The hotly-contested race for second spot in the Premier League only added intrigue to the Saturday duel between these old foes at Old Trafford.
Jose Mourinho may not yet fully grasp the emotion of this fixture but Rashford certainly does, with the academy graduate inspiring his hometown team to a 2-1 win as Eric Bailly’s own goal brought a nervy ending against Liverpool.
Here, are three things learned from Liverpool’s perspective.
REDS PAY THE PENALTY
For a game which was ultimately decided by a fascinating tactical tussle, it seems needless to discuss the officials but Liverpool should have been given at least one penalty at Old Trafford.
There are three incidents for discussion and we’ll lay out the rationale for all of them.
First, is a pull on Salah. Ashley Young was absolutely brilliant in one v one situations with Salah, tracking him back superbly all afternoon and nullifying Liverpool’s red-hot goalscorer.
But there was a wobble in the 50th minute as in the area Salah controlled a beautifully chipped ball by Roberto Firmino only to be clearly tugged by Young.
Salah tried to play on and work space to shoot but United got the ball away. If the Egyptian had hit the deck, it’s a penalty, he doesn’t so it’s not. However, two other calls were more muddied.
The second shout was shortly after the first with Andy Robertson’s cross from the left blatantly striking the arm of Antonio Valencia. There’s two points for consideration; is the distance between the delivery and Valencia too small for it to be deliberate? Tough to say. Does his arm deliberately move towards the ball? Given it’s his trailing arm as he’s running back to his own goal, it looks a natural movement.
It’s one of those scenarios in which people will say “they’ve seen them given”. However, the third claim is the most clear-cut.
Marouane Fellaini fouls Sadio Mane. As the Senegalese bursts into the box to latch onto Firmino’s delicate flick, he’s clumsily bundled to the ground.
The referee’s whistle was silent but Liverpool were right to bellow their vexation.
Two long passes, two goals and two occasions Dejan Lovren was overpowered by Romelu Lukaku in a crucial phase of play.
The Liverpool defender could not handle Lukaku’s physicality and the two first-half Rashford strikes were borne out of his failure to not even take command but just compete.
Mourinho clearly set his side out to target Liverpool’s weak link in the channel between Lovren and Trent Alexander-Arnold and the Portuguese deserves tremendous credit for his devious tactical ploy.
Lukaku won the aerial battle with little difficultly and as Lovren stepped out, the exposed space in behind is what ultimately allowed Rashford a scope to score.
Alexander-Arnold shouldn’t escape blame for his role in both goals but fundamentally the fault line begins with Lovren and it set off tremors of errors.
According to Sky Sports, 66 per cent of United’s attacks emerged from the left side and it was borderline negligible that Lovren and Van Dijk didn’t swap positions.
Instead, Liverpool were given a repeat first-half performance to the Tottenham calamity Lovren produced.
And this is the thing with the Croat, he lulls you into this false sense of security with a run of games in which he is superb before the inevitable failure arrives.
He’s just not good enough.
PRESSING AT A HIGH COST
Mourinho got a lot of things right and that fact must not be missed. There can be criticism for his line-ups sometimes but from switching Alexis Sanchez to No10, to starting Marcus Rashford on the left, he deserves immense credit.
He also warrants praise for outsmarting Jurgen Klopp with his ability to expose the fallibility of Liverpool’s high press.
David De Gea hit 28 passes against Liverpool, all of which were distributed long.
Granted, he only found a United target with seven of those passes but two created goals.
Liverpool’s pressing midfield was completely bypassed, the ball finding an excellent Lukaku with the overlapping wingers running into the space in behind.
Simple but effective. From a defensive standpoint they were set-up resolutely, too. United let Liverpool move to the ball into the final third but in doing so it allowed them time to bolt into a rigid shape and block the space.
Then they would counter with the direct ball over the top. A tactical tip of the cap to Mourinho in exposing the dangers of Liverpool’s ‘Gegenpressing’.
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