Liverpool 3 - 1 Manchester United
Liverpool: Mané 24’, Shaqiri 73’, 81’
Manchester United: Lingard 33’
The combination of Manchester United’s stagnation this season plus the ongoing full sprint race between Liverpool and United’s neighbors at the Etihad has meant that this fixture - typically one of the more significant on the schedule - perhaps lacked just a dash of the usual spiciness that it would otherwise would have. Manchester United and Liverpool are operating in entirely different worlds at the moment: Jürgen Klopp’s side needed a result to stay just ahead of Pep Guardiola’s machine at the top of the table, while José Mourinho’s team - after today’s result - is staring at an eleven point gap to fourth place.
Still, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the way Liverpool started the match. It’s no secret that the Reds don’t always have their tempo dialed all the way to 11 this season, but they did for the first 20 minutes or so of this contest. Klopp’s starters were snapping at the heels of their visitors from the opening whistle. United, for their part, opened with what looked like five across the back, inviting the trio of Wijnaldum, Keïta, and Fabinho to push up.
It initially seemed like a decision to tempt fate. Liverpool swarmed over their opponents during the opening phases, but Mourinho’s formation did well to clog all the main arteries on the edge of the box. Firmino, Salah, and Mané all had opportunities to test De Gea early on, but their attempts to find teammates in better positions resulted in blocked passes and corners. United’s sole moment of significance during this spell came from a free kick on the left - the ball went straight into the Liverpool goal, but Romelu Lukaku’s flailing swing meant that it was ruled offside.
The deliveries from the series of corners were less than ideal, and Liverpool began to ease off the accelerator after twenty minutes had elapsed. Just as United started to assert themselves and set Rashford up on the break, however, the Reds struck the first blow through Mané.
Andy Robertson, who put in another lung-busting performance despite being slightly off target on his crosses today, worked the ball to Firmino, who found his compatriot Fabinho. The midfielder did well to create an angle for himself and lofted a ball to an onrushing Mané. The Senegalese forward showed composure and technique to chest the ball in stride before blasting past De Gea.
As tends to be the case in this fixture, however, there was a surprise in store. Just after the half-hour mark, and against the run of play, Mourinho’s side were level. United were being given noticeably more space in midfield, and Herrera was allowed to charge forward, finding Lukaku on the left. The low cross looked to have been gathered by Alisson, but the Brazilian keeper allowed the ball to carom off his foot towards a grateful Jesse Lingard, who made no mistake from close range.
To their credit, the Reds went right back to business, not allowing the mistake to rattle them. Up front, it was the same variations on the earlier theme, however. Liverpool struggled to create any real threat from their corners, and the decisionmaking on the break steered play into dead ends more often than not. The visitors appeared content to wait. It was a state of affairs you might expect against different opposition, not Manchester United.
Following the interval, Mourinho brought on Marouane Fellaini for young Diogo Dalot, who looked on the verge of being overrun on a number of occasions. It was an immediately effective change on a number of fronts. Liverpool were now even less effective on their corners, and United were no longer conceding the space just in front of their rearguard. Fellaini even had an opportunity to put his side in front following an excellent cross from Ashley Young almost caught Liverpool’s defenders out, but Robertson did very well to clear the danger with a lunging header.
It was increasingly clear that something would need to be changed for either side to have a breakthrough. With Fabinho putting in an eye-catching performance on both defensive and offensive duties, it was Keïta who made way, though not because Liverpool’s No. 8 was having an off day - indeed, Keïta as usual was a vital sparkplug in propelling the Reds forward. It was a different sparkplug who came on in his place - Xherdan Shaqiri.
Since arriving from Stoke City, Shaqiri has become an increasingly influential and opportunistic card for Klopp to play. Today was no different. Minutes after coming on, Shaqiri wisely lurked on the edge of the box while Mané raced past his defender to the byline. Expecting a cross to Salah in the middle, almost half of United’s entire side swarmed towards the Egyptian international, allowing the ball to ping pong its way to Shaqiri. The eventual shot took a slight deflection as it went into the netting, but the Anfield faithful won’t have cared.
United pressed now for an equalizer, almost finding one through Herrera and Lingard - the latter showing signs of frustration at often being the sole United player trying to make something happen on the break. Instead, it was Shaqiri who struck again. Again feasting on scraps as the attention was focused on Salah in the box, and again taking a deflection - this time off Eric Bailly - the Swiss international’s second goal effectively put an end to this contest.
There was still time for “olés” to ring out through Anfield and for the hosts to sing about not sacking Mourinho, but the real sting in this result will be that the most important thing for Liverpool is not the fact that they beat United, but the fact that they secured the three points to stay ahead of Manchester City.