Liverpool fell to an immensely frustrating 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon, as Louis Van Gaal’s men were superior at both ends of the pitch and therefore claimed three crucial points, elevating them to third place in the table and creating a sizeable ten-point gap between the Reds and the Red Devils.
United’s goalkeeper David de Gea was in world class form, making six excellent saves to deny the Merseysiders and clinch the Man of the Match award. At the other end, Rooney, Mata and Robin van Persie took advantage of yet more dreadful Liverpool defending to score from half of their shots on target.
|Unbeatable: David de Gea|
The relegation of Simon Mignolet to the bench for what Rodgers described as an ‘indefinite period’ was not the only surprising team selection decision, as Liverpool reverted to three at the back and played without a conventional striker as the recalled Lallana and Coutinho flanked Raheem Sterling, who played as a false nine.
It was a brave team selection by Brendan Rodgers, but the underlying logic was compelling and convincing. The idea was to pack the team with pacey forward players intent on pinning United back and pressurising them from the off.
Those tactics appeared to pay off during the opening stages, as Liverpool started the better, enjoying two-thirds of possession and routinely forcing their hosts into mistakes as United repeatedly lost the ball with sloppy passes. Unfortunately, though, the Reds couldn’t capitalise when they were presented with possession by United.
The game turned in the twelfth minute when United scored the vital first goal only 30 seconds after Raheem Sterling had squandered a gilt-edged opportunity to reward Liverpool’s dominance with a goal at the other end.
Adam Lallana, who was confusingly replaced by Balotelli at the break despite being one of the best performers during the first half, threaded through a lovely defence splitting pass for Sterling, whose shot was repelled by de Gea. The number 31 should have done better, but de Gea made it difficult for him by standing tall and not committing, wisely waiting for Sterling to make the first move.
United immediately countered through Antonio Valencia, taking advantage of the fact that left back Alberto Moreno was stranded up field. Valencia beat the covering Joe Allen all too easily, nutmegging the Welshman, and was then given all the time in the world to pick out a cross by the hesitant Lovren. The 29-year old Ecuadorian passed perfectly for the on-rushing Rooney, who had been unacceptably left by Coutinho, and the former Everton striker turned home from 16 yards out.
|Rooney opened the scoring only seconds after Sterling should have|
Encouragingly, Liverpool responded well. Sterling weaved through the United defence again but was denied by de Gea, while Gerrard saw his deflected shot saved by the Spaniard and also found Moreno in the area with the pass of the match. Frustratingly, the former Sevilla man couldn’t take advantage as a poor first touch let him down.
When you’re out of sorts and short of confidence, nothing seems to go your way, and that was the case for Liverpool seven minutes before the break as they were on the receiving end of a poor decision from the linesman. Juan Mata was clearly in an offside position as he headed home after van Persie flicked on Young’s left wing cross, but the goal stood.
|Mata was blatantly offside as he headed home from close range|
There was still time before the break for de Gea to collect Sterling’s relatively tame header, and the England international was central to the action after the interval. First, Henderson profligately headed his cross over the bar. Then, he wasted the best chance of the match. Jonny Evans’ terrible back pass put him in one-on-one with de Gea, but somehow Sterling failed to find the net, taking the ball far too wide with a poor first touch and taking too much time to fire goalwards.
It really was an awful miss from Sterling, who will be disappointed with his display due to the amount of chances he squandered, but it’s unfair that so much pressure is heaped on him. He’s only just turned 20 and yet is shouldering the burden of being Liverpool’s sole attacking hope, which is noticeably hitting his form and hampering his development as a player. He came on leaps and bounds last season when he played a supporting role as an apprentice under two world class strikers, but is understandably struggling in the absence of Suarez and Sturridge this term.
To be fair to the Italian, Balotelli did provide some support to Sterling, but he also came up against the unbeatable de Gea, who stunningly tipped his strike onto the cross bar from 12 yards out five minutes before van Persie ended the game as a contest.
As always, the defence should have done better for the third goal. This time, Lovren, who always looks like a mistake waiting to happen, fatally scuffed a panicked clearance straight to Mata, who picked out van Persie and then celebrated with his teammate after he’d easily turned into an open net, with Jones stranded on the other side of the goal after committing too early once again.
|Robin van Persie had Lovren to thank for his fouth goal in four games|
At the end of the day, the match just confirmed that Liverpool need to acquire a world class goalkeeper and at least one, if not two, decent strikers in January. Manchester United were fairly ordinary for large spells, like they have been throughout their six-game winning streak, but won the match because their keeper was magnificent and their forwards clinical. Liverpool, meanwhile, were quite impressive and creative in midfield, but had no end product and a defence capable of self-destructing at any moment.
Right here and now, Brendan Rodgers has a huge task on his hands as his team face table-topping Championship side Bournemouth in the League Cup on Wednesday and then welcome Arsenal to Anfield next Sunday. I hope he has a plan as to how Liverpool can get something from those matches, because after this defeat I have no idea how the Reds can turn things around.