When teams are only separated by a mere point in the league table in March, the distinguishing clues are often a matter of specialization: one team excels at A but struggles with B, while the other is the best B in all the land but is shambles in the A department. On the occasions these two teams meet, the key then is to try match one’s strengths with the other’s weaknesses. Blowouts, fine margins or stalemates; all are possible, and these sorts of ties often turn on the intangibles such as mental strength, execution and winning individual battles.
It is why Liverpool lost to Manchester United and it was just. On paper, the Reds were undone by two goals from long balls, each plying a route from David De Gea to Marcus Rashford via Romelu Lukaku resulting in a brace for the England international inside 25 minutes. It could also be easy to blame the subsequent appearance of the famous Jose Mourinho bus on the game script.
However, at the start, Mourinho’s Red Devils—for once—showed up to this grandest of occasions ready to play actual football, leading to the sort of end-to-end opening 14 minutes none had expected. Liverpool’s gameplan was, as always, to play patiently out from the back when in possession, press high out of it and hit hard on the counter. United’s plan was to find Lukaku’s head and see what happens. The latter strategy nominally won over the former when Rashford opened the scoring by cutting inside young Trent Alexander-Arnold with a slick turn and curling past Loris Karius, before collecting a loose ball in the box to double the advantage ten minutes later.
However, this account of events would fail to tell the full story; rather it was in the individual battles where the match was lost. The eye-catching matchup was between an evergreen Ashley Young and Mohamed Salah, the former surprisingly silencing the league’s leading scorer by employing a combination of brawn and guile in shackling the previously irrepressible forward. Elswhere Romelu Lukaku essentially—as they say—“sonned” Dejan Lovren in their personal matchup, at one point physically putting the Croatian defender on his backside in the lead up to the winning goal in an image that encapsulated the one-sided nature of their battle.
But what ended up being the key clash was Rashford vs. Trent Alexander-Arnold. Despite an impressive showing in the reverse fixture, the Reds right back reminded Liverpool fans that he still a talent very much in development, with the academy product’s 19 years of age up against the United forward’s 15 international caps ending poorly for the visitors.
If you’re counting, that’s United 3 Liverpool 0 in the individual box score, too large a deficit in as tightly wound a match as this.
Even so, and for all their impressive defensive focus up 2-0, United still experienced the occasional lapses in concentration as the match went on that Liverpool this season have typically and ruthlessly capitalized on: referee Craig Pawson and the line judge both had poor views of Antonio Valencia’s hand impeding a dangerous cross in what ought to have been a stonewall penalty call; on the other side of the defensive line, Young somehow managed to get away with bear-hugging Salah from behind as the Egyptian attempted to control the ball in the box. Ultimately, United were only forced to pay for one of their miscues, with Eric Bailly bundling into his own net from a Sadio Mané cross to make it 2-1 on 66 minutes.
To Liverpool’s credit, the goal came as a result of a sustained period of pressure in the second half, with the visitors displaying the sort of mental fortitude from a losing position unlike what fans have grown accustomed to in recent times. With a point in their sights, the Reds spent the remaining 30 minutes of normal and stoppage time pouring forward in clumsy earnest, displaying the belief of a squad that has heroically wrested points from their opponents on more than one occasion this season.
However, in the end, the unlovely nature of the solitary strike from a team accustomed to more sumptuous fare in attack summed up the inadequacy of the performance. That the Reds’ most likely route to goal on the day came from United’s inability to mark center half Virgil Van Dijk on any of the 13 Liverpool corners was telling in itself. Such so that when the ball fell to Liverpool’s 32-goal striker in Salah in the box with the final kick of the game, the barren 96 minutes of attack that proceeded the moment made the sailing shot into the crowd almost inevitable.
There are learnings from this match that will hopefully be the catalyst for a second evolution for this squad. Earlier in the season, Liverpool finally realized that beautiful football couldn’t beat the bus, consequently developing their own brand of Route One long ball after discovering that defenders are not nearly as fast as the likes of Salah and Mané. This time, Herr Klopp has between now and the next round of the Champions League to figure out how to come from behind against a physically-imposing and/or defensively elite side (like, say, a Real Madrid or Juventus).
But perhaps the most important lesson to be learned is that going down 2-0 will never get you anywhere: not against a Mourinho team, not at Old Trafford and especially not against Manchester United.