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1. Injuries Changed the Game
On a day where it wasn’t only this game that the players dictated the changes their manager would be allowed to make, Manchester United sustained three injuries in the first half of this intense derby. Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, and his replacement Jesse Lingard all had to leave the field of play with muscular injuries. This was in addition to the continued absence of Anthony Martial, the late withdrawal of the rejuvenated Nemanja Matic, a clearly struggling Marcus Rashford, and the apparent lobotomy of Alexis Sanchez.
In the circumstances, any game plan that may have been implemented by Ole Solskjaer was out the window by midway through the first half. The United line up that ended the game was an unfamiliar one, and lacked the pace, balance and fluidity that have been evident through the majority of the Norwegian’s brief reign.
By the time the game had settled down following a fast-paced opening, United were forced to concede the initiative to their high-flying rivals. It can only be speculated how this game could have developed if the Manchester United physio hadn’t been left with more to do than Theresa May’s Chief whip. However, although McTominay and Andreas Pereira played well, the side struggled to retain possession, and lost a significant amount of threat that would have been posed to Liverpool on the counter attack.
This was largely a very controlled and accomplished defensive performance from Solskjaer’s men, which is borne out by the match statistics: United managed only 35% possession playing at home, and only 6 shots on goal; however, an ultimately unimpressive and weary-looking Liverpool were restricted to just 1 shot on target, and their main threat came from their 7 corner kicks. This was an absorbing and tense contest, but it was sorely lacking in quality attacking play on both sides, although worryingly for Liverpool their players were out of sorts as opposed to unavailable.
In his post-match interview, Solskjaer lamented: “Everything that could have gone wrong in the first half went wrong. We had four injuries – we had to keep Marcus Rashford on – it seemed like it was going to be a tough afternoon. But I can’t remember Liverpool having a chance. Even though they had possession, I can’t remember David De Gea making a save”.
Somewhat bizarrely, the falsely affable Jurgen Klopp explained his own side’s failings on the same reasons: “All the injuries in the game obviously cost us rhythm. United played with a completely new midfield and three up front. We lost our rhythm and couldn’t get it back”.
A draw did not suit the needs of either side, but in the circumstances for this recently re-invigorated Manchester United, it was acceptable. It maintains momentum at a time when the depth of this large and expensively assembled squad will be tested.
2. The Atmosphere was Relentless
Following the game, the darling of the Stretford End, Marcus Rashford, tweeted ‘Old Trafford, thank you, you kept us going’. There were similar messages on social media from much of the match day squad, but Rashford will have meant it more than most as he was clearly having to go through the pain barrier to complete 90 minutes.
The whole ground was up to the challenge of cheering on this team, a team that they are clearly proud of again after several years in the doldrums. Gary Neville stated, “That’s one of the best atmospheres I’ve seen at Old Trafford for years”. The hugely impressive run of domestic results and the manner of the performances have meant that fans have re-discovered confidence in their club, and clearly believe that the right man is at the helm. What had become a labour of duty is now a pleasure once again, and the football has been reminiscent of the qualities fans grew accustomed to over 23 years of unparalleled success.
Sky Sports studio guest and club legend Nemanja Vidic said “The fans were singing for him. I think it’s very close now – I can’t see the club going away from it (appointing Solskjaer permanently). We learnt a lot about the mood of the club today. Three months ago, they were singing ‘attack, attack, attack’. Today they were singing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s name for all of the second half. The mood has completely transformed – the atmosphere was one of the best I’ve seen at Old Trafford for years and it was 0-0! If Manchester United had scored it would have been incredible”.
On days like this, Old Trafford is a special stadium. The fans were completely in harmony with their team, and the noise was sustained throughout. In the modern era of purpose-built, soulless sporting arenas, this was a reminder of the value of a traditional and great English football stadium.
By stark contrast, the Liverpool fans were almost inaudible, save for their shameful attempts to sing over the minute’s applause for Eric Harrison before the game. The United fans certainly did their job, and the players responded in their attitude and desire in the absence of a win.
3. McTominay proved his worth
Scott McTominay is not a player held in particularly high esteem with the bulk of the Man United fan base. News that he was starting in place of the injured Matic at the base of the midfield diamond was met with general consternation.
This opinion was well surmised by Gary Neville before the match: “It’s a blow…when I heard it, I was worried to be honest”. McTominay has barely featured under Solskjaer, previously managing just 17 minutes of playing time in the Premier League, having been facetiously named Manager’s Player of the Season last year by departed crackpot Jose Mourinho. However, Neville continued “I’m happy he’s gone with McTominay, though. It doesn’t surprise me that Ole has put faith in youth there, it’s actually his position. It is in the United tradition that you play young players”.
The young Scot repaid his manager’s faith with a solid performance. Following the game, he said “As soon as the boss asks you to be ready you have to be ready. You want to play for the boys and hopefully I did that as well as I could today… It’s always frantic, it was a bit of a disruptive match”. Solskjaer heaped praise on his late inclusion “He was a Darren Fletcher for us, absolutely fantastic”. Comparison to his compatriot is a massive compliment to McTominay, as Fletcher was a selfless but vital component to Manchester United sides Solskjaer himself played in. He characterised himself on tireless performances coupled with reliable and industrious use of the ball.
Against Liverpool, McTominay covered more ground than any other player on the pitch (11.79km); had an 84.4% pass accuracy; 7 ball recoveries; 3 clearances; 2 interceptions; and 2 blocks. Some media sources named him as man of the match, and he certainly justified his inclusion.
Time will tell whether he possesses the technical attributes to be a regular starter in the Manchester United midfield, but there is no doubt that he is a tactically disciplined player who makes life easier for his team mates, and his passion for the club where he has risen through the youth ranks is evident and should not be under-valued.
4. Luke Shaw Won the Salah battle
Luke Shaw has been one of United’s most-used players under Solskjaer, which is a far cry from howling mad Mourinho’s claims that a good Shaw performance “was his body with my brain”. Shaw’s form has, by his own admission, still been patchy as he re-discovers form and confidence following his turbulent time at the club to date. He stated “I’m still quite young. There’s always room to improve and that’s what I want to do, keep improving and see what happens”, and he believes he “can reach another level”.
Following what was probably his most accomplished performance as a Manchester United player, this level of drive and ambition is pleasing from a player often criticised by Mourinho for his mental fragility and lack of desire.
One thing that has never been questioned is his ability and potential, and he was in dominatable on Sunday against the division’s joint top scorer Mo Salah, leading to the Egyptian being tactically substituted in the second half. Shaw won every duel he went in for, was positionally faultless, and offered cover and pace to his centre backs as they kept the Liverpool front line at bay.
Shaw has become an integral part of this side, and his continued improvement is a key component to any future upturn in fortunes. Effective full backs are crucial in modern football, and under Solskjaer, Shaw has been one of United’s main attacking threats. Under Ole, he has an impressive 83% pass completion rate, is averaging 1.7 progressive runs per 90 minutes, and has a dribble success rate of 48.45% – Liverpool’s Andy Robertson achieved 33.45% over the same period.
The bulk of Manchester United’s successful attacking play comes down the left side, and Shaw is the vital cog in making this work. He was faultless against Liverpool, and the biggest concern moving forward is his lack of competition for the position.
5. Pogba dug in
Paul Pogba has been the form player in the Premier League since being restored to the side, scoring 9 goals and assisting 6 since United were beaten by Liverpool at Anfield in December. A few weeks ago, speaking to the Daily Mail, he said “I like to be attacking, pressing, playing high. Defending is not my best attribute. The manager told me to get in the box, get goals, because you will score goals. My best example is Frank Lampard. He was the one who made those runs and he created a lot of chances, he scored a lot of goals”.
There is no doubt that Pogba has been thriving having been given those instructions and relative freedom. However, his performance against Liverpool was more disciplined, more controlled, and given the change in set up in the second half he needed to play his part both defensively and offensively. Pogba still attempted more passes in Liverpool’s half (24) than any other player bar Ashley Young (30).
Alongside two inexperienced youngsters, Pogba had to lead by example. He occupied a deeper role and made several tackles and interceptions whilst providing an outlet on the break with his athleticism and strength on the ball. This was the rounded Pogba United expected to get when buying him back from Juventus. It is debatable whether tactics or motivation ultimately held him back under Mourinho, but what is clear is that he is thriving at the club now and enjoying an affinity with his team mates and the supporters. He has strong leadership attributes despite some of his flashy stylings, and should he choose to remain there is no doubt he has the qualities to lead the club into a more hopeful and successful new era. Next up for Manchester United is a tough test away at Crystal Palace on Wednesday night with a depleted squad available. This may lead to opportunities for younger players to feature, in the absence of sufficient recovery time. There is no doubt that the harmony and motivation within the squad is evident, but the following sequence of games will certainly test the depth and quality of the squad.