By Alywin Chew
Ah, yes. Manchester United, this is how you play football. This is what a North West Derby should be like.
Five goals, four yellow cards and a bunch of hard, untimely tackles meant that this latest duel between the two arch rivals was a far more watchable affair, but the truth was that this wasn’t the sort of thriller that would go down in the history books as a classic.
As the score line suggests, both teams turned up and played attacking football with none of that parking the bus nonsense witnessed during their previous match at Anfield on 18 January.
But this FA Cup tie was ultimately decided more by textbook errors than incisive attacking. It also showed how desperately Liverpool miss their injured players.
Liverpool drew first blood and broke their scoring duck in the 18th minute when Roberto Firmino threaded a gorgeous through ball that found Mo Salah, who beat Dean Henderson with a deft chip. The pass itself looked to be an affirmation for Jurgen Klopp’s insistence on fielding the Brazilian despite his dismal scoring record. But that was about all Firmino could muster at Old Trafford.
I suspect many Liverpool fans are getting increasingly tired of his attempted back heels and cheeky flicks. What is a forward if he cannot even muster a decent shot on goal?
In the 26th minute, Marcus Rashford thumped a long pass across the pitch. Had it been the towering Virgil van Dijk at the heart of defence, this cross would’ve easily been dealt with. The backtracking James Milner, however, misjudged the situation. He jumped. He missed. The effervescent Mason Greenwood converted clinically.
Buoyed by this goal, Man United went for the jugular. But the prideful visitors insisted on playing their risky high line. It isn’t uncommon to see Liverpool stick to their guns, but doing so with youngster Rhys Williams at centre-back was probably not the best of ideas.
Though he might have impressed on his previous outings with the first team, it became more and more obvious as the game progressed that Liverpool’s young centre-back was clearly out of his depth against the likes of seasoned teams like United.
United exploited the high line with long balls into the final third. The one that Williams had to deal with was not something that was particularly awkward, but his scuffed clearance meant that Rashford, who had been a constant threat throughout the match, was able to latch onto the free ball and make Liverpool pay.
Williams had a game to forget. This was just one of several mistakes the young defender made. Later in the game, a sliding tackle that completely missed it mark left Rashford free to charge into the penalty area. Mishandling the ball in the final minutes of the game also nearly gave United the chance to score their fourth.
The Red Devils themselves weren’t exempt from errors. Just like in the previous derby on Jan 18, attempts to play the ball out from the back did not always work out. Except this time around Salah was on hand to penalise the mistake.
At 2-2 and with about 30 minutes left to play, both managers opted to bring on their super subs. Bruno Fernandes and Sadio Mane injected much-needed vitality to each side’s offensive endeavours, but it was the former who shone the brightest.
Following a careless takedown by Fabinho on the edge of the penalty area, Fernandes whipped his freekick into Alisson’s left corner in the 78th minute.
Even I clapped at the goal.
Liverpool never looked like they were going to respond again. Unlike the previous record-breaking season, the veneer of invincibility the reigning league champions once had was absent. The seemingly unshakable belief that they once tapped on to carve out a late goal was noticeably missing, too. There was no sense of urgency as the clock ticked down. The slew of wayward passes did not help either.
When the final whistle was blown, I couldn’t help but feel that United’s decision to play it tight at back cost them two points at Anfield a week ago. This FA Cup tie clearly highlighted the vulnerability of Liverpool’s defensive game. After all, they are missing not one, but both of their regular centre-backs.
The absence of Jordan Henderson and Joel Matip in this FA Cup tie should also be cause for concern. Were they simply being rested? Or have they again picked up new injuries?
One thing is clear, it’s open season on Liverpool. Other teams should be encouraged by United’s display. The Red Devils have shown that parking the bus against Liverpool isn’t the only option. Go forth in search of goals. Exploit the severely weaken defence and you could get three points instead of just one.
Liverpool’s upcoming fixtures include games against Tottenham, Manchester City, Leicester and Everton – many Liverpool fans would shudder at the thought of playing these teams given the team’s current state. Some fans would say it is utter bad luck that Liverpool is engulfed by an injury crisis and a dip in form at this critical point in the season.
Could emergency transfers mitigate some of this bad luck? Perhaps. But what is more important at the moment is rediscovering that belief which made them champions.
A failure to do so before this Friday’s game against Spurs could very well mean the ignominy of being out of the title race this early in the season.