Liverpool 3-1 Manchester United: Super-sub Shaqiri makes the difference against Mourinho's men
If ever Manchester United need a reality check, they’d remember the evening at Anfield where even if the scoreboard doesn’t suggest so, Liverpool simply steamrolled their fierce rivals. Mustering 36 shots with 11 of them on target not only pronounced Liverpool’s dominance but also spoke volumes of United’s new series of dismal performances.
In the process, the Red Devils are now 19 points behind leaders Liverpool, but, most importantly, languishing 11 points from Champions League qualification next season. While Jurgen Klopp tweaked his formation a little, starting Mane and Salah upfront with Firmino through the middle, Mourinho was forced to bring in Eric Bailly in place of the injured Smalling.
And, the output was evident soon enough with the hosts rolling out the favorite Anfield tactic of sustained, often wild pressure. Salah, the repeat offender, once sniffing any opportunity, was off in a flash, while Mane too regularly sprung the defense with his pace and guile.
Firmino, deployed as a false-nine, was equally potent, playing the playmaker's role, dropping deep and providing the incisive through-balls. This left United chasing the ball from the word go and the most disappointing part for Jose Mourinho must be that they did not have the wit or creativity to conjure up a single clear chance.
Forget penetrating the Liverpool defense, the majority of the match was being played out in the United half. This frequently left Lukaku and Co. looking far too timid to get behind that high line. United seemed to largely rely on long balls which either their front-line failed to grab or went astray.
Manchester United seemed to be wilting in the face of Liverpool’s intense press and attacking flair. Considering United generally like to monopolize possession and play with a defensive-minded approach, and here, holding the ball for just 35.5% of the match beggared belief.
In fairness, the Liverpool midfield seemed to outplay their counterparts, particularly the uber-impressive Fabinho. The Brazilian was all over the pitch - be it pulling out crucial interceptions in the defensive half or surging ahead to feed crucial balls to the front-three. And, under similar circumstances, Liverpool broke through.
Fabinho, being provided acres of space around him, delivered an exquisite dink to find Mane who beat the offside trap, controlled with his chest and neatly finished through De Gea.
Apart from Lukaku’s offside goal in the 4th minute, there were only fleeting moments when Alisson had to be on his toes. Jurgen Klopp said he’d probably have paid his goalkeeper twice as much after Liverpool’s Champions League win over Napoli midweek. It didn’t make much sense though after Lukaku’s cross bounced out of his pouch as Lingard forced home from close range to ensure it was evenly matched at the break.
The visitors gained the ensuing momentum for a short while though, because barring Ashley Young, everyone failed to match Liverpool’s authoritative passing. The English full-back’s scuttling energy was one of the major positives from this game - the way he negated Salah and Clyne’s threat on the right, pulling out some exemplary tackles and blocks while at the same time, surging ahead to dispatch probing crosses.
Mourinho’s shift from 3-4-2-1 to 4-3-3 after the interval, bringing in Fellaini in place of Dalot too couldn’t compensate for Pogba’s absence in the midfield. Liverpool had too much class and pace all over the field to outmaneuver and close down United. The flanks, in particular, seemed to lit the evening up with Mane’s combination play with Robertson and Salah’s with Clyne being a treat to the eyes.
Darmian’s involvement was so fitful that Andrew Robertson was emboldened to make the attacking sallies down the Liverpool left. Not only did he display his attacking flair and vigil, but also cleared the lines effectively, the notable one being his all-important header to deny Fellaini what would have been a sure-shot goal.
Now, this is where the coaches earn their money. Klopp brought Shaqiri off the bench with 20 minutes of regular time remaining who went on to produce a perfect super-sub moment not once, but twice. Just when United seemed to be settling in for a draw, the hosts drummed up some tempo to their passing.
Sadio Mane’s dexterous ball manipulation proved to be good enough to get past Herrera on the edge of the box and with United failing to clear their lines meant the Swiss international got a chance to let a swish of his weaker right only to take a deflection off Young to beat De Gea in front of the Kop.
Martial was brought in to up the ante, but before he could run through his defender-spinning swivels, David de Gea was beaten for the second time in seven minutes. Mourinho cut a frustrating figure and appeared to age in his dugout at the glorious mess he was witnessing. Salah’s dummy let their prized substitute Shaqiri seal Liverpool’s win in this fixture for the first time since 16th March 2014, aided by another cruel deflection off Bailly.
What really set Liverpool apart was the intent and determination displayed right from the start, moving the ball in a manner of a side with serious aspirations to finish the season with Manchester City, not just Manchester United, in their rear view mirror. Even in the final exchanges, with the match already sealed, the high press had not diminished, the pace was right up there and it indeed summed up Liverpool’s performance this season.