The skies were red and velveteen in Merseyside late last evening. It was the gradient you’d expect in the layers of a cheesecake. The old Irish sailors had a saying pertaining to it – “see a red sky in the day and misfortune will befall you, see a red sky in the night, and the winds kiss your sails.” For Liverpool, it was the latter. The league leaders posted a 16-point lead over Manchester City having played a game less at the expense of their city rivals, the visiting Manchester United. A rousing header from Virgil van Dijk and a car-chase finish from Mohamed Salah resigned Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United to a 2-0 defeat.
One Thousand and One Nights
The One Thousand and One Nights was the compendium of some of the finest tales in the Arab world, dating the Islamic Golden Age. This was also one of the first pieces of literature that had layers of reality enveloping it. In its essence, it’s a story of the king’s consort telling 1001 cliffhangers each night to the delay the inevitability her execution. Two layers of stories, one of the king and the consort, and second being the stories told by the consort, but executed in many ways: ‘some are framed within other tales, while others are self-contained.’
That Liverpool’s 1001 days of being undefeated at Anfield was topped off by Mohamed Salah, who once as a child grew up reading Aladin and the other stories in the Arabian Nights, had a touch of slow serendipity, that dawns upon you incrementally, adding to the width of your smile (if you’re a Liverpool fan). Like reading one’s own journal back to front. This is the kind of chance coincidences that cannot be denied anymore. The ball is curving away from the Liverpool goal by Alisson and the immediate forcefield that seems to surround him. Manchester United had clear cut chances but the aimed ball displays the kind of bouncy repulsion magnets of the same pole had in our science classes.
Manchester United were no slouches. Their squad have been put through the physical and mental wringers. Marcus Rashford while he was in the best form of his short career, was playing through a stress fracture on his back. Then take into account that the fracture was aggravated to a level 2 tier one because he was quite figuratively carrying Solskjaer team on occasions. This is alarming but not unseen in these parts of England.
Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez all at some point had to play through excruciating pain to turn up for their team-mates who couldn’t turn up for themselves. Manchester United, perhaps still unbeknownst to many of their fans, is heading down that course to mid-table doldrum. That responsibility of being the brig of the Manchester United attack fell to the man with the most French moustache ever seen in the Premier League – Anthony Martial.
Liverpool’s Joe Gomez had him shadowed like an assassin. It is with Joe Gomez who in the early exchanges calmed Liverpool down. Manchester United, due credit to them, started on the front foot and didn’t let the league leaders settle into a flow. Joe Gomez’s back-to-back interceptions on through balls aimed at Martial percolated the surefootedness up the pitch. The presence of Virgil van Dijk beside him magnified that.
The despatches from defence were duly delivered to the front line by a tireless Jordan Henderson, who was also the man of the match. He shuttled across with an intensity that made the stadium look like a carrom board. Manchester United’s Fred growing ever more frustrated in one occasion went through Gini Wijnaldum perhaps for playing with a panache that was more Brazilian than his.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka's technical weakness as circa 2000 full-back in 2020’s game was shown out by Andy Robertson’s press. While the England international did put in three crucial interceptions, the combination play between Sadio Mane and Liverpool’s number 26 was slowly unwinding him. Daniel James did test the legs of Andy Robertson down Liverpool’s left channel, but Robertson outpaced him in the head.
Liverpool began getting under the skin. For Liverpool’s first goal, Joe Gomez slyly held onto Harry Maguire to give Virgil van Dijk a jumping start to meet a corner on the 14th minute. Such was the stealth of the sabotage by Gomez that Harry Maguire didn’t protest, and the referee didn’t see. It was only though slowed down frame by frame replays that that split second sneakiness showed.
Otherwise too, Harry Maguire was made to look like a sentient sack of potatoes riding a unicycle by the movement of Liverpool players around him. To account for this Solskjaer played with a back three – Viktor Lindelof and Luke Shaw either side of him to save the world record centre defender his blushes – a 3-5-2.
Thus Solskjaer's tactics were built on the pretext of weakness than an assumption of strength. The direction of the match is usually decided by the formation, and last night Manchester United’s compass needle pointed south. The early steam was dissipating.
Nemanja Matic wore the expression of an idyllic native Indian totem suddenly teleported into New York Times Square. Andreas Pereira, the Manchester United player to instil incisiveness played incoherently. It was only in the last quarter of the match, aided by the addition of Juan Mata, that Manchester United came deathly close.
There was a slight discomforting buzz in the stadium from the 60th minute until the Salah goal came on the 90+3 minutes. Liverpool missed five gilt-edge chances by then, with one whistling shot from outside the box by Henderson smacked off the post. There was a collective gasp when it did. If Anfield had a word bubble, it would read “!” It is then when Manchester United were sensing something.
Fred was getting on to the front foot, Matic thawed out of his state of petrification and began to emboss his studs into challenges, Shaw was puffing up his chest. They believed they could steal something here.
Following the introduction of Diogo Dalot, the space between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Gomez was targeted. Dalot, Martial, Shaw were dovetailing into one-twos and first time passes. This forced Jurgen Klopp’s hand to substitute the galloping Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in favour of the ball retention qualities of Adam Lallana. The latter was untypically ill-composed under the abrasive nature of United’s play and conceded fouls and free-kicks. He was sent onto the job James Milner would usually do.
When Mason Greenwood was introduced by Solskjaer it sent a signal of intent which Klopp responded to by throwing on Divock Origi and Fabinho.
When it seemed like United may have a chance to pull through from a late corner David De Gea pleaded to the bench for the permission to participate in the opposing box. Solskjaer said no instead of throwing in the kitchen sink.
Liverpool benefited from that lack of bravery. Alisson having retrieved the ball from that said corner pinged it out to Mohamed Salah who buffeted the challenges of Lindelof like a car door buffets a car door in a chase. Salah revved up and put the ball through David De Gea for 2-0 and 1001 days without a home defeat at Anfield. Another step taken towards the victory march. The lack of positive affirmation from Solskjaer read like a red sky in a day for Manchester United.
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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2020 16:36:59 IST