Liverpool did not perform at their usual level in Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Manchester United. That’s partly a result of Jose Mourinho’s defensive mastery and partly because Liverpool’s players often fail to deliver in the most high pressure situations, especially away from the safety net of Anfield.
There was something sadly predictable about how events unfolded at Old Trafford. It was everything that Liverpool supporters feared it might be and showed once again why this is the most stressful fixture in the calendar for supporters of both teams.
Even though Liverpool were (bizarrely) favourites going into the game, this was always going to be the most difficult fixture of the season for them for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, Old Trafford is not a venue where Liverpool tend to have much success. Additionally, for all the criticism they have received about their style of play, United went into the game with a two point lead over Klopp’s men. Throw in the “Mourinho factor” and the omens were not good, despite the recent good form of the Merseysiders.
Liverpool just didn’t look like themselves. The recent defensive improvement proved to be yet another false dawn as they conceded two soft goals to long punts up the middle of the pitch. Dreadful, and not just from the regular scapegoat-in-chief Dejan Lovren either. The blame is collective.
It wasn’t just the defence that failed to perform. Players who have been running roughshod over opponents all season looked nervy and hesitant against United and repeatedly either chose the wrong option or simply failed to execute the kind of pass they usually make as a matter of routine.
Over the years Mourinho has been like Kryptonite to free flowing attacking opposition. Nobody can shut down a potent attack like he does and Liverpool have suffered — and continue to suffer — at his hands more than most. So much so that you get the feeling that he’s in Liverpool’s heads now and that is as much of a contributing factor as anything he does tactically.
Mourinho knew how to stifle Liverpool’s prolific attack and he managed to subdue 32-goal Mohamed Salah in a way that nobody has managed so far this season. United were able to cut off the supply line to him and when the ball did reach Salah he was denied any time and space and was usually dispossessed fairly quickly.
Liverpool had no answer to it and failed to create anything of note, despite enjoying almost total domination of possession after the break. That the second half was played almost exclusively in United’s half should not be seen as a sign of control or dominance by Liverpool, however, as Mourinho was more than happy for them to have the ball.
Although the self proclaimed “Special One” clearly has a big ego, he does not seem to care in the least what anybody thinks of his methods and that makes him all the more dangerous to sides such as Liverpool, who thrive against teams who want to attack them. The end always justifies the means for Mourinho and if he needs to incur the wrath of the Old Trafford crowd by replacing two-goal hero Marcus Rashford with the unpopular Marouane Fellaini, he’ll do it without a second’s hesitation.
Rashford had caused Liverpool a lot of problems, yet Klopp would surely have preferred the dangerous attacker to have stayed on the field and for United to look to extend their lead, or at least venture out of their own half once in a while.
Perhaps other coaches would have done so and Liverpool might have found a way back into the game as result of it. Pulling back a two-goal deficit against a Mourinho team fully entrenched in “thou shalt not pass” mode is difficult enough at the best of times, but when crucial refereeing decisions are also going against you and your best player is in Ashley Young’s pocket then you have no hope.
The result harms Liverpool in terms of local pride and it makes Champions League qualification for next season that bit more difficult. Victory would have seen them go second but defeat meant they ended the weekend in fourth spot looking over their shoulders at Chelsea.
Losing to United always hurts more because of the rivalry, but Liverpool need to shrug it off quickly and bounce back by beating Watford this weekend. Saturday’s loss was a setback but Liverpool’s league position remains strong and they still have this season’s Champions League to look forward to.
When the draw is made for the quarterfinals later this week the one team Liverpool should want to avoid is United. Some supporters might be hoping for an opportunity to set the record straight and exact some revenge. Those supporters are, with all due respect, crazy.
Most sensible Reds would like to avoid it at all costs, but it feels somewhat inevitable now that the teams will meet again this year, possibly in a semifinal which would invoke memories of Liverpool’s titanic battles with Mourinho in his Chelsea days.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN’s Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.