Wednesday 19 December 2018

Rashford ensures it's Dejan vu all over again

Manchester United 2 Liverpool 1

Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford scores his first goal against Liverpool as Trent Alexander-Arnold looks on at Old Trafford yesterday. Photo: Oli Scarff
Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford scores his first goal against Liverpool as Trent Alexander-Arnold looks on at Old Trafford yesterday. Photo: Oli Scarff

Jonathan Wilson

A long ball. Dejan Lovren steps tight to Romelu Lukaku, tries to shove him, fails to move him and drops off. Lukaku wins the header and Marcus Rashford scores.

A long ball. Lovren steps tight to Lukaku, fails to unsettle him. Lukaku wins the header and Rashford, after the brief intervention of a block challenge on Juan Mata, scores. For Liverpool, it was a case of Dejan vu all over again.

This was not as bad as his performance at Wembley against Tottenham, when Lovren played as though dazed, but it was another game in which Liverpool conceded goals that, from a defensive point of view, came through the Croatian. There can be little doubt that José Mourinho had isolated the weakness and his team then ruthlessly exploited it.

To single out Lovren, though, would be unfair. He is, after all, battling injury. He did make one excellent tackle on a breaking Lukaku in injury time. And, when up against a more powerful forward, a central defender has the right to expect some assistance from his team-mates, to trust that they might anticipate the striker winning a flick-on.

Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini battles with with Liverpool's Emre Can. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters
Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini battles with with Liverpool's Emre Can. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters

This, perhaps, is simply the nature of modern football. There is a giddiness to it, an urge to play always on the front foot that priorities a certain type of defender, those that can push high and pass the ball but are not necessarily much good at the more traditional aspects of defending.

Positional sense and pace have replaced tackling and winning aerial duels. To some extent, all those sides who play with a high press - not only Liverpool, but also Manchester City, Napoli, perhaps even Tottenham - have the same vulnerability: they can overwhelm opponents, but get at them and there is a brittleness.

That is why the game between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield in January , a meeting of the sides with, respectively, the best home and away defensive records in the Premier League at the time, finished 4-3 - and nobody was particularly surprised. It is why Liverpool, majestic as they have been at times this season, have conceded three or more in a game seven times this season.

Mourinho stands against that trend. He is - pathologically, it can seem at times - conservative in that regard which is why his critics so often suggest his ideas are a little passé. He does not play an integrated, fluent, coherent attacking style. His teams do not evoke gasps of aesthetic appreciation. He wants defenders who can defend - and midfielders who can defend, and forwards who can defend. That's why Scott McTominay, unfussy and reliable as he is, is such a boon for Mourinho.

Yesterday the 21-year-old sat, patient and unremarkable, in front of the back four, he and Nemanja Matic forming a breakwater against which waves of Liverpool's attack fruitlessly crashed. Of McTominay's 42 touches, only 12 came in the Liverpool half and eight of those were within 10 yards of the halfway line. It was a performance of great application and discipline and one that, in a way Mourinho can only have dreamed of when he selected him ahead of Paul Pogba to face Sevilla last month, highlighted precisely the difficulty of fitting the Frenchman into this side.

Liverpool have no such player and would have no use for such a player. Theirs is a strategy one that can produce devastating attacking football but one that will always be prone to this type of glitch. This was an even game, perhaps even one Liverpool had the better of, other than those two goals and the overhead kick an unmarked Juan Mata put wide in the first half. Yet Mourinho's side had just 32 per cent of possession and never really seemed under pressure.

Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold and Manchester United's Alexis Sanchez battle for the ball. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold and Manchester United's Alexis Sanchez battle for the ball. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA

It is hard to imagine a time, at least since a back four began to replace the W-M six decades ago, when the top flight was so divided between two such competing styles: the possession-driven high press on the one side and the anti-possession low block on the other. The former may be more thrilling but it carries a risk and here that was manifested in the two aerial duels Lovren lost.

But that is not really to blame him: there will always be a Lovren. It may not always be the Croatian, but in a system like Liverpool's, there will always be a defender who can be isolated. That is the risk Klopp takes into every game.

Mourinho would love there always to be a McTominay. It may not always be the Scot, but in a set-up like United's, there will always be a midfielder to protect the back four. That's the security he looks to take into every game. Observer

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