16 March 2014

Liverpool 3-0 Manchester United

Gerrard 34' (pen) 47' (pen)
Suarez 84'

The funny thing (and after a comfortable 3-0 win, we can call it "funny") is that Liverpool weren't even anywhere near their best. Liverpool's midfield – again in a diamond formation, with Sterling starting in place of Coutinho – was superlative, but both Sturridge and Suarez were slightly off-form, with Liverpool a bit disjointed in the final third, while both of Liverpool's fullbacks frightened at times. And yet they still cruised to a 3-0 win at Old Trafford, a venue where they've won twice in the last 10 league meetings.

United registered a solitary shot on target, one moment of threat amidst 90 minutes of utter mediocrity. Liverpool won three penalties, and could have had three more. United had a man sent off, and probably should have seen two dismissed. This was humiliation, as humiliating as Liverpool's last Old Trafford victory in March to further revitalize a title race, but humiliating in a different way.

It goes without saying after 29 matches, but this isn't anywhere close to the Manchester United we've known and hated for innumerable years. Liverpool played like the home side for 90 minutes, but needed 34 to take the lead, having spurned chances from Sturridge (twice) and Allen prior to breaking the deadlock.

Which deservedly happened on Liverpool's best build-up to that point, with Sterling playmaking from the top of the diamond and Liverpool cutting through United's midfield before spreading the ball out wide to Sturridge. An excellent cross, sumptuous control from Suarez's knitted boots, and an egregiously stupid handball from Rafael – which should have been his second booking in 90 seconds after scything down Gerrard to start Liverpool's possession. But Clattenburg pulled a Howard Webb, splitting the baby, giving the penalty but refusing the second yellow mandated by the rules of the game. To be fair, Howard Webb probably wouldn't have even given the penalty. Gerrard at the spot, De Gea diving the wrong way, 1-0.

As has become common, Liverpool's ultimate goal for the final 10 minutes of the half was to manage the game. Don't do anything stupid, get into the locker room with the lead, then kill the game in the second half. Which they just about managed, requiring a marvelous save from Mignolet followed by a crucial block from Skrtel to twice deny Rooney in the 44th.

Other Manchester United sides would have regrouped during the interval. You'd expect any competent side to do so. But not David Moyes' Manchester United. Within two minutes of the restart, Liverpool had the second. They started the second half like they were the side behind. They immediately stormed down to the opponent's defensive third. And they immediately won a second penalty: Phil Jones clumsily (and most likely making a stupid face while doing so) barging over Joe Allen after Henderson's chipped ball into the box. Gerrard at the spot, De Gea diving the right way but no matter, 2-0.

Liverpool's first penalty was the first given to an opponent at Old Trafford since December 2011. The second penalty was the first time two have been given to a United opponent at Old Trafford in Premier League history.

From there, kill the game. Smother it with a pillow rather than kill it with fire. Coutinho replaced Sterling, keeping the same formation but with fresh legs in the crucial middle of the pitch. There were a couple of United half-chances, but determined Liverpool blocked shots rather than Mignolet saves, and a couple of wayward shots. Liverpool looked, but weren't quite able, to counter when given the chance, the best opportunity from a Gerrard shot from distance deflected just wide. Clattenburg also had yet another opportunity to send off Rafael for a bookable offense, as the Brazilian did everything but wear a "PLEASE SEND ME OFF, MARK" sign around his neck.

And then one of those few counters came to fruition. Fortunately so. Sturridge released into space, one-on-one with Vidic, the Serbian diving into the tackle but not making contact with either Sturridge or the ball, but Sturridge plummeting like a sack of bricks. I just feel so terrible for United's bad luck. Unlike Rafael, it's acceptable to give Vidic a second yellow, the fourth time he's been sent off against Liverpool, and the best possible way to mark his last United match against Liverpool. Gerrard at the spot, De Gea diving the wrong way, but the ball cannoning off the foot of the post rather than nestling in the back of the net. Drat. A penalty hat-trick would have been one hell of a memory, but it's not as if it mattered to the final result, especially with United down to 10 men.

And Liverpool put the man advantage to full use. Sturridge could have won two more penalties, both better shouts than the one he got, but Clattenburg couldn't and wouldn't give a fourth spot kick. De Gea made a miraculous save on Suarez, but was then beaten from the same position a minute later by the same player: Sturridge's throughball, Evra playing Suarez onside, an unstoppable close range blast for Liverpool's third. To see out the match, both Coutinho and Henderson spurned chances for The Dossena Fourth™.

That's consecutive 3-0 victories away from Anfield, and consecutive clean sheets away from Anfield.

I can't write enough plaudits for Liverpool's midfield. Both Gerrard and Allen were outstanding – either could be man of the match; I honestly can't decide. Allen's movement was outstanding, both with the ball and when defending and pressing without it. Gerrard kept Rooney quiet for long stretches and contributed the two goals. Henderson Honey-Badgered up, down, and across the pitch, while Sterling reveled in the unfamiliar role as playmaker. That's three positions – winger, right back, and #10 – where he's impressed this season. Again, I'll remind that he's just 19 years old.

But just as much credit (or blame, depending on your persuasion) goes to just how terrible United were. Medieval tactics compared to Liverpool's, awkward and dispassionate performances from United's stars, a rickety defense (both aging and rash) exposed, Fellaini and Carrick completely losing the midfield battle.

The one pre-match worry, especially if Liverpool persisted with the midfield diamond, was United's comparative strength and depth attacking down the flanks. But United couldn't even cross adequately – the one and often only thing they've done competently this season. Attempting 20, completing five, leading to three chances. Two of those chances came from corners, and none felt truly threatening. Allen and Henderson spread wide to support their fullbacks without fail, and both did so impressively, while Johnson and Flanagan did enough: the former still finding his feet after an extended injury, the latter restricted by an early yellow card which he dealt with admirably.

Oh how the mighty have fallen. And with nine games left, Liverpool are staring a chance at greatness straight in the face.


Pablo said...

good as always, Nate.
One thing, Vidic is Serbian. Unless you cheekily meant that he Skrtel'd that penalty.

Anonymous said...

Great article, posted on Reddit for you.


Obadayo said...

Good one... expect I don't agree Sterling "impressed". Actually, I absolutely disagree.

Mike Georger said...

Sterling was instrumental in clogging up the middle by being able to get back so fast. The absolute thievery of a tackle he made right before being subbed off might have overtaken his charge on Balotelli as my favorite non sequitor moment of his career.

Anonymous said...

Big win today. One down, nine to go. We've got 11 guys playing for each other and 7 guys on the bench cheering for the boys on the field. Even Aspas's girlfriend is doing what she can to spur team morale by wearing those hot dresses to the birthday parties. This is a team.

Stevie played with the heart of a lion today. He did everything. Pressed, tackled, blocked shots, jailed Rooney, put hits on Jones and Fellaini, moved constantly, showed for the ball, passed brilliantly, and of course buried those pens that mattered. Fellaini wasn't so keen on throwing those elbows after Stevie laid him out. Jones got the message too on his early hit on that 50/50 ball.

The midfield played well today, led by Stevie's example. Allen pressed like a little terrier and passed really well. 91% (40/44) passing and 7/9 tackles. He was all over the place. In a good/big way. And of course the pen that he won was a big play for the game. Beat Jones to the spot with the chest trap and Phil just had to keep going, like a bull in a china shop.

Our defense really stepped up too. United never really threatened our goal. Rooney had their one shot on target. They had 13 shots, but 6 were blocked and 3 were from long range. Mig didn't even get his jersey dirty. I have never ever seen DAgger so vocal in a match. He marshaled that back line the entire game like a champ. He had them holding the offside line beautifully. How many times was RvP offside to kill a play? That takes the heart right out of a team. Work your ass off and get into dangerous positions to see an offside flag go up.

Moyes has sucked the soul right out of that team. Very little fight, no belief, nobody stepping up, no heart, lacking teamwork. They play tentatively, nervously, afraid of what might happen. RvP is looking like a player whose career is almost over. They go down and then look shattered. Word is the Glazers are mightily impressed with his scouting reports and implementation. Maybe they'll offer Kroos £400K/wk. Not sure he'll think that's enough scratch given United's recent tribulations.

Maybe they should make Moyes chief scout and Phil Neville manager? Let's see what Keano thinks.