A selection of results from the last two weeks: Liverpool 2-5 Real Madrid. Manchester United 2-1 Barcelona. Real Madrid 0-1 Barcelona. Liverpool 7-0 Manchester United. Imagine trying to understand this nonsense for a living.
Ian Graham, director of research at Liverpool FC, has been doing just that for the past 11 years. Maybe he’s had enough: he’s already announced he’s leaving Liverpool at the end of the season. He has seen much this season that is hard to explain. Last week, Graham told the FT Business of Football conference that analysis of the underlying data suggested to him that Liverpool were better than their results so far this season. “I’m not suggesting our performance was good against Real Madrid,” Graham said, “but some of those goals had large elements of luck or unexplained variants included in them.”
You wonder what Graham means by the phrase “unexplained variants”. Maybe he has in mind things like Fred’s wandering too far wide and then slipping as he tried to recover for Cody Gakpo’s first goal. Maybe he means things like Luke Shaw’s clearance going straight to Harvey Elliott for Liverpool’s second, or Darwin Nuñez’s aimless ball being turned into an assist for Mohamed Salah via a deflection off Scott McTominay, or Shaw’s attempted clearance ricocheting off Roberto Firmino to Salah for Liverpool’s sixth.
It was one of those crazy matches, like the Liverpool-Madrid game, when a team hits a groove where everything seems to fly in. We have seen David De Gea have games where he seems to be in the way of every shot. This was the opposite: eight shots on target, seven goals, the last through De Gea’s legs.
And yet the result was not merely a matter of luck, or seven bounces of the ball going Liverpool’s way. On a night when Anfield showed its appreciation for the soon-to-depart Firmino, one of his successors, Gakpo, showed that the future might actually be worth looking forward to. Gakpo’s clean technique and tireless running dovetailed with the pesky persistence of Nuñez and the skill and desire of Salah, the best player on the pitch.
This was probably Salah’s best performance since 2021, and certainly his best since last July, when he signed a new contract to become Liverpool’s best-paid player. Too often since then he has played as though he has strapped his wages to his body under his kit, but on Sunday he scored twice, assisted twice, and his all-round game was immense. There was a moment in the first half when Bruno Fernandes isolated Trent Alexander-Arnold – but there was Salah, in the right-back zone, supporting his team-mate and winning the ball back. “Chase them from behind” has been a key principle of Liverpool’s play that has been absent too many times this season; here was evidence that the team’s biggest star is still prepared to submit to the system.
Correspondingly, there were some real worries for United. The overriding problem was a lack of energy, presumably related to the team’s frenetic recent schedule, but that doesn’t excuse some of what went on in the second half. The third and fourth goals came direct from counterattacks following United corners, when Liverpool stormed up the field and most of the United players didn’t follow. This is why when Sky asked the United coach if “embarrassing” was too strong a word, he replied that his team had been “really unprofessional”, which sounds far stronger.
United’s coach compounded the problems with errors of his own. With Alexander-Arnold’s defensive struggles now a multiyear global saga, everyone expected Marcus Rashford to be attacking him down United’s left. But Ten Hag chose to play Rashford as the central striker with Wout Weghorst behind, Fernandes to the left and Antony on the right. Rashford did have one sight of goal when running through on to a diagonal ball from the left and Antony had one shot from his characteristic position to the left of the D, but otherwise they achieved nothing.
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Fernandes had a terrible game, but you have at least seen him have good ones. Can the same be said of Weghorst? When United signed the 6ft 6 striker on loan from Besiktas it looked like a good idea to add a new kind of option to the squad. You could imagine Weghorst in a supporting role, as a player the manager turns to in particular situations when the team needs a change of approach. This was how Louis van Gaal used him for the Netherlands in the World Cup.
Instead, Weghorst has started every game since his arrival. He won plaudits for his performance in an unusually withdrawn position in the 2-2 draw away to Barcelona, without doing anything really outstanding besides looking exceptionally tall and spindly for a midfielder. These positive reviews recalled the Dr Johnson line about a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Weghorst endears himself to supporters by playing with energy, determination and obvious pride in the shirt, but these should be the minimum requirements for any Manchester United player. Rather than turn Weghorst into a cult hero for his game efforts, United need to find someone better in that position.
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Ten Hag’s other mistake was the negative overall approach to the game, summed up by United’s time-wasting at a series of first-half goal kicks. The idea was presumably to slow the game, drain Liverpool’s momentum and quieten the crowd. In practice the effect was to whip up the crowd while handing the initiative to Liverpool. It seemed a major misreading of the occasion from the United manager, tactics more appropriate to a smaller club facing peak Klopp-era Liverpool, rather than for a supposedly resurgent Manchester United against the current inconsistent side. Instead of trying to frustrate Liverpool with spoiling tactics, United should have gone looking for the glass jaw that Real Madrid, Brighton and Wolves have all recently exposed. Tactics designed to frustrate and annoy have their place, but when you go one-nil down the negative mentality can be hard to reverse.