One nil to the Liverpool. For the third consecutive time this season Liverpool won by a single goal in the Premier League, but these three points may well prove to be worth more than the other six were. Manchester United, albeit a flat, lifeless Manchester United playing in the manner of a facsimile of the team that cantered to the Premier League championship last season, were the vanquished team this afternoon, ending a run of four matches without a win in this most vituperative of local derbies and providing a glimpse of one team that finally seems to be turning a corner and one that showed an unnerving lack of conviction for a match of such importance.
The goal that settled the match came early, and was scored by one of the greenest shoots of Liverpool’s season so far. After just three minutes had been played, a corner from the right was headed goal-wards and Sturridge, displaying both presence of mind and intelligence, flicked the ball between the two defenders on the goal line and in to give Liverpool the lead. After such an opening and such a trail in the days building up to the match, we have expected further fireworks, but this was a game that never caught light and at full-time the volume rose from the crowd to a crescendo as much from a sense of relief as anything else. Without ever having to use their fingernails, Liverpool had clung on for a win.
Three games, three first half Daniel Sturridge goals, three clean sheets, then. If Brendan Rodgers were to be using this as a tactical ploy this season, it would be difficult to argue with its results. Manchester United did dominate possession in the second half, but they did so whilst only seldom doing so much as coming close to troubling the Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, and when they did Mignolet looked as sharp as the others in his team. This Liverpool team looks simultaneously more solid and more sharp that its recent predecessors have. Indeed, so finely balanced did it look this afternoon that we might even wonder whether the singular talents of Luis Suarez might unbalance it upon his return from suspension.
As much praise as we might choose to offer Liverpool for their performance this afternoon, though, so questions should be asked of Manchester United’s limpness this afternoon. Ashley Young, a player who has come in for criticism in recent months, had an opportunity to prove those critics wrong this afternoon, but his withdrawal midway through the second half came off the back of performance that will have done little to assuage them. Elsewhere, Manchester United looked flat and predictable. For all the genius levelled at Robin Van Persie, he is a player that can only do very much if he is receipt of the ball, and there weren’t that many times today when he was. One chance, an overhead kick after six minutes which shot narrowly over the Liverpool crossbar, was really about as much as he could offer in ninety minutes.
Positional and tactical issues may be easy to resolve, but problems relating to motivation and sloppiness may be more troubling for David Moyes. Why didn’t Manchester United’s players seem to be able to lift themselves for one of their biggest matches of the season? What causes the sort of carelessness that manifested itself in giving away possession when under no pressure, reckless tackles and picking up needless cards? Although the team comfortably dominated possession during the second half, the team’s movement was lethargic and its passing predictable. And when they won any of the considerable number of corners that they won, the delivery was frequently sub-standard and comfortable for the Liverpool defence to deal with.
There will many watching with baited breath to see when the first shouts of “Moyes Out!” start to ring around Old Trafford, or even Twitter, but these voices have been muted so far, with the opening day win at Swansea City being very effective in demonstrating that rumour of Manchester United’s decline may have been exaggerated. The last two matches, however, have shown chinks in the armour. Whilst it would be excessive to describe their draw against a defensively set up Chelsea last week as “bad” result in any way, to fail to score in two consecutive matches will be a concern to the manager, who may well have one eye on the hair-trigger nature of the managerial sack race over the course of the last few months or so.
It’s too early in the season to be able to extrapolate the sort of effect that today’s result might have for Liverpool and Manchester United just yet this season. Liverpool’s performances so far may have been consistent, but winning by an odd goal margin would seem to be an indication that there is still potential for improvement, whilst Manchester United’s season doesn’t end with such a defeat, galling though it may be for the club to lose such bitter rivals. For now, however, the right to brag (whatever, exactly, that is) rests at the other end of the motorway. A win against Manchester United to go to the top of the Premier League, though. This might just about have been Liverpool’s perfect day. Manchester United, on the other hand, have work to do, and receiving such a reminder just as the transfer window winds down may well only exaggerate the fact that the clubs has not been reinforcing this summer whilst others around them have.
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