1. What the heck was that?
I had heard rumors coming into the weekend there was supposed to be some sort of epic clash between Manchester United and Liverpool at Anfield on Monday evening that, depending on who was peddling the gossip, would either restore the home side’s long-lost dominance over the rivalry, or would re-confirm the visitors more recent superiority. Did I get the time wrong? Or the date? Because what I saw was a mostly dreary nil-nil draw, which apparently hadn’t happened between the two most trophy-laden clubs in English football for eleven years. I could have derived as much entertainment by sitting across the street from a trendy club, watching the valets scurry around parking and fetching cars.
2. Someone needs to explain the definition of opportunity to José.
United’s announced starting XI put the kibosh on any hopes for the type of fare hoped for and usually received in a North-West Derby. No Juan Mata to test Phillipe Coutinho’s willingness to contribute defensively. Instead, the Mutt and Jeff combination of Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini were inserted to provide cover. Except cover wasn’t needed. With Geroginio Wijnaldum completely unavailable through injury, and Adam Lallana only fit for relief work, Jürgen Klopp was forced to respect United’s ability to attack, left with the solitary option to play Jordan Henderson and Emre “Don’t Call Me Charlie ” C(h)an for the entire ninety minutes. Despite Young and Fellaini’s more static presence, United’s early high press was a welcome sight. But without Mata’s dynamism, or even the big-goal-or-nothing roll of the dice offered by playing Jesse Lingard, Mourinho’s side seemed more unwilling than unable to capitalize.
That reluctance’s most obvious example came when Paul Pogba eluded his persistent double team’s clutching and grabbing to send a dangerous cross deep into the box, beyond the reach of Loris Karius in goal, but just behind the onrushing Zlatan Ibrahimović. The best the big Swede could manage was to head the ball parallel to goal. Meanwhile, when Pogba loosed the ball and Ibra began his run, Ashley Young stood a stride or two outside the box directly behind the latter, performing a little “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” stutter step.
In the end, Young decided to cautiously follow Ibra into the box. Had he his younger self’s vision and courage to make a diagonal run towards the deserted far post, he may have been able to run the ball down and tap it into a gaping goal. Of course, that has not been his role in the United squad for what seems an eternity. All the attacking aggression present when Sir Alex Ferguson bought him as a precocious twenty-something from Aston Villa has been methodically removed by a parade of coaches, its pieces stuffed in an unmarked box in the Carrington attic along with Wayne Rooney’s. Rather than being the second coming of Ryan Giggs for the Red Devils, Young has become its latest Alan Smith. The next time someone tells you big money makes for higher quality football think about that.
To the credit of Young’s you-call-that running? mate’s credit, Belgium’s answer to Cleopatra Jones provided the visitor’s best chance to score. Fellaini found an empty space to head a Daley Blind corner a yard wide. After a year under Louis van Gaal, during which he developed the frustrating habit of directing every effort, whether cranial or boot-driven, directly into the opposing keeper’s midriff, I call that an improvement.
To encourage Fellaini to actually find the twine, I think United players should adopt what NFL teams call a kangaroo court. Recognition is given for contributions above and beyond, but, more importantly, fines and punishments are levied for critical or embarrassing gaffes. Not to mention needless yellow cards, if you’re paying attention, Zlatan and Ander Herrera. United’s kangaroo court would need a credible judge in the form of a team leader, typically one not playing a more critical role. Michael Carrick would be an obvious choice. Whoever it might be, should His Honor decree that, were the half flamingo-half lampshade in question to fail to bury his next header, he will be required to shear off his prodigious afro, I suspect we may see a sudden glut of goals. Fear can be a wonderful motivator when applied correctly.
3. Despite the money spent on Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not to mention a shaky start to the campaign, David de Gea may still be United’s most important player.
With nothing coming of the United high press, Klopp made some adjustments during the interval, and Liverpool came out a more interested side. United now found themselves pressured, and soon conceded a free kick from Phillipe Coutinho’s living room, just outside the box to the goal’s right. The Brazilian’s delivery was up to his usual other-wordly standard, but so, thankfully, was David de Gea, who leaped to his left like a Secret Service agent throwing himself in front of a bullet, palming the ball away. The Spaniard would later dive low to his right to do it again when Can, of all people, invaded the box, managed to untangle himself from three United defenders, then got off a volley labeled for the far post.
If Mourinho continues to view his negative brand of football as positive, De Gea’s legend will only grow. As wonderful as that would be for future reminiscing over a pint, it’s really the last thing United need. You bought some dynamic players on your arrival, José, and have gone on record as saying Juan Mata’s game fits this squad in a way it didn’t at Chelsea. Give your talent the freedom to shine. For once in your life, have the stones to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!