Vishakh’s latest “The Manchester Musings” column.
If you had offered Manchester United fans a point away at Anfield prior to the Monday night game, most would have taken it.
A rampant Liverpool attack were scoring goals for fun, and not many United fans were confident going in.
As a result the Red Devils were sure underdogs going in, however some might have underrated the manager. Jose Mourinho is almost at his prime in the ‘us vs them’ mentality as he proved so dominantly in the past.
Indeed, he was returning to the scenes of one of his greatest heists – Liverpool 0 Chelsea 2 in the game that would be forever remembered for Gerrard’s slip.
The team news was pretty much as expected for both teams except for one major shock – Ashley Young playing on the left.
Whatever criticisms there are of Young, he remains very adept at the defensive side of things and it is for this precise reason he was chosen to start.
Liverpool started Daniel Sturridge up front and Emre Can in midfield instead of the injured Lallana/Wijnaldum (although Lallana did come off the bench).
Fans had an initial idea of how the game would go, with Mourinho sitting back and countering while Klopp would want Liverpool to swarm, put pressure, lift the crowd, and blitz.
The game started off quite slowly, but the majority of the first half was played in the midfield (slightly towards the Liverpool half).
There were clear tactics from United to play the ball long to their physical players in Fellaini, Pogba, and Ibrahimovic, to slow the play down, and to take the sting out of it.
Fellaini and Herrera particularly were immense at their job – always popping the ball off to another blue shirt, not taking their time on the ball, and ensuring the team was organised at the back.
This is generally the approach most United teams have used away at Anfield. The crowd acts as a 12th man for Liverpool, especially in derby games.
Previous victories have involved the team from Manchester really slowing the game down and taking the sting off it – similar to some of their away European performances in the Ferguson era.
It definitely seemed to work as Liverpool were rattled – they didn’t have the opportunity to press high up the pitch (as the ball was hardly there), and this led to individual mistakes creeping in – which then influenced the crowd.
Halftime came without many chances of note, but one got the feeling both sets of fans expected it to open up in the second 45 mins.
This did not happen at all – it was more of the same for the first 10 minutes of the first half. However on 55 minutes came the chance that Mourinho would have been hoping for.
Paul Pogba created some space for himself on the right, and whipped in a brilliant ball for Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
In his prime/in form, one would have expected him to score – however he mistimed the header and it went awry. It definitely seemed like a big chance – one that could have changed the entire game had it gone in.
It seemed to awake Liverpool, and they responded by bringing their best player of the season so far on – Adam Lallana for Daniel Sturridge. It pushed Coutinho up into an attacking midfield position where he definitely had more of an influence on the game.
The Lallana/Coutinho/Firmino/Mane axis has caused plenty of problems for teams this year, and the first three started getting into their groove with about 70 minutes left.
Emre Can popped up in the box and had a low shot saved, Liverpool started winning second balls and attacking the Kop end, and the crowd were lifted.
United seemed to go into reactive mode and from about the 75th minute, concentrate on not losing – which they never looked like doing apart from one moment.
When Phillippe Coutinho picks the ball up around the 30 yard mark, the other team has to ensure they press early – he has a wicked long shot and is more than happy to pull the trigger. He did exactly that with about 15 minutes left – received the ball, cut in, set up the shot, and try and curl it into the far post.
The ball was actually behind David De Gea by this stage – yet the Spaniard’s outstretched right hand managed to claw the ball behind for a corner.
It was truly a sensational save – De Gea going with his ‘wrong’ hand at full stretch, having covered the distance in just a few seconds. Most of the crowd thought it was in, and even the commentators did too.
Following that however, Mourinho went into peak Mourinho mode and the 0-0 was never in doubt. Both managers tried to spin it positively post game, but the consensus was that both teams were equally bad.
For neutrals it must have been an awful game to watch, for Liverpool fans frustrating, and for United fans tense. However I think both sets of fans will take the point for it could have been worse.
Liverpool have received a wakeup call though, as not every team will come and try and play open/expansive football.
Their next test is what some call an ultimate test – Tony Pulis and his band of brothers down at The Hawthorns. If Klopp says his team struggle from set pieces, he might be in for Pulis at his finest.
For United, it is another big game, an extra special one for the Special One – a return to Stamford Bridge.
It will be interesting to see what response he gets from fans, but also from his players. Three points are now crucial to keep the bid for Top 4 going.
Written by Vishakh Chandrasekhar
Follow Vishakh on Twitter @VishC24
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