Manchester United 1-1 Liverpool
- Goals: Marcus Rashford (£8.4m) | Adam Lallana (£5.8m)
- Assists: Daniel James (£6.1m) | Andrew Robertson (£6.9m)
- Bonus: Rashford, Robertson x3, James, Lallana x1
Sunday afternoon saw a meeting between the Premier League’s two best defences based on expected goals conceded (xGC).
As if to prove that expected goal data isn’t everything, Manchester United and Liverpool haven’t been able to translate their promising underlying statistics into too many clean sheets this season (just two each – only four clubs have recorded fewer).
The result at Old Trafford was perhaps not a huge surprise, then, with the two old foes serving up a tight match in which clear-cut chances were at a premium but ultimately conceding a goal apiece to once again deprive Fantasy managers of much-needed clean sheet points.
Jurgen Klopp’s side were without Mohamed Salah (£12.4m), who missed a league game through injury for the first time in 18 months.
Speaking ahead of kick-off, the Liverpool head coach said:
Mo was not ready, that’s how it is. He couldn’t train with the team; I don’t know where it came from that everybody said he will play. There was pretty much no chance for today, maybe for Wednesday [in the Champions League], we have to see.
To say that the Egyptian’s availability would have made all the difference is too simplistic, given that United switched to three centre-halves for this match and made it quite clear that their first intention was to contain their visitors and strike on the counter-attack.
The lack of invention from the centre of midfield was also an issue for Liverpool, a problem that Klopp seemed to acknowledge after the break when throwing on substitutes Adam Lallana (£5.8m), Naby Keita (£5.8m) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (£6.2m).
Still, it was difficult to dispute that Salah’s absence not only deprived the Reds of an outlet down the right but also led to a disruptive rejig to the frontline, with Sadio Mane (£11.8m) initially operating from the right flank and Divock Origi (£5.3m) deputising on the opposite wing.
We even saw Klopp move to a 4-2-3-1 in the second half, with the below-par Jordan Henderson (£5.3m) forced into an unconvincing right-wing role and Roberto Firmino (£9.5m) shunted into the number ten position.
Firmino couldn’t match his usual high levels, slicing horribly wide early on and then producing a tame shot when well-positioned in the United box.
The stats tables will show that Mane failed to register a single goal attempt, meanwhile, although the Senegalese winger only had a goal ruled out after VAR intervention, having been adjudged to have controlled the ball with his arm.
Reflecting on the game, Klopp said:
It’s clear that it’s easier for United in a situation like that, coming here and play 5-3-2 and really properly fight and everybody is happy about that.
We were not really there, we did not get the momentum of the first half – they had it, but we still had the biggest chance of the first half with the counter-attack when Sadio plays the ball to Bobby. I wouldn’t say it was a ‘no brainer’, it was a big chance.
Then at half-time, we could adjust a few things and it was immediately better through little position changes and we scored a goal. In the end, we have to be happy with the point, that’s clear, but we are not happy with the performance overall. But that’s OK, that’s sometimes like it is.
While clean sheets are proving elusive, Liverpool’s full-backs are doing their best to compensate at the other end of the pitch.
Trent Alexander-Arnold (£7.2m) and Andrew Robertson (£6.9m) are joint-first and third for total points among FPL defenders this season, with the Scottish left-back registering his third assist in five Gameweeks when supplying Lallana’s late equaliser.
Robertson is now the highest-scoring defender over the last six Gameweeks.
The paucity of clean sheets league-wide means the bar has admittedly been set low but, on the flip side, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are riding high in the points standings in spite of Liverpool’s annoying knack of letting in the odd goal.
In the seven matches that the Reds have failed to keep a clean sheet, they have only conceded once – suggesting that they are not too far away from stringing together a succession of shut-outs.
Indeed, there was an argument to suggest that United’s goal on Sunday ought not to have counted due to a possible foul on Origi in the build-up – VAR adjudging Martin Atkinson’s failure to award a free-kick as not a clear and obvious error.
With Alisson (£5.8m) back – the Brazilian made his return from injury in this match – and the fixtures easing considerably from Gameweek 13 onwards, there may be some of us who are re-considering a Liverpool defensive double-up after the November international break.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has come in for some deserved criticism of late but the United head coach’s tactical tweak on Sunday merited praise, with a three-man backline marshalled by the imposing Harry Maguire (£5.4m) and some relentless harrying in midfield depriving Liverpool of the space they crave.
Solskjaer indeed hinted after the match that a wing-back system could be one he uses more in the future, saying:
It can develop into something because we’ve got the players to play with three at the back. Of course, it’s a risk when you play with three at the back against their [Liverpool] front three, which is a great front three. But it’s a risk we had to take.
We did it to create chances for ourselves. I thought the goal was the perfect example of how we wanted the game to pan out.
Other than the formation, little changed on Sunday.
This game told us what we knew already about Solskjaer’s troops, in that they are built to be a counter-attacking side and have been at their best in games against Chelsea and Liverpool this season, when their ‘big six’ opponents have been able to be exploited on the break.
With three newly promoted clubs and two of last season’s bottom ten to come in the next five Gameweeks, the Red Devils may not be able to play to their strengths if they fail to break the deadlock early.
All six of Marcus Rashford‘s (£8.4m) attacking returns this season have come against teams who finished in the top half of the table in 2018/19 and it was the England striker who broke the deadlock on Sunday following a fine run and cross from Daniel James (£6.1m).
The return from injury of Anthony Martial (£7.5m), who was thrown on as a late substitute, could be significant for those two assets should he be fit to start in Gameweek 10: Rashford and James were operating on the left and right flank respectively before Martial picked up his thigh problem, with the Frenchman having led the line in Gameweeks 1-3.
James’ goals against Southampton and Palace, for instance, came when he cut in off the left flank onto his favoured right foot.
Having welcomed back Martial, Aaron Wan-Bissaka (£5.4m) and David de Gea (£5.5m) from injury against Liverpool, Solskjaer may well have other bodies back fit for the trip to Norwich.
The United boss said after full-time:
Hopefully, Jesse [Lingard] is back soon. Anthony will be able to play more.
We’re going to have a test on Pogba tomorrow and see where he’s at and how long it’ll be until he’s back.
Luke [Shaw] is not too long. So, it’s looking brighter and that’s a big plus as well.
The Red Devils did lose Axel Tuanzebe (£4.4m) in the warm-up, however, while Nemanja Matic (£4.8m) also now faces a spell on the sidelines.
Reflecting on the game, Solskjaer said:
We’re better when we attack quickly – no dilly-dallying on the ball. Play the ball forward – it doesn’t have to be a counter-attack. I spoke about it before the game: take more risks, be braver. It doesn’t matter if you lose the ball up there because you can win it back.
I thought one, the boys were fantastic, aggressive, pressing on the front foot. Two, the fans also made it an energetic game, with loads of passion in the crowd.
Reserving praise for Rashford, the United boss said:
Not just for the movement for the goal, but for his movement all night really, I think maybe it’s one of his best games for us.
I think he’s showing strength. You could see that down the side when he showed his pace against Van Dijk and there was a body-to-body challenge there. He was strong.
But the goal is what we want from him – tap-ins. We had a little video session yesterday and exactly that happened.
Manchester United XI (3-4-2-1): De Gea; Maguire, Lindelof, Rojo; Young, Fred, McTominay, Wan-Bisakka; James, Pereira (Williams 90+4); Rashford (Martial 84).
Liverpool XI (4-3-3): Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson (Lallana 71′), Fabinho, Wijnaldum (Keita 82′); Mane, Firmino, Origi (Oxlade-Chamberlain 60′)
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