The great northern rivalry of English football has been a little one sided of late. Just two of Manchester United’s last 15 meetings with Liverpool have seen them emerge victorious. Last season’s Premier League clashes were won by a 9-0 aggregate margin to Jurgen Klopp’s side, and in both games it might have been worse. Mohamed Salah scored as many goals at Old Trafford last season as Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Anthony Martial combined.
With that recent history, the bar is set so low for Erik ten Hag in his first competitive meeting with Liverpool that even the sort of faceplant as performance his side delivered in their opening two league games might constitute progress. Well, maybe not the Brentford game.
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The former Ajax manager goes into what was, on paper, the first great test of his tenure with precious little that he might want. The player to dictate play from the base of midfield has not arrived; instead of a facilitator they are ploughing on to secure one of the game’s best destroyers in Casemiro, paying a 30-year-old one of the most generous salaries at Old Trafford for the next five years. The Brazilian won’t be registered in time and bar the returning Anthony Martial there is no cavalry coming. As Rick Pitino might say, “Cristiano Ronaldo ain’t walking through that door.” Only, awkwardly, a version of him has, and, after not making much difference, he’s turned around Abe Simpson style, attempting to force his way out of the club almost as soon as he arrived. Ten Hag will have to make do with what he has.
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Those players, plus a fair few who left this summer but might well be selected if they were still in the north west, offered a blueprint last season in how not to play against Liverpool. At both ends of the pitch it came down to pressure. In attack it was an inability to deal with the intensity that was applied to them, and at the other end, a haphazard approach to winning the ball back did little but leave oceans for Thiago and company to swim in.
Liverpool are good enough that even in their injury-addled form they will arrive at Old Trafford on Monday bringing the technical excellence to play through well organized defenses. Even were United to miraculously get it right, Klopp’s side could still punish them, as happened in the second of four goals they conceded in the 4-0 loss at Anfield last season. Ralf Rangnick’s back three did not work for most of the match but on this occasion the visitors kept their shape and forced a play building down the right flank to be recycled all the way back to Joel Matip. Then two incisive passes from the center back, a delicate clip from Sadio Mane and Salah is rolling the ball past David de Gea.
Still, more of the goals United conceded came from the sort of basic inadequacy that characterized the first they let in at Old Trafford, a cavalcade of errors that would require Hercule Poirot to trace it back to its root cause. Bruno Fernandes has pressed Alisson, but it is a forlorn effort; by the time the ball comes to Andrew Robertson, Aaron Wan-Bissaka has been drawn upfield.
It is here that the little problems start to show. Wan-Bissaka could be a bit closer but the real problem is both he and Scott McTominay are blocking off the same infield pass for Robertson. No one is covering the space down the United right, which Diogo Jota drags Victor Lindelof over to.
From here the writing is on the wall and United players give every impression they know it. Naby Keita bursts upfield while the likes of Fred, Mason Greenwood and Cristiano Ronaldo ambulate towards the halfway line. The Liverpool attack is moving as one single organism; no one in red has thought to react to that one moment where Robertson broke the press.
Even if Shaw had somehow managed to pivot from Salah to Keita, when the pass was played what else could he have done? Fred, Wan-Bissaka and Mason Greenwood have all barely broken into a jog as Liverpool fizz away from them.
That has been the story of United without the ball for an era, an “oh dearism” that reflects a squad whose belief in the plan has been ground away. The first player in the press may grasp what to do, the issue is whether the cognition carries on down the line so that players know how to react when the initial line is broken. Too often across recent seasons, and not just in Liverpool matches, United’s press has been scattergun, more lone wolves than the pack hunting its prey.
That means opportunities can pass them by. At Anfield it is once more Fernandes applying the pressure, but doing so without the support of the rest of the frontline. He forces Virgil van Dijk to play a back pass ahead of Alisson, whose heavy touch gives the Portugal international half a chance to nick the ball.
Behind him Marcus Rashford and Wan-Bissaka are at best interested observers in this chance to steal possession and perhaps a goal. Indeed the former has already turned his head on the play, jogging backwards towards a defensive position. That might make sense if United were playing with a deep line and were merely planning to weather the Anfield storm. Instead Ralf Rangnick’s back three are playing on the edge of the center circle with those ahead of them putting no intensity on the ball.
One would assume Nemanja Matic was selected for this particular game to shield a back three that Rangnick had rarely used before. What, then, is he doing charging upfield to leave a chasm of space for Mane to exploit?
In fewer than 20 seconds, a half-baked United press has turned a goal-scoring opportunity for them into Luis Diaz scoring at the other end.
The picture is no less rosy with the ball at United feet and it is clear that Ten Hag’s appointment has not brought with it the silver bullet to his player’s difficulties building possession from deep. You could have seen the same moments at Brentford last week that were apparent at Old Trafford last season when Liverpool roped their hosts into giving the ball straight to them.
In the passage of play below Roberto Firmino shows a supreme understanding of positioning, blocking the lane for Wan-Bissaka to move the ball infield with an extravagant jump in that direction. The Brazilian seems to be two steps ahead of McTominay, who can’t (or won’t) show for the pass to get United away from danger.
Firmino chases the ball to De Gea and if the Spaniard had time to look up he would see precious few options open to him. Fred is not particularly well positioned to receive a risky pass into central midfield. McTominay has not made himself available either, and there is a cavern ahead of the two defensive midfielders. No one is rushing back to fill it.
That is still the case when the ball comes to Shaw. A heavy touch off what is a difficult pass to control invites Salah to attack the United defender. In the end Maguire clearing the ball for a throw, rather than a corner, is a far better outcome than the home side’s play up to that point merited.
These are the exact same issues that plague United before Monday’s game, and the worst part is they know it. These sorts of harrowing experiences against Liverpool have not just imbued Ten Hag’s side with a nervous disposition against their great rivals but it would seem whenever they are pressed.
In the seconds before Matthias Jensen snuck in for Brentford’s second in their stunning 4-0 win last week you could sense the fear of building play from a goal kick being beamed from west London through your television screen. Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbuemo line up on the edge of the penalty area like sprinters on their blocks; bafflingly Lisandro Martinez knocks the ball to De Gea, meaning that by the time the Brentford pressure is on the goalkeeper his left sided center back isn’t even in position to receive the pass.
This is not going to work against Liverpool and it would be all too credulous to believe a week on the training pitch could drill out of these players mistakes that we have seen them making for years. Ten Hag has no choice but to park his principles at least for Monday night. Had he got something, anything out of the Brighton and Brentford games then this could have functioned as something of a free hit, a chance to take a look at what happens when his players attempt to execute a more progressive, front-footed plan against one of Europe’s best teams. Now, the fundamental realities of United’s situation intervene. They can ill afford to be bottom of the table with zero points before two away games that, given their current predicament, are far from three point bankers.
United cannot even be reliably expected to do what Fulham did to Liverpool in the Reds’ faltering start to the new season. Crystal Palace’s point at Anfield looks a more realistic approach for Ten Hag to ape: tight defensive lines with everyone back behind the ball, a few lucky breaks with where the ball bounces and a frontline that can test the space in behind a high line. With Anthony Martial back to full fitness the Red Devils could at least deploy that even if he, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho have all gone some time without impressing in the Premier League.
It is a damning indictment of how far this storied club has fallen that nicking a goal on the break and defending for their lives feels like their only realistic avenue to a point against the rival that always serves as their yardstick. But as their recent meetings have proven, the gulf between Liverpool and United has been a chasm for some time. It is not one that Ten Hag, or any other manager for that matter, could bridge in a matter of weeks no matter the preseason form. For now there is precious little he and his players can do but go back to basics and hope.