Manchester United beat rivals Liverpool 2-1 at Old Trafford, to consolidate their hold over second place. The Red Devils took a two-goal lead into half-time through a Marcus Rashford brace, and while Liverpool dominated the second half and got one back through an Eric Bailly own goal, they never really threatened to score again. United are now five points clear of Liverpool in second place.
Here are three of the most compelling subplots from the game –
Ashley Young has Salah in his pocket
This game was probably Mohamed Salah’s quietest since his arrival in England; an aberration from the goalscoring form he has shown. His direct opponent on the day was Ashley Young, and while there were fears within the United faithful that Young was a weak link against such a prolific forward as Salah, those fears were unfounded. Young expertly marshalled the Egyptian, rarely giving him the space to accelerate into down the right flank, while the communication between Young and Chris Smalling was also excellent, as it was Smalling who picked Salah up when he came inside. United’s left-back was first to the ball on almost every occasion whenever a dangerous pass was played towards Salah, and effectively tackled him when the ball did reach him. Young’s effectiveness was borne out through the fact that Salah touched the ball the least of any of Liverpool’s outfield players, and Liverpool’s attack looked blunt without the influence of their tearaway Egyptian.
Lukaku takes advantage of long balls
United were never going to play this game in a gung-ho, hell for leather style, and it was evident within the opening minutes that David de Gea would not even attempt to play the ball short, kicking it long on every occasion. A formational and personnel tweak saw Alexis Sanchez play centrally behind Romelu Lukaku, with Marcus Rashford on the left and Juan Mata on the right. This meant that while United were extremely compact and solid, they managed to get support around Lukaku, and this proved crucial for both goals. Lukaku won the ball in the air for both goals, easily beating Dejan Lovren on both occasions, who was extremely tentative and easily overpowered by Lukaku physically throughout the game. While Marcus Rashford was a deserving Man of the Match with two superb finishes to win the game, the role of Romelu Lukaku in those goals should not go unrecognized; the Belgian has been excellent in creating chances for his teammates in recent weeks, and this was another example of his increasing effectiveness.
Pogba’s absence makes no difference
The news that broke through on Friday night, that Paul Pogba had pulled up in training and was a serious doubt for the game, had United fans on tenterhooks. Their best midfielder, and possibly the best player at the club at present, missing the game against their hated rivals could not be a good thing, could it? As it turned out, the Frenchman was barely missed, as United were superb defensively and efficient offensively to record a win over Liverpool. Pogba’s absence meant that Juan Mata was the beneficiary; Mourinho would have played Matic and McTominay anyway, as well as Rashford and Sanchez. Crucially though, it also meant that Rashford played on the left instead of the right, and Sanchez played centrally, where he looked a slightly better fit, and was more involved in the game. In midfield, Matic and McTominay both did a superb job screening the defence, with McTominay in particular standing out due to his work-rate and simplicity of passing. It was telling that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, his direct opponent, was booked in the first half after failing to get the ball off the Scot, and was substituted in the second half having failed to influence the game. Pogba’s presence in the team would have arguably made such a disciplined defensive effort unlikely, and while Mourinho got his team selection and tactics spot on for this game, it does not bode well for the Frenchman that such a display came without him in the squad.