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The Briefing: Man United 2-2 Liverpool

The Briefing: Man United 2-2 Liverpool

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Three weeks on from their seven-goal FA Cup classic, Liverpool and Manchester United met again — and again, we were entertained.

Though this contest resulted in only four goals, Liverpool could have had significantly more in the first half alone, missing several chances while United failed to take any sort of attempt at Caoimhin Kelleher’s goal.

But, as they did in the cup, United made their rivals pay for their profligacy as Bruno Fernandes scored from 40 yards with an excellent first-time finish after Jarell Quansah had misplaced a pass, leaving Kelleher stranded. Kobbie Mainoo, as he has done before, then stepped up to defy his 18 years and put United in front.

Jurgen Klopp’s side should have been out of sight by half-time, but instead, they left with a point after a late Mohamed Salah penalty and now sit behind Premier League leaders Arsenal on goal difference with seven matches to play.

Our writers, Andy Jones, Carl Anka and Ahmed Walid, give their immediate analysis of the match.

What happened with Fernandes’ goal?

Quansah has been a revelation for Liverpool this season. 

The 21-year-old spent the second half of last season on loan at League One side Bristol Rovers. Few expected him to be thrust into the limelight this season, but every test he has faced he has passed with flying colours.

That was until he misjudged a simple square pass to Virgil van Dijk. Fernandes capitalised and hit a first-time shot that flew past Kelleher and levelled the scores with United’s first shot of the game. 

Up until that point, it had been another performance of a youngster who looked as if he had played at the top level for years. He was part of the defence which reduced United’s attackers to feeding off scraps.

It is unfair to blame a youngster making their 11th Premier League appearance — away at Old Trafford, no less — for the end result, but it was his mistake that cost Liverpool a goal. 

Those with more experience in attacking areas were unable to bail him out because of their poor decision-making in front of goal. To his credit, Quansah put the mistake behind him and continued to perform defensively as he had done throughout.

It is a mistake from a young player that does not deserve to define the title race. Yet, after the final seven games of the season, it could be a crucial moment.


Andy Jones

How did this compare to FA Cup chaos?

Any chance of a controlled and composed performance from either side went out the window when Alejandro Garnacho rounded Kelleher to score within the first 100 seconds.

The ‘goal’ was ruled out for offside, but the message was clear: we were going to get more of the counter-attacking silliness from the 4-3 on March 17.

Ten Hag’s plan appeared to centre around catching Liverpool cold and scoring early… except Liverpool held their nerve and eventually got the game’s opener in the 23rd minute. United’s reaction to being a goal behind? More chaos. 

In a team featuring the likes of Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, it makes sense to forgo structured, settled possession and try to hit Liverpool on the break. What’s made these last two encounters fun is Liverpool’s repeated and bizarre bungling of their counter-attacks — and Jurgen Klopp’s incensed demeanour when United spring a goal out of nowhere. 

Fernandes has no right to seize upon a slack backpass and lob Kelleher from about 40 yards out. Mainoo managing to have the presence of mind to wave Garnacho away from the ball so he could be the one to turn and shoot and get United’s second was one of those wonderful bits of control in a chaotic setting.

The stats people will tell you United scored twice on two shots of low xG and such actions are rarely repeatable or sustainable. But sometimes the emotional narrative of a game can overcome the tactical requirements. Ten Hag’s men looked to have stunned Liverpool in chaotic circumstances twice — before Aaron Wan-Bissaka felled Harvey Elliott in the box.

Salah put away the resultant spot kick and Ten Hag’s response was to bring on Mason Mount.

There might one day come a time when United and Liverpool games turn into the “tactically intriguing” chess matches that Manchester City and Arsenal now play out as. But let’s hope they are a little bit further down the line.

These counter-attacking melees are a bit too much fun. Football for people who should know better, but can’t help themselves.

Carl Anka

Liverpool are missing chances, is this developing into an issue?

Salah and Dominik Szoboszlai both threw their heads back in frustration. The pair were well-placed in the centre of the box ready for a pullback, but Conor Bradley opted to shoot. It was blocked and went out for a corner.

It epitomised Liverpool in front of goal in the first half: great football leading to plenty of opportunities but no cutting edge in the United penalty area.

It was summed up by their only goal of the first half coming via a set piece; they had 15 shots but only four on target, with 88 passes into the final third and 21 touches in the opposition box. It all told the story.

Yet, whether it was Szoboszlai, Salah, Darwin Nunez or Luis Diaz, Liverpool were wasteful from open play — just as they had been last month. 

(Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

With each chance that passed the away side by, the more thoughts drifted back to the FA Cup tie when Liverpool should have extended their 2-1 lead. Despite their control and chances, they did not finish off Erik ten Hag’s side, and it proved costly. 

Minutes after Fernandes’ goal, Liverpool found themselves in a five-on-two attacking situation in their favour. In a similar fashion to a break in the FA Cup tie, they failed to produce a shot on target from it. 

Liverpool lost their way completely when Mainoo netted United’s second. Salah’s penalty may have salvaged a point, but those supposed lessons from the cup tie are yet to be learned.

Andy Jones

When will Man Utd learn to defend transitions?

Last summer, Ten Hag wanted United to be the best transitional team in the world. The concept made sense considering the profile of United’s attackers. “We really looked into the history of Manchester United and we looked also into the qualities of our players,” said Ten Hag. “And then you can say, so what do we want to be? That is, we want to be the best transition team in the world. We want to surprise.”

However, to be the best transitional team in the world, you also need to know how to defend these situations — it’s not only about being gung-ho and attacking the space, especially when you are facing a Liverpool side who thrive in this type of game. 

In this match, United’s problems on defensive transitions were crystal clear: being rushed in possession, which results in a poor rest-defence due to the large spacing between the attackers and the defenders when United are trying to attack in settled possession, unable to win duels in midfield, and the dropping level of counter-pressing compared to last season. 

To be the best transitional team in the world, you need to know how to attack them as well as defend them.

Ahmed Walid

How did another makeshift United defence perform?

A back four of Diogo Dalot, Willy Kambwala, Harry Maguire and Wan-Bissaka made for United’s 26th different defensive configuration this season. 

Prior to kick-off, Ten Hag said he was unconcerned about questions over United’s style of play, saying, “We want to dominate in and out of possession, and play out from the back.”

The issue with such a quote is:
1) Such a description can be used to describe multiple teams in the Premier League.
2) United don’t appear to be dominating the game on either side of the ball.
3) Several teams — including Liverpool — appear better at executing these actions.

United play with a narrow and ineffective front press, and a man-marking system in midfield that can be easily exploited. Compounding matters is their rudimentary set-up on corner kicks that lives and dies on whether a United player can get first contact with the ball.

Nunez bullied Wan-Bissaka a little ahead of the penalty spot to get the flick-on assist for Diaz’s finish. A look at the image below will show you, Nunez’s header was in an area multiple teams target when playing United.

In the 32nd minute, Alexis Mac Allister carried the ball towards the halfway line while Liverpool attackers flooded forward. The midfielder’s pass found Diaz, who threaded in Salah.

It takes a handful of seconds and a handful of passes for opposition teams to go from the defensive third to having a shot on Andre Onana. This is the 10th time United have faced 10 or more shots in the first half of a Premier League game, the joint most in 2023-24.

Sharing defensive stats with Sheffield United and Luton Town (12 times) is not what any United fan envisioned at the start of the season. Ten Hag will point to injuries affecting his side’s ability to play at their maximum. Critics will ask why it’s so hard for the United manager to muster anything better than this.

The sight of Dalot blowing hard after yet another recovery sprint to his penalty area made you wince. United play with little of the collective safety net other top four/five sides do and defenders are largely left to fend for themselves. 

Carl Anka

What did Jurgen Klopp say?

Speaking to Sky Sports, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said: “In the end, we should have won the game. That is clear. We controlled the game and scored the first goal.

“We should have had other goals in the first half. They had no shots at all in the first half.

“It is a point at Manchester United. I know how people will see it. Two points lost and stuff. As far as I am concerned, we have a point more than we did before the game.

“It is an away game at Manchester United. For us, away games here are more special for all other teams. For us (Liverpool), they (Manchester United) put an extra shift in.”

What did Erik ten Hag say?

Ten Hag discussed his team’s playing style after the game and was asked whether he would change it. “No,” he said. “It’s clear when you play Chelsea, when you play Liverpool it will be a transition game. They are top, both teams. Both teams want to play and will leave space for others.

“I thought that there were moments where we could’ve done better reactions in defensive transitions, but in general we did very good. We conceded only goals from two set plays. In our transitions, we could’ve done even better — for example (Alejandro) Garnacho and Bruno. Already after a couple of minutes we should’ve took the lead.

“I look always for better rest defence,” he added. “Are our decisions on the ball better? Go for goal, be direct or keep the ball, otherwise we stretch the pitch. And then it’s about how we use, looking for reactions. The behaviour of the players. What positions do we take?”

For a third time in a week, United let a winning position slip after conceding a stoppage-time equaliser at Brentford on Saturday and two goals deep into added time to lose at Chelsea on Thursday. Ten Hag said: “First of all, it’s very disappointing when you put yourselves three times in a week in a winning position just before the end of the game. To then drop points is very disappointing of course. We have all seen,” he said.

“There are some poor decisions in all three games, not every time the same player. We have to step up. What’s definitely not helping in 26 different shapes in the back line. There are simply not the routines. Still, we have to improve and the sooner the better.”

What next for Manchester United?

Saturday, April 13: Bournemouth (A), Premier League, 5.30pm UK, 12.30pm ET

What next for Liverpool?

Thursday, April 11: Atalanta (H), Europa League, 8pm GMT, 3pm ET

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(Top photo: Getty Images)

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