To the neutral observer this would’ve been a boring contest of scrappy ball movement and players too often colliding in to each other. For either one of Liverpool or Manchester United’s supporters, this would a battle of tactics and desire.
Following the 3-0 win for Brendan Rodgers’ men over the old enemy, Manchester United, in their own backyard, there were a few online reactions calling the match a poor display from both sides. To some it may not be the worst reflection, after watching a game where the ball seemed to continually go back and forth between the teams.
Move after move was interfered with and broken up within the first five passes or so. That could indeed be down to poor passing ability, in some people’s eyes. What it was though, was pressure. From both sets of midfielders and the full-backs especially. This was constant closing down every time the opponent had the ball.
In other words, the quality of ball control and general passing wasn’t bad, as much as the pressure to win back possession was intense. Liverpool edged it because they’re on a bit of a mission at the moment, and their approach in the final third of the pitch showed that.
But the key to their victory were two full-backs who stifled Manchester United’s main threat over the years – the wing. Both Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata weren’t allowed any time by a certain Glen Johnson and the refreshing Jon Flanagan.
This boy’s already made a mark this season with a stellar performance against Tottenham during that 5-0 drubbing at White Hart Lane – the performance that saw the young Liverpudlian get on the score-sheet and cost Andre Villas-Boas his job. Flanagan’s intensity of running at United’s wingers frustrated them and forced them to repeatedly track back and play the ball back in to the middle of the park.
There lay awaiting another couple of work-horses: Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen; the same Allen who’s been written off by many Liverpool fans as a sentimental purchase by manager. Both of them kept pressurising, both Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick. In other words, Liverpool won this match because they squeezed Manchester United out of any space for the vast majority of the game.
That coupled with Gerrard, Suarez, and Sturridge constantly spraying the ball about and bringing both Johnson and Flanagan in to play from out wide allowing them to keep attacking. Some may argue that the initial two goal lead was a result of two penalties, which is perhaps less meritorious compared to scoring from open play.
But in truth, it was no more than the Reds deserved, especially with an early Fellaini tap on Suarez’s calf from behind going unpunished by Mark Clattenburg. The first penalty itself was unquestionable. A definite handball but, against what many Liverpudlians and former captain Graeme Souness might argue, it wasn’t an automatic booking, simply a snap reflex from Rafael to be fair to him and the penalty was punishment enough.
The second and third penalties weren’t too much in doubt either and after converting the second, Steven Gerrard would have liked it better to convert the last one for the hat-trick as well. But it wasn’t to be. Suarez then, after being denied from point-blank range, ended up benefitting from a Daniel Sturridge miskick, to angle it past De Gea for his elusive goal against United.
The other major bonus for Liverpool will be the clean-sheet, which they haven’t had too many of this season. Simon Mignolet only had to make one major save, which shouldn’t take any credit away from just how good a save it really was. Rooney’s shot was almost at point-blank range as well, so the Belgian keeping it out would’ve done wonders for his confidence.
Much of United’s failure to have many chances on goal however, was again a testament to Henderson and Allen who, along with Gerrard, were constantly tracking back and establishing an additional line of three ahead of the back four. A number of near opportunities for United were broken up by those three sticking a foot in just as the trigger was about to be pulled – yet again adding to United’s frustrations.
Back in the day of Rafael Benitez, any headline about the psychological aspect of a Liverpool v Man United clash was always dominated by what he or Sir Alex Ferguson were saying to the media. This win here was a result of the players themselves getting the mental upper hand over their North-West rivals, and not relaxing the grip until the final whistle.