Liverpool take advantage of woeful Manchester United
Failure to score more the only regret as Jürgen Klopp’s side dominate at Anfield
Liverpool Roberto Firmino shoots past Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea to score his team’s second goal during the Europa League round of 16 first-leg match at Anfield. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
The only possible regret for Liverpool is that they did not make it an even more chastening experience for the team that, even in decline, has rarely put in such an undistinguished performance.
Liverpool were so relentlessly superior, passing up so many chances and denied more times than they will care to remember by David de Gea, the harsh reality for Manchester United is they could conceivably have lost by a more punishing score.
It was harrowing enough, on the ground of their sworn enemy, but perhaps a few of Louis van Gaal’s players might have to be reminded about the history of sporting enmity between these clubs. There was only one team that seemed to comprehend what was expected of them. They had a liverbird on their shirts and they will take great joy from the way they outplayed the side they love to beat the most.
It has certainly been a long time since You’ll Never Walk Alone has been sung with the volume and heartfelt continuity, with the final verse on repeat, as the version that ushered the teams on to the pitch. One banner in the Kop bore the words: “European Royalty.” Others showed Liverpool’s haul of five European Cups and three Uefa Cups. These are the moments when Anfield feels like a special place and, for the most part, nobody could ever accuse the team of failing to understand the importance of the fixture.
Aside from one moment early on, when Jürgen Klopp leapt from his dugout to berate Alberto Moreno for not closing down quickly enough, there was a vibrancy about the players in red that made it difficult at times for their opponents to settle.
The noise might have still been doused inside the opening 15 seconds if Marcus Rashford had read the trajectory of Memphis Depay’s cross with an opportunity to open the scoring before most of the players had even touched the ball. Rashford, talented yet raw, seemed taken aback that the ball had bypassed a couple of defenders and made a hash of his shot. The chance was skewed wide and United, playing for long spells with little momentum or cohesion, will be left to reflect how a goal at that early stage might have changed the night.
Instead, Liverpool came out with the energy and vigour that Klopp considers essential from his teams and, crucially, they also had players who could add a touch of wit and refinement to their attacks. Roberto Firmino’s exquisite little pass in the build-up to the penalty, clipping the ball into Nathaniel Clyne’s path with the outside of his right boot, was a case in point. Firmino weighted the ball beautifully and Depay’s habit of making costly mistakes has been a feature of his first season in English football. The Spanish referee, Carlos Carballo, was guided by one of his assistants and Daniel Sturridge managed to get the penalty past David de Gea despite United’s goalkeeper getting his fingertips to the ball.
By half-time, Liverpool really ought to have been further ahead and United were indebted to De Gea for preventing the night from turning into a full-on ordeal. De Gea was exposed with a frequency that must have alarmed Van Gaal and the Spaniard saved his team three more times before the interval, keeping out Philippe Coutinho, Sturridge and Adam Lallana.
The save from Coutinho, in particular, was outstanding, sprawling at full length to claw away the Brazilian’s shot when a goal seemed inevitable. Coutinho could have given the goalkeeper no chance if he had gone for Sturridge’s cross with his left foot, rather than improvising with his right, and there was certainly an argument that Liverpool were generous with their finishing at times.
United played with so little control in that period Van Gaal abandoned his 4-1-4-1 system and removed Rashford at half-time. Michael Carrick, a central midfielder by trade, was brought on to play in a new three-man defence. Daley Blind and Guillermo Varela took on the role of wing-backs while Depay moved into attack in a hastily cobbled together 3-4-1-2 formation.
Tactically, it felt like an admission from Van Gaal that it had been completely wrong in the first half. Yet he also needed his players to start taking more responsibility on the ball. These are the occasions when a team needs sturdy characters and the awkward truth for United is that for long spells they were found wanting.
Van Gaal had won his four previous encounters against Liverpool but his players barely troubled Simon Mignolet, Liverpool’s goalkeeper, throughout the opening hour. Their use of the ball was poor and the story of their night also encompassed the kind of songs from the away end that United have repeatedly asked their fans to drop from their repertoire.
Liverpool did everything their supporters could have wanted and if it was not for De Gea’s goalkeeping they would surely have won more convincingly. As it is, they have put themselves in a position of command. Anfield has not sounded so good at any other point this season and, on this evidence, they will have to be strong favourites to finish the job at Old Trafford.
Yet it was a wretched mistake from Carrick before the second goal. His misplaced pass went straight to Lallana and Firmino turned in a shot from close range.