22 March 2015

Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United

Mata 14' 59'
Sturridge 69'

There's a bit more nuance (and insanity) to it, but the short version is a version we've heard before. Liverpool lost the match in the first half and it's because United took their one chance and Liverpool put theirs wide.

It did not help that Manchester United's formation overwhelmed Liverpool's formation in midfield, allowing United to control proceedings, penning Liverpool back, and subsequently dragging the wing-backs out of position through Mata and Young's movement. And United pressed the way that Liverpool usually hope to press, ensuring Liverpool had no coherency in their own half and subsequently no coordination going forward. It was the first half at Swansea all over again except that United are just a bit stronger up front than last Monday's opponents. Credit to van Gaal for the game plan – I really wish United had waited a bit longer to get their act together and to remember that Juan Mata really is a quality footballer – and blame to Rodgers for not recognizing Liverpool's weaknesses against United's likely set-up, especially considering last week's match.

So it was little surprise that Liverpool's improvement coincided with a change a midfield, just as at Swansea: shifting to the diamond formation with Allen at the base, Lallana and Henderson as the shuttlers, and Coutinho at the apex. And it ultimately led to Liverpool's one first-half chance: pressing, winning possession, Henderson's early cross to Sturridge, Sturridge centering for Lallana's late run into the box. And Lallana, unmarked, side-footing wide from 15 yards. Sigh.

Then the second half happened. Well, Steven Gerrard happened, as Steven Gerrard rolled back the years. And not to the Gerrard who scored wonder goals and single-handedly dragged Liverpool to victory. The Steven Gerrard who was sent off in his second Merseyside Derby way back in 1999 due to sheer frustration and stupidity when Liverpool were losing, unable to control the emotion and aggression that often went on to serve him so well.

There's no excuse for his 48 seconds on the field: a rash challenge that could have been yellow followed by deliberate stamp directly on Herrera's ankle after the Spaniard's yellow card tackle on Gerrard. Liverpool's tactics completely thrown out the window, Liverpool's captain sent off, Liverpool forced to scramble when down a man and behind by a goal in a match they simply had to win.

So when United scored a second in the 59th minute, a wonderful second from Mata, an acrobatic scissor kick when running behind Moreno for the second time, it seemed game over. It would not have been surprising to see Liverpool's heads drop and more goals imminent, at least replicating the scoreline from Old Trafford as Liverpool chased the game. Thankfully, that didn't happen, a small ray of unwarranted hope coming when Sturridge pulled one back in the 69th minute thanks to Coutinho's pressing and key pass coupled with a fortunate deflection off Phil Jones.

But Liverpool's simply couldn't threaten the most unlikely of equalizers, chances in the final 25 minutes limited to two easily cleared set plays and a cross headed behind with Balotelli lurking in the six-yard box. United should have added a third was Can brought down Blind in the box in the last minute of injury time, but Mignolet saved Rooney's spot kick to complete the unbelievable, absurd, completely-lacking-in-quality madness which was the second half.

That second half? Gerrard's red card. Jones getting yellow for what was a red card-worthy tackle on Henderson. Balotelli (on a substitute in the 65th) needing to be held back by Liverpool fans to keep from picking up a second yellow when confronting Smalling. Mignolet rolling around when kicked by Rooney in an attempt to get him sent off. Mignolet and Can nutmegging two pressing United players when trying to pass out from the back, both attempting their best Messi impression in their own penalty box. Skrtel apparently stamping on De Gea in the final seconds of the match (I would not be surprised to see retrospective action on that). Rooney's missed penalty. And other than that penalty and the two goals, there were literally zero chances to speak of in the second half, with the two sides combining for just six second-half shots, leading to the joint-fewest shots in a Premiership match this season. Both sides completely lacking in quality.

It was bonkers and bad and it was very much a Liverpool-United match.

And thus, Liverpool are seemingly knocked out of Champions League contention the same way they've been knocked out of Rodgers' two European campaigns: a horrific start overflowing with idiocy followed by a valiant but futile final effort. It happened against Zenit, against Basel, against Besiktas, and now it's happened against United.

Five points behind United, six behind Arsenal, and seven behind City with eight games to play. It's Liverpool's first league loss since December – you may remember who that loss came against – but Liverpool's league position prior to that means there's probably too much ground to make up. Sure, stranger things have happened, but this was a match that Liverpool needed to win and now it's completely out of Liverpool's hands.

And all Liverpool can do is try to pick themselves up for an on-fire Arsenal after a very unwelcome international break.


Stephen said...

Great summary Nate. I want to emphasize a point you made at the top. Why doesn't Brendan doesn't start us in a diamond instead of a box in midfield? It was always to be a tactical chess match with van Gaal and, despite the Swansea experience, despite the fact we you knew Fellaini would impose himself, Brendan still chooses 3x2 in the middle of the park. Also, if u r to start with a box, why not swap Raheem with Lallana from the off? It would have at least forced Carrick to sit back a bit. Even if he wanted to try the box at the start, Brendan should have been concerned about this and made the switch to diamond sooner.

Zētētikos said...

You forgot di Maria catching the ball in-bounds in your second half comedy/horror reel. That was the best.

I always enjoy your match summaries, Nate. I've read three today before yours, and this is the first one that mentioned Brendan's tactical switch in the first half beyond saying something vague, like 'it seemed better after 20 minutes.' You always have intelligent things to say about the way we set up and the way we play. Thanks.

Phil said...

Awesome recap. Thanks for always providing an intelligence tactical review that you just don't find many other places.

I also think Stephen's question is pretty key. I didn't see the Swansea match so I wasn't as attuned to why the 3-4-2-1 didn't work. 3-4-2-1 didn't work, but I understand why Rodgers went with it. It seemed to me that United were very good at stretching the Liverpool midfield by playing long diagonal balls that pushed Henderson/Allen farther and farther away from Coutinho/Lallana and turned a potential 4 v 3 midfield advantage into a 3 v 2 disadvantage. But few teams can do that effectively because you need accurate passers and someone to win headers. Plus it's hard to change a winning formula. It would have been very interesting to see what would have happened if it'd been 11 v 11 after Rodgers made the switch to the diamond though.