I’ll get straight to the point: not enough has been said about Liverpool’s defensive solidity against Manchester United at Anfield last week.
I know. It’s not a popular view. Not for a team that has a well-earned reputation for conceding soft goals.
But the clean sheet on Saturday wasn’t just down to Man Utd’s pragmatic approach. All the talk has centered on another defensive “masterpiece” by Jose Mourinho, and it’s fair to say United defended resolutely and made it really tough for Liverpool – as they should.
Mourinho was happy to sit deep and take the point – just as he had last year when he was rather self-congratulatory after another goalless draw. But what’s been lost in all the analysis is that United did not plan to sit back and defend quite as much as they ultimately had to.
Why do I say that? Well for one thing, United pushed forward early on and appeared to target Alberto Moreno at left back, looking to double Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young on the Spaniard. The game’s first probing attacks came down that flank, with Dejan Lovren twice clearing Young crosses and Jordan Henderson having to track back to block another. Even the peripheral Romelu Lukaku whipped one cross over from that flank after outwitting Lovren.
United’s other ploy was the long ball from the back, either towards the towering Lukaku, or again down Liverpool’s left flank in attempt to take advantage of Moreno’s height disadvantage. This didn’t work out quite as planned; Lovren stifled Lukaku competently and Moreno proved rather adequate against Young.
Mourinho had deployed a similar plan last year, when he gleefully explained how he had given Liverpool nothing to press, but without the injured pair of Paul Pogba and Maroune Fellaini, there were fewer targets to hit, and for all his height and bulk, Lukaku isn’t quite as adept as Ibrahimovic with his back to goal.
Still, United have already shown this season that they can pass the ball when they want to, and their one chance of the game came when a rapid passing combination involving Anthony Martial and the otherwise anonymous Henrikh Mkhitaryan carved an opening for Lukaku that was well saved by Simon Mignolet.
So, Liverpool in the first half, found answers to United’s early threat down their left flank, took care of the long ball to Lukaku down the middle, and Joe Gomez kept Martial under wraps on the other flank. Defending isn’t only about hasty clearances, timely tackles and blocks on the edge of the penalty box.
Klopp’s Liverpool prefer to do their defending higher up the field, pressing quickly after losing possession and denying opponents the time and space to progress up the field. There were signs of this in the first half – like when Moreno chased back to halt a Lukaku break, or when Joel Matip and Henderson halted Lukaku’s progress down the left – but this really came to the fore in the second half when, after an early flurry down that left flank, United could hardly muster an attack of note. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. Liverpool just wouldn’t let them out of their own half.
The best example of this came when Nemanja Matic, after winning possession and looking to progress play, was quickly chased down and dispossessed by Roberto Firmino, Henderson and Phillipe Coutinho. Later, Emre Can’s timely tackle snuffed out an attempted counter in the center circle, and when Martial chased down another promising loose ball, Gomez and Matip stepped in to nip it in the bud.
Even when Moreno went flying forward and Young tried to take the ball down that flank, Henderson was quick to step in and put paid to that. Not one of those interventions was within 20 yards of the Liverpool box – most were in United’s half – but it was good defending nonetheless.
Mourinho, at the end, alluded to his expectation that Liverpool would ultimately gamble more as the game wore on – that is, take off one their midfielders – and allow his team a bit more room to hit them on the break. Klopp wouldn’t bite though.
He chose to maintain the balance that had given his side control, if not the lead they desired and deserved even. Perhaps on another day, without the World Cup qualifying travel of the previous week, and without Champions League three days later, he may well have risked more and left his first choice strike force in the game longer. Who knows?
It wasn’t the most ambitious of games plans from Mourinho and Man Utd, but whatever limited ambition they had was very well stifled by Liverpool’s impressive defending all over the field.