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Manchester United vs Liverpool: Hard Tackle As Adam Lallana Rescues a Point (1 – 1)



Liverpool vs Manchester United

By any objective measure, this had seemed like an away banker during what was a fevered buildup. Manchester United, mired in their worst start to a season since 1989-90, were goal-shy; their confidence seemingly in pieces. Liverpool were supposed to roll up to Old Trafford and extend their run of consecutive wins in the Premier League to a record-equalling 18th game.

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Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the eternally optimistic United manager, had claimed that “this is the perfect game for us” but, to put it bluntly, nobody believed him. Perhaps they should have done.

It was a wild turnaround from a United point of view, defying the form book, and it said everything that Solskjær’s team, having taken a first-half lead through Marcus Rashford, could finish disappointed at having failed to inflict upon Liverpool a first league defeat since January.

United had begun with the bit between their teeth in a new 3-4-1-2 system and they fought as if affronted by all of the recent criticism. It was not a pretty game, United dragged Liverpool down from their lofty recent standards and with five minutes to go, the league leaders looked out of ideas. The story looked set to be coloured by United’s bodies-on-the-line defiance.

But Liverpool have not remained unbeaten for so long without knowing how to battle until the last and they were rewarded for their persistence, as much as anything else, when Andrew Robertson crossed low from the left. Roberto Firmino’s presence in the middle seemed to distract the United defence and, rather abruptly, there was the substitute, Adam Lallana, all alone in front of goal, to sweep past David de Gea. What a moment it was for Lallana, whose Liverpool career has been blighted by injury. It was his first goal since he scored in a 3-0 Anfield win over Middlesbrough in May 2017 and it was the prompt for United’s nerves to jangle.

Liverpool had been poor in the first half and better in the second, but without creating too much of clear-cut note. Now they turned the screw. Another substitute, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fizzed a shot inches past a post and the five minutes of stoppage-time counted down slowly for United. Yet they did enough. For Solskjær and his players, the performance as much as the result offered hope.

United had started the day in 14th place – one point above the relegation zone – and it seemed as if every number, every statistic, was insulting them. Several bookmakers had them as long as 7-2 to beat opponents who Pep Guardiola had described as looking “unstoppable”.

Liverpool had last dropped league points in the 0-0 draw at Everton on 3 March. Desperate times called for radical measures and for the first time this season, Solskjær started with a three-man defence, although even that plan needed a late fine-tune after Axel Tuanzebe was ruled out with an injury in the warm-up. In came Marcos Rojo on the left of the back three.

Klopp made no attempt to hide his annoyance at what he felt were United’s safety-first tactics. “It’s a fact when we come here – they just defend,” he said afterwards.

It was not a criticism, Klopp continued but, really, it was. Solskjær’s idea was to hit his pacy forwards, Rashford and Daniel James, with balls into the channels but also for them to defend from the front; to set the tone for the team. They did so. This was arguably Rashford’s best performance under Solskjær while James’s energy and remorselessness was a positive. United’s collective commitment galvanised the Old Trafford crowd.

It was a match where the nuances of VAR once again came under scrutiny and Klopp was bitterly unhappy that it did not rule out Rashford’s goal. The flashpoint followed Victor Lindelöf’s tackle from behind on Divock Origi which set a fast United counterattack in motion and, certainly, it looked like a foul – even if Solskjær disagreed. United still had some way to go but when Scott McTominay released James, there was pace and possibility. The Welshman crossed low and, after deceiving Joël Matip with a clever piece of movement inside the area, Rashford prodded past Alisson.

Klopp’s argument was that the referee Martin Atkinson had allowed the play to continue because he knew that VAR would help him after the event. But the problem was, in the Liverpool manager’s view, that the decision was not then clear and obviously wrong enough to merit an overrule.

Klopp’s mood would darken before the interval when his team had an equaliser chalked off by VAR. On viewing the replay, it was plain that Sadio Mané had used a hand to control a high ball before wriggling away from Lindelöf to beat De Gea. The problem with the technology is that it does not warn the supporters of the scoring team quickly enough. The Liverpool fans had erupted in delight then came back down to earth with a bump.

Liverpool, who expect the absent Mohamed Salah to have recovered from his ankle problem for Wednesday’s Champions League game at Genk, had created the best chance of the first-half when Mané cut back for Firmino and he shot too close to De Gea, but Klopp was forced into changes in the second half.

He effectively switched to a 4-2-4 in which Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lallana made a difference in wide areas, and the battle lines were drawn. United came to appear the likelier scorers of the next goal on the counter as Liverpool could not make inroads. Rashford fizzed a shot wide and James flickered. Liverpool, though, refused to lose.

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