Wednesday 23 October 2019

Shaqiri sub-plot pays off as Reds teach United lesson

Liverpool 3 Manchster Utd 1

Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates with Roberto Firmino (R) after scoring Liverpool's third goal during their victory over Manchester United at Anfield. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates with Roberto Firmino (R) after scoring Liverpool's third goal during their victory over Manchester United at Anfield. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

One big change, two massive deflections, but all for Liverpool to stay resolutely on course. Jurgen Klopp's side returned to the top of the Premier League after his inspired introduction of Xherdan Shaqiri brought the two decisive goals for a 3-1 win, and the German's first victory over Jose Mourinho's Manchester United.

This is the product and value of being proactive, the value of Shaqiri's signing, and a lesson for United. The gulf between the teams was often embarrassing, and that's even allowing for the hard work Liverpool made of this match, as well as Mourinho again dropping Paul Pogba.

And sure, there was an element of luck about both of the key goals given they were both from those deflections, but that was no blind luck.

Approach

It didn't come out of nothing. It came from Klopp proactively responding to what was happening, and his team looking to force the issue, and from Mourinho's approach.

The Portuguese's defensive gameplan was rendered irrelevant, as was the Alisson error that had seemed for a while like it would give United an undeserved point, just like on their last two visits here.

Liverpool's Naby Keita shoots at goal as Manchester United's Ashley Young attempts to block and David de Gea attempts to save. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble
Liverpool's Naby Keita shoots at goal as Manchester United's Ashley Young attempts to block and David de Gea attempts to save. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble

It could even be argued that this was the flip side of both of those scoreless draws in 2016 and 2017. Sitting that deep and ceding the ball means you need it to bounce your way every time. It didn't.

That was the difference here, and one huge difference between the teams.

It is also a big difference between Liverpool this season and last season, and potentially in the title race.

You could certainly feel that in the joyous celebrations for the goals and after the game. This was obviously about much more than just beating United.

Roberto Firmino clears the ball ahead of Manchester United's Marcus Rashford. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine
Roberto Firmino clears the ball ahead of Manchester United's Marcus Rashford. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

For all the times they showed similar force and attacking will last season, they too often lacked another option on the bench like Shaqiri.

This was exactly why he was signed. He was exacting.

And it was all the more creditable from both he and Klopp, because Liverpool looked to have so frustratingly lost their way.

They looked to have lost the chance at what should have been a big win. Klopp emphatically addressed an evident mental block in his team, an anxiety.

Xherdan Shaqiri fires home Liverpool’s third goal with the help of a deflection from Manchester United’s Eric Bailly. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Xherdan Shaqiri fires home Liverpool’s third goal with the help of a deflection from Manchester United’s Eric Bailly. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Because that gulf between the sides was really most visible in a vigorous first 20 minutes for Liverpool.

They looked like they had sensed a fragility about United, and were willing to properly punish it… except their own apprehension about this so often got the better of them.

It genuinely killed so many promising moves, particularly in that onslaught of an opening.

It was as if Liverpool were in such an overdrive to overwhelm United that they couldn't stop once they actually got to the box, when a bit more pause and poise was required. All of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, Naby Keita and Sadio Mane were guilty of poor touches just when they looked to have got beyond that amassed United defence, who themselves looked so much less sturdy than in their last few encounters at Anfield.

Fabinho, meanwhile, looked like he was too often resorting to pot shots, until he was finally the player to show the kind of composure that was required. Duly, the goal followed.

Jurgen Klopp embraces Dejan Lovren at the end of the game. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Jurgen Klopp embraces Dejan Lovren at the end of the game. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

After a move admittedly started by Firmino's force allowing him to beat Eric Bailly to a ball he had no right to get and then brushing the centre-half aside, the ball found its way to the edge of the box and Fabinho.

The midfielder picked out Mane rather than trying to pick his spot, and the forward calmly chested it and finished in the same move.

It felt like it was coming, but also necessary for Mane, after he missed so many excellent chances in the midweek win over Napoli.

That made the source of the United goal all the more ironic. Alisson had kept Liverpool in the Champions League on Tuesday, but here kept United alive in a game they really had no right to still be in. That had been that submissive, that outplayed.

The Alisson error was that bad, as it genuinely came out of nothing. Romelu Lukaku got down the left and played in what should have been an easy cross to deal with, only for the goalkeeper to fumble it.

Jesse Lingard was still alert enough to take the chance. No distractions from social media there. He was the sharpest player in that moment.

And this was the thing, too. The goal didn't just level the score, but the play. It changed the entire tone of the occasion that much.

Having previously looked so fearful in every movement, United were now so much more assured. Liverpool, meanwhile, seemed to have lost their flow, and impetus. The hesitation that afflicted their play in the box began to be seen all over the pitch.

That reached a nadir during an extended period where Liverpool's only attacking idea was to take punts on a series of efforts from distance.

Klopp had to change something, but also seemed to need a player who could do something different.

This, of course, is precisely why Shaqiri was bought, and precisely why he was brought on.

He immediately made the difference in the game, changing the pace of it, and then the score.

That was signalled by his very first contribution, a surge forward that Liverpool had been lacking for pretty much all of the contest since the United goal, and that almost paid off.

Electric

It was enough. There was an electric charge about the team again, as Mane then burst down the left in a similar way to what Shaqiri had just done on the other side. Through two deflections, it made its way back to the Swiss playmaker, and he made sure it went in.

Sure, that release of a goal required two deflections, too, but that was kind of the point. Liverpool had forced their way through. They didn't get stuck.

There was a new vibe about Liverpool again, and a new Kop hero. Shaqiri, not content merely changing the game, secured it. It was again a show of force as he burst on to a Liverpool attack that had broken down, and again saw another deflection.

That's the kind of thing that happens when one team is looking to attack, and one team is looking to sit and congest.

It helps explain the league positions. Liverpool are on top, for another week at least.

Klopp finally enjoyed a day against Mourinho and United, because Shaqiri more than had his day. (© Independent News Service)

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