Since the Premier League title is almost decided, the best the other teams can achieve is the 2nd position. Today, Liverpool effectively handed over that title of the 2nd position to Manchester United by losing 2-1 at Old Trafford. The Reds’ fourth Premier League loss of the season sees them stuck at 60 points while their fierce rivals went up to a tally of 65 points with this win.
If Jose Mourinho himself had been asked to write his ideal script for a game against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, it would be very similar to what transpired on the pitch today. Romelu Lukaku created two chances, which the energetic and accurate Rashford scored from within a space of 10 minutes, in the first quarter of the game. Then Manchester United sat deep and defended their box as if their life depended on it. Although Sadio Mane’s brilliance created Eric Bailly’s own goal, that was to be the only departure from what would have been Jose’s ideal script. Liverpool were camped outside Manchester United’s box for the entire second half, but they could not find a way through the throng of Red shirts (Liverpool wore their white away kit) in the box.
Liverpool needed luck to overcome Manchester United after suffering those initial shocks and they were in short supply of that precious commodity today. Not only were they luckless in their speculative long-range efforts or weak efforts from close range, but Craig Pawson’s poor refereeing doomed their luck in appeals for penalties as well, at least two of which seemed definitely well-earned by Liverpool.
Poor First Half – Defensive Errors
Irrespective of how one looks at Liverpool’s first half performance, it was a shoddy one. The Reds simply forgot to turn up in that first half. Trent Alexander Arnold was the culprit for both the United goals and Marcus Rashford was the hero for the Red Devils. For the first goal, Rashford quickly ran on to a second ball from a Lukaku header and then foxed Trent by cutting in before unleashing his shot. For the second, the Liverpool right-back was unfocussed when Juan Mata was dispossessed by van Dijk but the ball fell in the path of a charging Rashford. To make the matters worse, the young right back also got a flick off Rashford’s strike, possibly causing Karius to misjudge his attempted save.
These were the second balls that Klopp referred to in his post-match conference. While he seems to believe that United’s goals were not a result of any particular style, I feel that is not true. Both the goals came from Route One football – David de Gea kicked the ball to Romelu Lukaku who won the decisive aerial challenge to make the first goal and to put Mata through on goal in the case of the second goal. It was clearly a win for the direct style of football.
But in that first half, Liverpool were poor all around. Just before the first goal, James Milner’s corner kick landed bang in the middle of the United box without a single Liverpool player at the far post. The only Red who reacted to that corner kick was Klopp who was left fuming in his technical area. The resulting goal kick led to the first goal for United. Indeed, in that first half, 7 Liverpool players had Whoscored ratings of less than 6, which is the rating at which all players start.
Manchester United’s Deep Defending Stifled Liverpool’s Attack
When an opponent is set up as defensively as Manchester United were today – immediately after their first goal, while defending a Liverpool attack all four United defenders were inside their box and Mata and Rashford had tracked back to make it a back-six for United – it is important for the attacking team to be sharp and innovative in the final third. Either the team needs to shoot well from distance, or play a patient passing game outside the box to try and unlock a gap, or they need to create set piece opportunities using which they can attack. Liverpool failed in doing all three.
Overall, Liverpool had 14 shots, 3 fewer than their per game average in Premier League, but they had only two shots on target – 4 fewer than their per game average of 6.2. They did try their luck from outside a lot, attempting 9 shots from outside but 7 of those were blocked by the defenders, one was saved by de Gea and one was off-target. Of Liverpool’s 13 corners, only four resulted in shots, of which three were off-target and one was saved by the goalkeeper. That leaves only one instance where Liverpool were able to unlock United’s defense enough to attempt a shot from within the box. This opportunity came towards the end of the game as Salah skewed his last shot of the game.
The story of how United’s astute defending – some may call it parking the bus but it was a brilliantly executed tactic – completely stifled Liverpool’s attack can be shown by a couple of other stats as well. FiveThirtyEight.com’s model calculates shot-based xG and non-shot based xG values for each completed match. Liverpool’s non-shot based xG was 2.6, while their shot-based xG was 0.9. This means that based on Liverpool’s non-shooting actions around United’s penalty box, they should have scored almost 3 goals. But the way, Manchester United smothered those attacks meant that Liverpool were expected to score only a single goal, which they eventually did, albeit from a cross and not a shot.
Liverpool continued their bad run against the top-six today but to be fair, the result is not as bad as it feels. Liverpool could slip to fourth depending on Tottenham’s result on Sunday but they are still 4 points off the fifth-placed Chelsea. FiveThirtyEight.com still rates their chances of making the top-four at 96%. So, while a defeat against Manchester United will always rankle, Klopp can maintain a positive outlook and make sure his wards go on a run of wins before they meet Chelsea in the penultimate game week.