Premier League: Manchester United strengthen grasp over second place after winning tactical battle over Liverpool

Marcus Rashford was not pleased with his first touch. As he ran into space following Romelu Lukaku’s flicked header, Rashford first controlled the ball with his head and then feet but found himself running away from goal. Outmuscling the defender was not an option. Since his formative years, the 20-year-old has struggled to match his opponents physically. For a long time, Rashford had skill alone. But sometimes, that is enough.

Tailed by another prodigy in Trent Alexander-Arnold, the Manchester United forward dipped into his enlarging pot of genius. Take a bad touch and make it better. In a flash, Rashford turned and left Alexander-Arnold idle. The defender did have enough time to admire his opponent’s work but that was all. Rashford struck the ball ferociously, the desire to make an impact evident since he had not started a game or scored since December.

Manchester United players celebrate Marcus Rashfords' goal against Liverpool. Reuters

Manchester United players celebrate Marcus Rashfords' goal against Liverpool. Reuters

There was to be another calm finish from Rashford later; United eventually claiming victory in a game that was billed to decide the second-best side in the Premier League. As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp remarked after the match, “What we said before the game is still true after the game, it's all about the result — and we lost.”

Very few could reasonably claim Liverpool deserved a point. The visiting side did mount a second-half comeback and had a couple of reasonable shouts for a penalty but Jose Mourinho’s men never really wilted under pressure.

Importantly, the manager once again demonstrated that he may finally have found a way to get the results out of his team. Within two weeks, in differing ways, United have earned impressive wins over Chelsea and Liverpool at Old Trafford. There are problems on the road but, at home, Mourinho is rebuilding the fortress.

This time, the young stars came to party. Rashford scored a brace for the first time since his league debut for the club against Arsenal two years ago. And there was more. Scott McTominay and Eric Bailly, despite the own goal, delivered commanding defensive performances, ensuring that Liverpool did not have a clear sight on goal all afternoon. United held out with ease in the end; the side keeping its record intact of winning every match this season in which it has taken the lead (17 games now).

But it was Rashford’s performance which must delight Mourinho. Last season, no other player made more appearances for the club than the forward (53). Although he is best suited to the position of a central striker, Rashford has grown into the wide role envisaged for him by the manager. With his direct running and dribbling, the Manchester-born player offers a different option from the one usually associated with him.

Of course, his finishing remains calm as ever. But as Alexander-Arnold found out, Rashford restricts his opponent from pushing far up as well. The fear of being caught on the break is very real. It is not just that he is quick, the forward often makes the right decision too. Rashford’s maturity is credited to his experience of playing with older guys in his younger days. The benefits are evident now.

Although one cannot legislate for Rashford’s brilliance, Klopp was not very pleased with Liverpool’s defending for the goals. He did not blame Dejan Lovren for losing headers to the physically imposing Romelu Lukaku but the space available for Rashford on the inside-left channel did not please the German coach. It is also worth mentioning that Lovren is not fully fit. He required support from his teammates but there was none offered.

Liverpool’s dazed display in the first half must worry Klopp. The defensive errors were evident but attacking threat was inconspicuous by absence. It took the second period for the visiting side to muster a respectable challenge. But Klopp’s men were up against a team which has conceded only once in the second half at Old Trafford this season. Liverpool did make an addition to the figure but it was to be mere compensation.

Significantly, Mourinho won the tactical battle on the day too. In recent times, his tactics have been criticised for not being in tune with the popular trend of playing football that is strategically aggressive; fast-moving play characterised by a changing interpretation of positions and roles. However, it is the considerable risk involved in that style of football which Mourinho does not appreciate.

In the absence of the injured Paul Pogba on Saturday, Mourinho reverted to the 4-2-3-1 formation he is known to be fond of. A destroyer in McTominay and another defensive influencer in Nemanja Matic gave United the security which the manager often priorities. Up against a slightly weakened Liverpool in midfield, who missed skipper Jordan Henderson, the hosts compressed space to restrict the opponent’s freedom.

United’s control also stemmed from their defence as supreme organisation won over the bright talents of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. The hosts had only 32 percent of the ball and yet, were dominant. This was the most Mourinho of wins. His dislike for possession is well-known; the manager famously said once that the team which has the ball is likelier to make a mistake.

It was a measure of Mourinho’s satisfaction afterwards that the curmudgeonly figure even allowed himself to share dressing room banter about Bailly’s own goal. “The people in the dressing room are having a joke with him with his ‘amazing’ goal.”

United’s players can have a laugh. The second spot in the league is seemingly theirs now.

Published Date: Mar 11, 2018 12:52 PM | Updated Date: Mar 11, 2018 12:52 PM

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