came back to him), and the right-back put a good deep cross into the box.
It evaded everyone, but Wayne Rooney re-mixed it with his left foot.
Marouane Fellaini’s header looped over Mignolet and hit the post, but Valencia was waiting to mop-up – he clipped it into the box and Ibrahimovic glanced it over Mignolet and past the line despite a desperate Alexander-Arnold clearance.
1-1 with 5 minutes to go, and there was an almighty reaction from the Old Trafford crowd.
The last 5 minutes of the game for both team was just a lack of composure.
Plenty of good opportunities (most notably Georgino Wijnaldum for Liverpool who was 1v1 with De Gea in the box but shot straight at him), but neither team could really create something clear-cut.
United were especially guilty of getting the ball in the Liverpool half, but then trying something too complex and getting caught on the counter.
The final whistle came, and with it a draw – a deserved draw.
Man of the Match: Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)
Player Focus: Paul Pogba
Pogba was in the news this week for his comments (Liverpool is the main derby for United and not City) and his social media behaviour (becoming the first footballer to have his own emoji).
Personally, I think it was the right time for him to do so – he has arguably been United’s best player over the past month, and has really dictated games from the first to last minute.
It was only natural that the hype would grow ahead of a big game such as the Liverpool one.
However, there will be the (fair) argument that given his choices, he had better back up the talk with performances on the pitch.
Struggling in the top games
Pogba has not yet dictated the top games at Old Trafford (e.g. City/Spurs/Arsenal/Liverpool) and it is these performances that the world is watching.
It almost felt like Pogba was aware of the hype and was trying too hard to justify it (either with his passing, his dribbling, or his strengths).
He started the game well by controlling the tempo, but the key chance he missed changed the entire nature.
Score it and he is a hero, with vines/videos of the goal going worldwide, miss it and people immediately bring up the transfer fee and how they expect more.
Immediately following the miss he conceded a penalty, and it was enough for him to be trending on social media at half time.
Play it simple
One of the criticisms with Pogba is that sometimes he puts it all on his shoulders, when in reality he can be more composed and play the simpler game with the quality of teammates he has at United.
This seemed to be true as well in the second half where he was trying too hard to force the issue – and he ended up losing the ball often, leading to a Liverpool break.
Likely an off-day
Given the past month, Pogba’s performances have meant this was an off-day.
It will also probably he will work doubly hard to ensure a repeat doesn’t have in the next big game of the season.
However, it is also fair to say that he did not influence the game like he should have, and it is reasonable to say he had about a 5/10 match rating.
Either way, he has a lot of time left in his career to put that right.
Written by Vishakh Chandrasekhar
Follow Vishakh on Twitter @VishC24
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