UNITED FINDING BALANCE
Following their 3-3 draw away at Newcastle in midweek there was a sense that Manchester United’s approach of dominating possession without creating clear-cut chances was a thing of the past. Yeah, about that.
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On Sunday at Anfield against Liverpool, Louis Van Gaal‘s side failed to register a single shot in the first half as they eased themselves into the game and once again failed to dominate possession but grabbed the 1-0 win they so desperately wanted. Against Newcastle they looked more potent in attack on the counter, but looked dodgy at the back. Despite struggling to cope with Liverpool’s interchanging front quintet in the first half and at the start of the second, United looked more solid in defense — with the brilliant David De Gea pulling off two superb stops in the second half and one in the first — and when the chance to grab a huge three points presented itself their in-form skipper and talisman pounced to bury their only shot on target.
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Wayne Rooney has now scored in four-straight games and has five goals across those outings after going six games without a goal for the Red Devils. The last time the lad from Liverpool — a lifelong Everton fan who grew up just a few miles from Anfield — scored at Liverpool for United it was 2005 and his side won 1-0. Lightning struck twice as the goal was also Rooney’s 176th goal for United in the Premier League, which is the most by any individual player for one club in league history.
It’s no surprise that Rooney’s return to form has coincided with United finding a better balance between defense and attack. Lambasted for months due to their boring play in midfield and attack, LVG is finally getting the balance right. For most of the game on Sunday it wasn’t pretty but it was certainly steadier than their midweek draw at Newcastle and the three points takes them to withing touching distance of the top four following four games without defeat.
FLUIDITY FLUMMOXES UNITED
The flexibility of Liverpool’s 4-2-3-1 formation flummoxed Manchester United for most of the game on Sunday with runners from midfield getting in-behind and jostling with United’s defenders far too often. Lucas Leiva, the type of player made for derby battles like this, clipped over a perfect ball in the 10th minute for Adam Lallana to run on to but the English midfielder finished tamely as De Gea saved and Roberto Firmino‘s follow-up skimmed the post and went wide. Lallana, 27, gets into great positions but just doesn’t score enough goals. That incident summed him up. Jordan Henderson also went close again in the first half as more lovely interplay between himself, Lallana and Firmino saw him drag his shot wide of the far post. Throughout the first half United just couldn’t get to grips with the fluidity and movement of Liverpool’s midfield and Firmino ghosting between a false nine position and out wide.
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Morgan Schneiderlin and Maroune Fellaini were camped on the edge of their own box and in the second half things didn’t improve for the Red Devils. Firmino and Lallana combined to set up Emre Can and his low shot flicked De Gea’s leg and squirmed wide as the Kop urged it in.
In the end, Liverpool had to resort to Plan B and bring in Christian Benteke — and then Steven Caulker in an emergency role — who nodded down balls and caused a nuisance of himself in the final 10 minutes but to no avail. As you can see from the stat above, scoring goals remains a problem for Jurgen Klopp‘s side despite all of their ingenuity and endeavor in the final third. Daniel Sturridge returning to fitness is key if they’re going to finish the season strong to try and claim a top four spot and win some silverware in the cup competitions. Liverpool’s inventiveness was impressive but their wasteful nature, once again, was not.
TOP FOUR DREAMS HEADING IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS
Yes, there are still 15 games to go this season but on this showing both teams seem to be thinking about finishing in the top four, rather than busting a gut to do it. United are now just two points off fourth-place Tottenham Hotspur, while Liverpool are now eight points behind. With Spurs, Leicester City and even the likes of Stoke City and Crystal Palace around them continuing to push on, these perennial giants of English soccer can’t afford to sit back and drop points. This victory for United will no doubt breath new life into their campaign while also handing Liverpool a reality check.
Despite the Red Devils coming out on top, just, both teams must take more initiative going forward. With both Klopp and Louis van Gaal under pressure to return these huge clubs to past glories (more on that in the video above) the time is now. Finishing in the top four is certainly not out of the question for either club, especially when they both get their full-strength defenses back, but as is the case in many of these battles between bitter rivals, we got a slow burner which never truly ignited as only one early flash-point occurred between Lucas and Fellaini and that was that. Both teams seemed to be scared to lose until United, finally, stepped things up in the second half.
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At this point of the season, where the halfway point is in the rear-view mirror and the Spring will arrive quickly, time is of the essence and United seemed more desperate and delivered Van Gaal’s fourth win from four PL games against their bitter rivals. That should buy him some more time as the long-term concerns over their style of play will evaporate as the red half of Manchester revels in their latest win over Liverpool.