5 Things We Learned: Manchester United 1-1 Liverpool

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1) It felt like a point rescued rather than two points dropped

For me, regardless of the league standings season to season, this is the biggest fixture in any league campaign. Growing up in Belfast in the 80’s, in my school you were United or Liverpool. Simple. There was no one else. I had one friend who supported Aston Villa, but he was just trying to be different, that’s why he wore rainbow braces and a flat cap on non-uniform day. The tension with which I watch this fixture is unparalleled, as it can make the difference between entering work on Monday doing my happy dance, or skulking in via the rear stair case.

The pre-match hype was that United have been the form team and Liverpool were on a slump following successive disappointing cup results. There was an element of truth in that supposition, but that interpretation was skewed by the quality of opponents United have faced during the impressive winning run, and the fact Liverpool had fielded weakened sides with this fixture in mind.

Having endured the frustration of being behind to that early penalty, and the knowledge that this was only ever going to be a close game in which, once behind, it would be difficult to regain the upper hand, my overwhelming emotion upon the final whistle was relief. Watching the game, with my obvious bias, I felt like Manchester United were the more progressive side, playing with more attacking impetus and generally dictating the play. In reality, and with the benefit of detached hindsight, the stats and the key incidents reflect that it was a very even encounter, with Liverpool managing more shots on and off target, more corners, and United having more possession. In a pulsating last 10 minutes, the game could easily have been won at either end, but with my neutral hat on a draw was a fair reflection of the game.

Coming into the final minutes, it felt like the goal wasn’t on the horizon, so when it went in a draw felt like the point had been rescued.

2) A title challenge is not realistic

To have any aspirations of mounting any form of a title challenge, Mourinho needed a win against our arch nemesis. The hard truth is that a point is disappointing. United are now 12 points behind league leaders Chelsea, with four other teams in between. With 17 games to go, that is a big gap. History tells us it is not insurmountable, and Chelsea could yet have a difficult period during which they will drop points, but to regain that ground, Manchester United would need to win virtually every game left, and improved though they may be, that is not going to happen. We would be relying on not only Chelsea, but four other teams failing to put together good runs of form. The title appears off limits.

The positive side is that even following today’s draw, the top four is still very much achievable, and truthfully should be a minimum requirement this season. The gap to Arsenal is now four points, which has been cut drastically during the unbeaten run. The progress that was evident in performances but not results earlier in the season, is now beginning to be reflected in the league table, in spite of the fact the league’s biggest spenders are still only sitting in 6th behind Pep’s City shambles. If the league ended today that would be unacceptable, but the truth is that this is a good United team, which is continuing to improve and build confidence, and the signs for the future look positive. Compared to the previous few seasons, United are hard to beat, resilient and exhibiting a close team spirit. There is no question that a Louis Van Gaal Manchester United would have lost this game. Until Mourinho’s arrival, if United went behind, you might as well have given up on the game and gone and cried in the shower for the next 80 minutes, because they weren’t coming back. This side have shown grit and determination, and managed to at least rescue a point today when it was beginning to get desperate. It might not be a massive point in terms of league position, but psychologically it means the team have avoided defeat and continue on what is now a 16-game unbeaten run. The gap to the top is 12 points because this team still needs to be more clinical and turn draws into victories; but that involves only small margins. United have lost just three league games this season, the same as the indomitable Conte-inspired Chelsea, but have conspired to draw six more games.

Sunday was not by any means a wonderful performance, but the team were fully committed and competed feverishly in what was a frantic encounter. When you compare that to the inferiority complex of David Moyes, or the satisfaction with mediocrity of Louis Van Gaal, I am happy with the progress the club is making. On the face of it, pundits will still claim that Mourinho’s start has not been good enough given the investments made in the playing squad, but something is building and I’m enjoying being a fan again. Above all else, I care again and it feels good.

3) Liverpool were “the better side, played better football, and had a better plan”

These were the post-match thoughts of Liverpool’s blinkered manager Jürgen Klopp. To be honest there is a lot I like about Klopp as a manager. I like his forthright press conferences and exhibitionism on the touch line. He clearly loves football and plays an entertaining and fast style. However, for him to claim attacking supremacy and tactical victory is a hard sell. This was not a repeat of ‘Red Monday’, where United handed the initiative to their Scouse neighbours and were happy to contain and try to play on the break throughout the second half at Anfield. It is a cosy media-driven narrative that Mourinho plays anti-football. There may have been more legitimacy to this claim in the past, but the truth is that Mourinho has generally played in a positive and entertaining fashion this season since taking over the reins at Old Trafford.

What Mourinho does retain is flexibility in his approach when necessary, and it was his ability to adapt that rescued a point in this game. The introduction of the widely derided Marouane Fellaini for the last 10 minutes did indicate a change of approach, as a more direct style was adopted. Liverpool were defending well, time was running out, and things were getting increasingly desperate. Although my natural reaction was a groan when I saw Fellaini getting prepped for coming on, the truth is that it was an inspired change. With the electric Marcus Rashford on the bench, he was the man I wanted to see introduced to give added pace and energy, but for all Fellaini’s short-comings as a technician, he terrorised Liverpool when he came on. This is exactly the scenario when he is a useful member of the squad. It might not have been pretty but it was effective, and it was his presence that ultimately led to the Ibrahimovic equaliser.

This late direct tactic was not indicative of the rest of the game, and the complaint from Klopp that he was up against a long-ball team was unfair, and frankly petty. It was a comment you would expect from Arsene Wenger, as if direct passing and physicality is a form of cheating. It was a gamble from Mourinho taking off a defender for an extra attacker, and a gamble that paid off. It was similar to the home game against Middlesbrough when a similar late attacking gamble paid off, and it is good to see Mourinho making these bold changes to good effect from the bench. He is generally getting his substitutions right, and increasingly growing into the manager we all expected.

I do think that Mourinho is taking a positive obligation to produce an entertaining and attacking team like the Old Trafford faithful expect. This is not a long ball team, and even in the last 10 minutes it wasn’t just a case of long hit and hope balls. There was certainly a switch to a more direct play, but this was a response to Liverpool’s slow retreat into their own half to protect what they had, so for Klopp to try and claim the moral victory is misleading at best. They only managed to score from a penalty which, correctly awarded though it was, was a ridiculous give-away from Pogba, who did a good impression of a man who looked like he had never had to defend a corner before.

4) Rooney was the wrong switch at half time

I think Rooney has looked a much-improved player in his last couple of appearances, and to remove Michael Carrick at half time was a bold change from Mourinho, leading to a switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation. However, to bring him on in the number 10 role ahead of Juan Mata is baffling. I was willing Rooney on to produce something, make a real difference and make the all-time scoring record his own. He did put in the cross that led to the equaliser, but prior to that he was largely ineffective, and in all honesty in a hi-octane encounter like this, it was not the climate to introduce modern-day Wayne Rooney. He put in the same effort as he always does, but he simply slows plays down, and does not have the pace and power in his legs any more to change a game in the way that United needed.

In contrast, Juan Mata, who of course was later introduced but in a wide role, is capable of dictating the play and speeding up the pace of a build-up with intelligent movement, impeccable touch and razor sharp vision. He has proven himself as being as effective as anyone in the division in terms of scoring key goals, assists and creating chances. At the time, I felt he was the man who should have been introduced, and I certainly have not changed my mind with hindsight.

I have no ill-will toward Rooney, and he will have games where he comes on and makes the desired impact, but unfortunately this was not the game for him. The romance of him scoring the winner was enticing, and there were a couple of moments where space appeared to open up for him to fire one into the top corner, but he just can’t influence games like Mata and he was essentially accommodated at the expense of his Spanish counterpart.

The other change that should have been made, and this is with the benefit of hindsight, was the removal of Paul Pogba. There is no getting away from the fact that he was poor in defence, wasteful in attack, and on several occasions robbed in possession, not to mention the concession of the penalty. That does not take away from the fact that he has been phenomenal of late, it was just not a good day for the enigmatic Frenchman, and the half-time change did not help him as he no longer had the security blanket of Michael Carrick tidying things up behind him. He found things difficult not having time in possession, which is what Liverpool have built their entire approach on. The temptation to leave him on is that he is capable of a moment of magic, and has started putting up good numbers in terms of goals and assists recently, but it was a disappointing day for him. It should prove valuable experience for him as he continues his development into a truly dominant midfielder.

5) The back four once again did its job

Valencia, Jones, Rojo, and Darmian. At the start of the season, if you told me this would be our regular defence, I would have contorted my face into a look of terror. Having now played together regularly for several months, they have developed into a very solid unit who once again looked good against a dangerous set of Liverpool forwards.

There were a couple of moments to worry the fans, and Phil Jones got caught in possession at the edge of his box to almost let Firmino in, but overall, they were excellent, and limited Liverpool to just a couple of true openings, and could do nothing about the penalty that was conceded.

Despite my lingering doubts, Marcos Rojo has been in fine form, and his partnership with Jones must continue whilst they both remain fit. He has barely put a foot wrong this season, and if he can eradicate wild, two-footed lunges from his game there is no reason why he shouldn’t remain at the heart of the Manchester United defence.

Individually you might not be able to label any of them world-class, but it underlines the importance of consistency of selection and the cohesiveness that comes with familiarity. The team looks a lot more settled, and we finally have something very close to a first choice eleven, which has coincided with the upturn in results and the lengthy unbeaten streak.

It would have been nice to beat our big rivals, but a draw doesn’t feel like a bad result, and above all it is another step along the evolution of this team towards being genuine title contenders again. I enjoy watching this team, and after the last few years, even that on its own feels good.

Fergus’ website: http://reasonableextremes.tumblr.com

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