It’s often more difficult to accomplish a task when you go into it expecting things to happen in a certain way or when you go into it expecting an outcome because that’s what has happened many, many times before. I’m wondering whether we’re in that state with games at Old Trafford. We’ve won twice there in the last 15 years (3-0 in 2014 and the 4-1 beatdown in 2009.) True, many of those times have been instances where ManU was the superior side, but almost as many have been situations where they weren’t. Today was one of those times and perhaps the clearest of them, given the two clubs’ respective positions in the league and the general trend that they’ve both been following in the past three years. This was our game to win and for most of the first 60 minutes, we played it slowly and poorly and as if we expected the win to come to us. United, for their part, played it like a cup final. Thus, when we scraped out a 1-1 draw, it was actually a credit to us that we were able to get it, since we let an inferior side outplay us for the majority of the match. The fact that it was Adam Lallana, of all players, who got the equalizer just about sums up that whole situation. It’s as if the team has a mental block about playing at ManU, even when we probably should be running riot. Last year was the same way, in which United were riven by injuries and had to use all of their subs in the first half, but we still couldn’t make anything happen.
And, yes, the officiating situation might also be part of a behavioral issue. Martin Atkinson, who I normally consider one of the more competent among Premier League officials, did not have a great game. (Only too appropriately, Solskjaer declared Atkinson the “man of the match.” You’re doing that ManU legacy proud, Ole!) Atkinson will usually call a game loosely, as he’s one of the “let the lads play” guys, but he’s usually pretty consistent. Fouls get ignored on both ends and by both sides. But not today. Liverpool has the second-lowest number of fouls/game this season, at 8.75. We had the lowest number last season, at 8.29. We’re won the fair play award for fewest cards for three years running. But today, we supposedly committed 14 fouls to ManU’s… six. The most hilarious example of said inconsistency was when Henderson was taken down from behind outside ManU’s box and there was no call. Not one minute later, Fabinho took down Pereira in our half. Yellow card.
Now, the key officiating event that most are concerned with is what happened to Origi right before Rashford’s goal that gave them the lead. Clearly, he was fouled by Lindelof. You can’t be partially fouled any more than you can be partially pregnant. You’re either fouled or you’re not. The VAR booth even took the time to review it… and, like usual, didn’t change anything. In direct contrast and perhaps because they can rely on the handball rule, rather than a judgment call (not always), Mané’s goal late in the first half was overruled because the ball hit his hand, however inadvertently, and he could have been controlling it. Despite them seeing the same events that we’re seeing, the booth officials consistently(!) refuse to suggest not even that the official reverse a call, but even that he take a moment to look at it again to be sure that he was right.
As I’ve said more than once before in this space, the increasing suspicion is not that it’s what I’m suggesting now- a behavioral instinct/mental block that keeps the booth from questioning the authority of the official on the pitch, despite clear visual evidence -but instead a deliberate plan by the league to make VAR such a sideshow that it will eventually be dismissed as a tool in the game. At this point, we’re nearing the point where that’s the only feasible explanation; not that they’re incompetent, but that they’re deliberately disinterested. Thankfully, we know that LFC’s squad wasn’t deliberately taking the game casually, but it sure would be nice to see them walk into that stadium breathing fire and ready to knock things over more than once every decade or so.
Speaking of blocks, the former biggest club in England plays like Burnley.
Fer reals. Who would ever have thought that Manchester United would sit in a low block and try to beat the other team on the counter? It’s like playing someone in the bottom half of the table or something…
Certainly, part of my frustration comes from the fact that we played like shit for long stretches of the game, as the diagram above will display. One difficulty in playing Burnley United is that we tend to like to play in the wide spaces, so that Robbo and Trent have room to launch crosses into the box or try to trade balls in deep areas with Mané and Salah. But defending that kind of play is one of the things that ManU actually does well in their 3-5-2, with Ashley Young and Aaron Wan-Bissaka playing as wingbacks to cover those channels where our fullbacks and wingers like to move. Ordinarily, the answer to that is to try to take advantage of what can be overloads in the middle third if their wingbacks are pinned back, so that we can get some movement in the center. And we did get some, with Fabinho continuing his steady play, but mostly on our end of the field. Gini also had some great runs and some space that let him get the first shot off, but then they packed it in and both Gini and Bob were kind of removed as threatening elements.
In a rare demonstration of frustration, Klopp decided to begin substituting earlier than usual, bringing Ox on for Origi and changing our usual 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. Origi had played well, but Ox’s speed was probably an asset that Klopp wanted to introduce. This was followed by Lallana for Hendo (who doesn’t function really well pushed high on the right and had been having one of the more obvious subpar games) and finally Keita for Gini, perhaps in an effort to see what the latter could provide on the offensive end. Shortly after his introduction, a little shake-and-bake gave him some space to deliver a ball to Robbo who promptly put it through to Lallana for the equalizer. So, all of the subs had real impact, which is not something that can often be said when we’re tossing guys on for a desultory five minutes. (I mean, Lallana didn’t do much more than the goal, but it’s a GOAL and he was in the right place at the right time, which is no small thing.) Ox had a couple shots that only narrowly missed the target and Keita completed 22/25 passes in only 12 minutes of action. If he can finally stay healthy… Klopp even said that he might have put Keita on too late.
Something else that might have cracked the egg in the first half would, of course, have been having access to Mo Salah (duh.) But what compounded that is not having Xherdan Shaqiri. With the latter, we don’t turn into as much a different team as we do with Origi. The latter played well, but he’s the most different out of our six forwards (the 3 usual suspects, him, Shaq, and Brewster.) When Origi is on, we’re simply playing a different game. If we’d been able to put Shaq on the left to start the game and then bring Divock on with 20 minutes to go as Klopp often likes to do in order to save Bob’s legs, we might have ended up with a different shock to the system that their 3-5-2 might not have been as prepared for. As it is, we still almost broke through more than once. Maybe that’s enough to ensure that Keita and Ox begin getting more starter’s minutes? We’ll see.
Next up: Genk, because it’s Genk. You know… Genk. Then we get the model of disarray in Tottenham Hotspur on the weekend. At least it’s at Anfield.