Thursday, December 7

Liverpool’s defensive weaknesses exposed as injuries bite hard against Manchester United’s fighting spirit

For all the raucous energy that the infuriated Manchester United fans brought to Old Trafford, this had something of the feel of lockdown football for Liverpool, that curious period where injuries and empty stadium contrived to rob the then-title holders of their propulsive force.

So it was Monday. Liverpool found themselves in a hard fought, hard run race and for once were some way off the pace. You don’t need spurious sprint stats to illustrate the point. Merely by watching the game, it was apparent that Manchester United had an intensity and speed to their game that their great rivals, the team who for so long have been the Premier League’s whirling dervishes, could not match.

As a one-off, that might not be cause for any great concern. United needed to show a reaction from their disastrous displays against Brighton and Brentford; Klopp himself had acknowledged before the game that he would rather have faced an opponent on the up than a wounded animal. Even when this defeat is set alongside the draws with Fulham and Crystal Palace that have Liverpool in 16th, the benefit of the doubt belongs with a side that has been at or near the summit of European football for almost half a decade.

Still, there were signs of something more concerning than just a wobbly run of two points of nine. Virgil van Dijk and James Milner seemed to be engaged in a running war of words with each other stemming from their clumsy attempts to deny Jadon Sancho the opener. Klopp did what he could to downplay the frustrations of two of his most senior players, saying “it’s how it is when you’re in a ground like this.” But it has not been how it is for Liverpool in recent years and not just because they have enjoyed such success at this ground.

One sight was altogether more familiar, the defensive malfunctionings of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Not for a second should Klopp consider dropping his right back. The sacrifices that have to be made without the ball should be made in a heartbeat to unleash the attacking thrust of the 23-year-old. Equally, it is fair to ask whether, after years of questioning his tendency to switch off, further defensive improvements might have been made by now.

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Alexander-Arnold has bulked up physically to the extent that one-on-one duels are not a weak point, but his concentration was lacking from the outset at Old Trafford and United exploited it remorselessly. A clumsy foul on Marcus Rashford was all the encouragement Anthony Elanga needed. “Where is Trent?” was the cry from CBS Sports analyst Jamie Carragher when the young Swede hit the post soon after.

The answer is usually that he is up the pitch helping Liverpool to score more goals and that is up to those around him to cover for him. And yet right now, Alexander-Arnold could be set to find himself in the same situation he was back in early 2021. Just as it was with center backs then, the injury list is verging on the brutal in central midfield, an area that might have needed strengthening anyway even if Thiago, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Curtis Jones weren’t among the 10 players in the treatment room three games into the season.

Once more, personnel issues — on this occasion coupled with a dip in form for Jordan Henderson — have left the right back with an ever-changing cast of teammates around him. Joe Gomez was no better equipped to cover for him this week than Nathaniel Phillips had been last week.

United, meanwhile, were remorseless with ten Hag introducing Anthony Martial at the break so that he could get Marcus Rashford into the channel between Alexander-Arnold and Gomez. It paid dividends in emphatic fashion on 53 minutes. There was, of course, precious little the latter could do when Henderson’s miscontrol handed United a counterattacking chance that they exploited with gusto. It was the mere culmination of an hour of probing that particular corridor of Liverpool uncertainty.

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But if Alexander-Arnold’s life was made more difficult by those around him, he did not always do himself any favors, giving up the chase on United’s opener once Elanga’s give-and-go with Christian Eriksen had caught him flatfooted. Virgil van Dijk’s baffling hesitance when Sancho stood in a shooting position caught the eye, but across the pitch Alexander-Arnold was all too slow in getting back into a position to help.

That was the bigger cause for concern for Liverpool on the night, that they seemed off the play, something so atypical for a Klopp side. “The start of the game was exactly what everyone excepted, what United fans expected, they were after us,” he acknowledged. “They started slightly more aggressive than us, they could more play the game they wanted than we could play the game we wanted.”

Perhaps though the explanation is rather simple. It was not that Liverpool were off it, per se, but that United were so on it. Though all was doom and gloom before the game in many ways, the circumstances could not have been more better suited for the much heralded reaction.

Old Trafford had riled itself up to fury with the Glazer family before kickoff; put 11 Liverpool players in front of them and they were sure to offer the most raucous of support. The players — aided by ten Hag making the obvious decisions to drop the tactical handbrake Cristiano Ronaldo and a shellshocked Harry Maguire — needed only to match that energy from the outset to start the virtuous cycle that roared them to victory.

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Erik ten Hag’s anger at Brentford had not been reserved for his side’s inability to put his tactical vision into play. He did not have his side constructed intricate passing triangles to build play from the back on their day off. They were running hard yards last Sunday because they had not the previous day (it is in that regard and that alone that we might see value in the sprint stats that have dominated this weekend’s discourse. They do not necessarily show a lack of effort by any one team but if a manager perceives that the industry is lacking, they can be an extremely effective stick with which to beat his players).

This was a changed United, one who held their heads high from minute one. “We can talk about tactical, but it is all about attitude,” said ten Hag. “There was communication and a fighting spirit.

“I wanted a different approach and a different attitude and that is what they brought on the pitch. It is only a start. We can play with much more composure and much more danger. Be a team and have a good spirit — and that is what we saw today.

“It is not always about what I said. I said we have to act and not to talk a lot and make sure you are a team and battle and be brave and give each other options.”

Perhaps then there is no reason just yet to fear that this is more than just a wobble for Liverpool. They were outfought because this was United’s moment of greatest need. They will not meet many more teams on an existential precipice like their opponents were on Monday. 

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