Man Utd vs Liverpool Review: Erik ten Hag Gets His First Win As Man Utd Manager
When the Manchester United lineup was released an hour before kickoff, there was notable rumbling by a section of the home fans. The decision to drop Cristiano Ronaldo for Anthony Elanga (who was moved out left while Marcus Rashford was moved to a central position in attack) was seen as an error that would prove costly for Manchester United. Admittedly, on paper at least, dropping Ronaldo for Elanga in a must-win Derby is laughable but what the Man Utd fans finally got to see on Monday night was a manager picking players to fit a particular game plan and not on their price-tags. As he did say in the pre-match interview: “We know Liverpool are a really good team and you need to press them. You have to do that out of a block and need energy, that is why we went with Rashford, Sancho and Elanga.” Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t the only starter dropped. Club captain, Harry Maguire and fellow Englishman, Luke Shaw were both left on the bench for Raphaël Varane & Tyrell Malacia respectively.
Liverpool’s lineup, on the other hand, was one that gave their supporters cause to be worried. The club had been rocked by multiple injuries and manager Jurgen Klopp was forced to make do with the available players. Most notable of these changes was the pairing of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez in the heart of defence. The last time these two were paired at the Center-Back position was almost 23 months ago in the 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa back on 4th October 2020. Roberto Firmino who was absent for the clash with Crystal Palace last week returned as a starter while Klopp went with a midfield three of James Milner, Harvey Elliott & Jordan Henderson with Thiago Alcântara still out injured and Fabinho not fit enough to start.
After the match, Man Utd’s Eric ten Hag would tell the SkySports analysts that the most important factor in their victory wasn’t exactly their tactical approach but the desire and effort and he wasn’t wrong. From the kickoff, Man Utd looked and played like the hungrier side. They chased down every loose ball, won almost every aerial duel, relentlessly pressed Liverpool when the visitors had possession and won not only the first but second balls. It was an opening 20mins that left Man Utd fans excited but also wondering why they hadn’t shown that sort of determination in the opening two games of the season. Anthony Elanga almost instantly repaid the manager’s gamble when Bruno Fernandes slid a pass to leave him one on one with Alisson Becker. The Liverpool goalie was well beaten by the young Swede but got lucky as the shot hit the post as both teams remained levelled.
A few minutes later, it was Elanga’s turn to do the setting up. A quick one-two pass with Christian Eriksen left him with space down Liverpool’s right and he was able to manage a pass to Jadon Sancho before being tackled. Sancho showed impeccable composure and calmness as he received the ball, feigned a shot attempt which beat both an onrushing James Milner and Alisson Becker before cooly sliding the ball into the back of the net with Van Dijk left rooted to the spot. This was the first time in Premier League history where Liverpool would concede first for a seventh game in a row and The Reds had avoided defeat in each of the previous six (W3, D3).
The visitors seemed to regain their composure after the half-hour mark and finally controlled the game a bit but they never looked like equalising despite Manchester United captain on the night, Bruno Fernandes almost gifting them a goal when he miskicked a ball towards his own post. Thankfully for him, Lisandro Martinez was there to stop it from going in. The home side doubled their lead less than 10 mins into the second half when substitute Anthony Martial slid Marcus Rashford through on goal with the English international slotting home past Alisson and leaving Liverpool in real danger of failing to win any of their first 3 Premier League games of the season for the first time since 2012 under Brendan Rodgers.
Liverpool tried to fight back but it seemed fruitless. Tyrell Malacia kept Mo Salah quiet all evening while Lisandro Martinez and Raphaël Varane put in one of the best defensive performances by a pair of United Centre-Backs in almost a year. Even when a perfectly floated ball by Harvey Elliot managed to beat them, a rusty looking Bobby Firmino mistimed his volley which summed up his & Liverpool’s evening. It looked like Klopp’s last option was to make the most of his team’s set-pieces; a phase of the game which they had created multiple mismatches but failed to capitalise on. Just like in the game against Brentford, Man Utd again failed to effectively deal with a floating ball to the back post and Mo Salah, who had been quiet all game, pounced on a rebound to pull one back for the visitors with 9 mins left on the clock.
Liverpool pushed for the equaliser but Man Utd were never in real danger of throwing this away and they held on to earn their first 3pts of the Premier League season. This was Klopp’s 4th defeat to Manchester United in all competitions as Liverpool manager. Interestingly, all 4 defeats have come against 4 different managers; losing to Louis van Gaal (2016), Jose Mourinho (2018), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (2021) and now Erik ten Hag. The loss leaves Klopp’s side 16th on the table and still looking for their first win of the season. A lot has been made about the sale of Sadio Mane after the loss but the Senegalese captain started neither of the 4-2 or 5-0 wins Liverpool gained on their last two visits to Old Trafford. Perhaps Jurgen Klopp was right when he pointed out that Liverpool was now a team in transition following their Champions League final loss to Real Madrid but he probably never imagined this slow start to the season.
For Man Utd, this was a much needed win for the club; their first of the season and their first in the Premier League after 4 consecutive defeats. While it was a very convincing win, the team isn’t out of the woods yet and the players would need to show more consistency in the coming weeks as they still lie 14th on the table with an embarrassing -4 Goal Difference. With the addition of Casemiro (who was unveiled before kick off) and two more attacking players rumoured to be joining the team, this win for the home side could be a solid foundation to build on. The win also leaves disgruntled superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo with mixed feelings. While he may have been happy to see his team triumph in the derby, being reduced to a 5-minute cameo as the team performed superbly without him must have left a sour taste in his mouth.