Jose Bourinho reduced the much anticipated clash between Liverpool and Man Utd to a game with less rhythm than a drunk uncle at a wedding on a silent dancefloor. Sky’s best efforts to spice up a day of the week commonly associated with doom, despair and denial by attributing a colour to it did nothing but disappoint an expectant audience. Two-hours lost that in hindsight would have been better off spent stacking pennies in chronological order. But we’re always wiser after the event as Jurgen Klopp surely relayed to his players following their disjointed display.
Liverpool’s edgy start
The German manager was clearly far from happy with his side’s first-half performance. Liverpool conjured up just two weak attempts at goal and countless unforced errors, most of which he put down to the players being too hectic in possession.
All the pre-match talk was about the atmosphere under the lights at Anfield with its new stand. But simultaneously both fans and players lost patience as Man Utd predictably took their time on all set-pieces while disrupting the flow of the game by committing and earning free-kicks.
The apparent 4-2-3-1 formation Mourinho started with quickly became a 6-3-1 once possession was relinquished, an occurrence that became increasingly common as the clock crept towards the 90th minute. During the latter part of the first-half, it became clear that The Red Devils were happy to drop deep and allow Liverpool’s centre-backs to have the ball. United’s backline, which included ‘wingers’ Ashley Young and Marcus Rashford, showed great discipline and organisation to drown out all time and space in their defensive third.
This made it even harder for Philippe Coutinho – who started in the midfield three due to the absence of Georginio Wijnaldum while Adam Lallana was only fit enough to take a place on the bench – to have the desired impact in attack. The little Brazilian was as guilty as anyone in terms of trying to force the pass during the first half and not show the considered patience Klopp mentioned in his post-match interviews.
Can’t go forwards we’ll have to go backwards
One of the key differences in stats were the number of backpasses each side played. Liverpool played six times as many as Man Utd (24 to four) which not only proved that the forward options were often restricted, but also that Mourinho’s side preferred to risk losing possession further up field in search of the aerial prowess of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Maourane Fellaini and to a lesser extent, Paul Pogba.
The frequent passes back to Loris Karius only fuelled Anfield’s frustrations. The young German keeper was far less willing to go long compared to David de Gea in Man Utd’s goal with 27 of his 29 successful passes going to either Dejan Lovren (19) or Joel Matip (8). It was presumably designed to draw United’s players out from their stifling formation but the well-drilled outfit from Manchester rarely wavered.
Both Lovren and Matip were afforded a bit more time and space on the ball in the second half as United retreated even further back, proven by their paltry two-attempts on goal. The Cameroonian defender even surged forwards to create Emre Can’s chance that forced a great save by de Gea just before the hour mark and Adam Lallana’s introduction.
The former Southampton midfielder replaced a limited Daniel Sturridge which led to Roberto Firmino filling in as the central striker and Coutinho moving to his more natural position on the left of the front three.
Instantly, there was a greater urgency about Liverpool’s play and the sort of pressing viewers and Klopp had expected from the first whistle. And ten minutes after the substitution, Coutinho forced de Gea into another stunning save when the Spaniard, at full stretch, tipped a 25-yard strike past the post. The former Atletico Madrid keeper is proving to be quite a nuisance for The Reds with a number of impressive saves in this fixture since his arrival in 2011.
The drab nature of this encounter left spectators feeling that only a moment of magic or a defensive error would determine a winner.
Coutinho nearly provided that magic when he flicked a pass for his Brazilian compatriot Firmino to run onto. It looked like he was through on goal only for Antonio Valencia to make a last ditch tackle and maintain his side’s clean sheet as United held out for a creditable draw.
Chelsea 2013/14 all over again?
Countless references were made to the performance of Mourinho’s Chelsea when they went to a high-flying Liverpool who were top of the league with just three games remaining. Unfortunately for the home side, Steven Gerrard suffered his famous slip and Demba Ba capitalised before former Red Fernando Torres confirmed victory by tapping home in stoppage-time.
But the stats of that match actually suggest a more open-affair with 37 attempts at goal (26 for Liverpool and 11 for Chelsea) compared to a total of 16 on Monday night (nine for Liverpool and seven for Man Utd). Although, 20 of Liverpool’s attempts in 2014 were restricted to efforts from outside the area.
Mourinho’s Chelsea only had 25.9% possession (157/241 attempted passes) that day compared to Man Utd’s 35.4% (259/342). That figure – the lowest for Man Utd recorded since Opta started in 2003/04 – was questioned by the Portuguese manager after the match who claimed his ‘guy’ said it was 42%. We should see if that same ‘guy’ can do our accounts.
Time wasting and disruptions between Chelsea circa 2014 and Man Utd circa 2016 saw The Blues commit just seven fouls to United’s 20. Meanwhile, Liverpool were far less content to go back to their keeper with just four backpasses in total.
So while there were similarities in approach, Mourinho’s side of today was more disruptive and less ambitious going forwards, a reason being their lack of pace on the counter with Rashford spending more time filling in as an auxiliary full-back.
It was a job done for Man Utd with Ander Herrera especially effective in midfield and deservedly man of the match. He managed to top the game stats for take-ons (6/6), ball recoveries (10), tackles (7/12) and interceptions (10).
Mourinho in typical fashion looked to divert attention from his side’s lack of ambition by claiming Liverpool were defensive and should be criticised for only mustering two notable efforts on target from so much possession, but they were two great saves and a perfectly timed tackle from victory and a very different post-match conversation.
Klopp will be content to have avoided defeat – something Liverpool sides in recent history would have suffered – but hope his side learns from this experience, especially given that they’re likely to come up against an equally cautious opponent in West Brom on Saturday. Whether Mourinho will utilise similar tactics against Chelsea on Sunday will be interesting to see, but hopefully not as much as the actual game itself.
EPL Results (Gameweek 8):
Chelsea 3-0 Leicester
Arsenal 3-2 Swansea
Bournemouth 6-1 Hull
Man City 1-1 Everton
Stoke 2-0 Sunderland
West Brom 1-1 Tottenham
Crystal Palace 0-1 West Ham
Middlesbrough 0-1 Watford
Southampton 3-1 Burnley
Liverpool 0-0 Man Utd