Rashford, 20, tucked away his two chances superbly to put the hosts 2-0 up at Old Trafford and even though the visitors pressed hard and got back in it via Eric Bailly’s own goal, the hosts defended stoutly and held on for a precious three points.
Here’s a look at three things we learned about United from this performance:
PERFECT MOURINHO PERFORMANCE
United fans may not be totally enamoured by Jose Mourinho’s pragmatic style of play – even though his defensively-focused approach is still more entertaining to watch than David Moyes or Louis van Gaal’s football – but it’s hard not to be impressed by the Portuguese’s approach here.
This is how Mourinho would want his team to perform defensively every week – disciplined, rigid, determined and nearly impenetrable.
United’s defence has been solid under Mourinho during nearly two years in charge, but much of that has been down to the heroics and brilliance of David de Gea. Rarely has his back four bossed games and earned respect.
Yet, against a free-flowing team that usually score for fun, United nullified Liverpool, with the returning Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling commanding at the back.
Mourinho’s ploy was to let Liverpool have possession up until the final third and then swarm the 18-yard box, suffocating the spaces for the likes of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah – who was shut out completely, making fewer passes (20) than any other colleague in the starting 11 while his only shot came in the 96th minute.
FANS NEED TO RALLY BEHIND LOCAL BOY RASHFORD
United’s man for the big occasion delivered once again, and stuck it to his critics in the process. Rashford’s two goals were his first Premier League strikes since his equaliser in the Manchester derby against City on December 12 and just his second and third United goals of 2018. He likes the big stage, having scored against Arsenal, City, Chelsea and now Liverpool during his fledgling United career.
There’s a banner hanging at Old Trafford that reads ‘Just like Manchester, Rashford is Red’, yet one of the club’s own has been attracting most of the fans’ ire this season, particularly from those in his home city.
Rashford only left his teens behind in October and is still very much a work in progress, learning his craft. Yet some Red Devils fans unfairly expect him to deliver week in, week out.
Goals have dried up somewhat this season, while visible frustration has become commonplace on his face. But with his frightening pace, composure beyond his 20 years and ferocious work rate, the future is still dazzlingly bright for the Wythenshawe wonder boy.
NO POGBA, NO PROBLEM
Paul Pogba’s absence was the big talking point before kick-off, although Mourinho explained it was due to an unidentified injury sustained in training on Friday, which had been reported at the time.
It was perhaps a blessing in disguise as the Frenchman has struggled badly for form in the last month. Should it slightly alarm United fans that they were able to function – even thrive – without their best player? Yes and no. If the worst scenario possible unfolds and Pogba leaves Old Trafford for a second time this summer, it shows United can function without him.
With Pogba in the side and when Mourinho deploys a 4-3-3, both player and team play well – the 2-0 win over Everton in December proof of that.
But in Mourinho’s favoured 4-2-3-1, Pogba clearly struggles, while Scott McTominay has excelled in the two in front of the defence alongside Nemanja Matic.
If the manager continues to struggle to get the best out of his most talented player, that’s a worry. But as television pictures showed after the game, with Pogba and the Portuguese sharing an embrace as Mourinho was conducting an interview, all at least appears well between master and magician.
The visitors did pull a goal back in the second half when Sadio Mane’s cross was deflected in by Eric Bailly but the hosts still saw out the win.
The encounter served up an intriguing tactical battle between Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp. Here, we dissect the tactical inputs of both managers as the Portuguese emerged victorious at Old Trafford.
Goals – 2
Shots – 5
Possession – 32%
Tackles – 22
Dribbles – 6
Goals – 1
Shots – 14
Possession – 68%
Tackles – 16
Dribbles – 12
The United boss set his side up with in a 4-4-1-1 formation but as soon as they had the ball, that changed as Juan Mata drifted centrally. The double pivot of Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic ensured United remained compact without the ball.
Between Ashley Young (predominantly), Chris Smalling and one of either Matic or McTominay, Mohamed Salah was kept quiet while Liverpool’s counter-attacking threat was negated by United’s deep back-line. Meanwhile, Alexis Sanchez closed down spaces ahead of the central midfield two and held the ball up on the break.
Predictably, the German tactician didn’t stray from the 4-3-3 system that has blown away many an opposition this season. His side struggled to make their possession count in the first half though. In the second period, Liverpool began crossing the ball earlier and asked questions of the United defence.
Salah started to get into more central positions as well with Roberto Firmino’s movement into wide areas pulling defenders out of position. They threw numbers forward as the closing stages descended into a mad scramble, but to no avail.
TACTICAL TALKING POINTS
Liverpool’s young full-backs have been lauded for their attacking play but Mourinho certainly put their defensive prowess to the test. The diagonal ball was United’s go-to move to release Rashford down the left or Romelu Lukaku when he peeled off to the right.
Trent Alexander-Arnold was particularly targeted with the pace of Rashford who stole in behind him to latch onto Lukaku’s flicked header, cut in and score the opener. In Liverpool’s 4-3-3 system, the wide men aren’t going to support the full-backs and Mourinho took full advantage.
NEGATING THE PRESS
David De Gea’s kicking is nowhere near as bad as his pass accuracy of 25 per cent in this game suggests. However, the reason for the Spaniard’s insistence on going long was clear. One of Liverpool’s strongest assets is their high-press, the very same that made Klopp so successful at Borussia Dortmund.
Mourinho completely eliminated that particular threat by instructing his team to go long, deciding against playing out from the back almost entirely. In attack, Lukaku’s physicality made the long-ball game work, as evident in both goals.
Klopp has been accused of lacking a Plan B but in the second half, he did make a couple of changes that helped his side push United all the way. Neither Liverpool full-back had the best of games and were hooked with James Milner going to left-back and substitute Georginio Wijnaldum slotting in at right-back.
In possession though, both tucked in and operated as auxiliary central midfielders to ensure they dominated the ball and kept United pinned back while the forward players were able to whip balls into a box flooded with white shirts.
Typically calculating and neutralised Liverpool’s best attributes. His players were well drilled and carried out instructions perfectly. Ensured United had a bit of bite up front as well in what was an efficient performance.
Rating – 8/10
Didn’t have an answer to Mourinho’s tactics in the first half. He did react in the second and showed that he does have a few tricks up his sleeve but it was too little, too late.
Rating – 6/10
Rashford twice exposed weaknesses in right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold’s play to put the hosts at Old Trafford 2-0 up by 24 minutes.
Liverpool fortuitously earned a way back in when returning Ivory Coast centre-back Eric Bailly put through his own goal after the hour mark. They then saw strong penalty shouts for Ecuador right-back Antonio Valencia’s handball and substitute Marouane Fellaini’s challenge go without punishment – both incidents involved Senegal forward Sadio Mane.
A second defeat in 21 top-flight matches now leaves Jurgen Klopp’s men five points behind second-placed United, with eight matches left.
Here are our ratings for the Reds.
Loris Karius – 6: All the German goalkeeper had to do was pick the ball out of his net. On both occasions, was blameless. Made one superb tackle to kill a United counter-attack.
Trent Alexander-Arnold – 4: A harrowing afternoon. Annihilated by fellow youngster Rashford. Also lacked any composure in possession. Fell over several times.
Dejan Lovren – 5: Was simply bullied by Lukaku. Lack of physicality made him culpable for both goals. Always has these nightmare games in his locker.
Virgil van Dijk – 6: Failed to properly connect with a glorious corner before United’s first. Took too long to take responsibility for Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku, but improved.
Andrew Robertson – 6: A nondescript performance from the Scotland international. No glaring weaknesses, but will regret fact completed none of three crosses.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – 6: Were more guilty parties who stayed on the pitch. Made one key pass and had three shots. Precision was the issue.
Emre Can – 6: Possesses great quality, but didn’t show it at Old Trafford. Couldn’t get better of Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic, plus lack of pace was telling.
James Milner – 5: Made a nuisance of himself, three tackles a joint high for Liverpool. Yet his usual precision at dead balls left him after a promising start. Lucky to play full 90 minutes.
Mohamed Salah – 4: The defining player from Liverpool’s season disappeared at the worst time. The man with 24 Premier League goals only had one wild shot in the dying embers of injury time.
Roberto Firmino – 7: Easily the Reds’ best-performing attackers. Floated across United’s defence trying to sow seeds of doubt. Only regret was lack of bite behind his two shots on target.
Sadio Mane – 6: A mixed bag. Looked utterly clueless against United’s deep defence at times. Yet on another day, would have won two penalties for his side. Erratic, but always capable of magic.
58 - Only Manchester United (67) have profited from more own goals in the Premier League than Liverpool (58). Misdirected.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 10, 2018
Adam Lallana – 6: Still finding his way back from injury. Had negligible influence, but his time will come.
Georginio Wijnaldum – 6: Seemed to be brought on at right-back, despite presence of much better options.
Dominic Solanke – 6: Had only five touches in just more than 10 minutes on the pitch.