Manchester United 2 – 1 Liverpool Match Report: Mata’s Brilliant Brace Gives Red Devils Victory over
Controlling your emotion is a talent. Louis Van Gaal was spot on when he declared this ahead of the predictably volatile clash between Manchester United and Liverpool yesterday. LVG invoked his inner Martin Atkinson, who had a stellar performance as center referee, during the training ground sessions in preparation for the much vaunted battle for a Champions League spot. Van Gaal seized the whistle during training to simulate a hostile environment to acclimatize his team to the level of aggression and tension they might have to navigate at Anfield. LVG, quite often taunted as a micro-manager of sorts, the quintessential PE teacher, has always touted his philosophy of teaching his players how to think rather than how to play. He was very deliberate in ensuring that none of his players picked up a red card in this vital match. This approach would prove a genius stroke of game management, as it was one of the main keys that United used to unlock Brendan Rodgers men on Sunday – the Red Devils maintained control and kept their composure.
The atmosphere at Anfield was rancid; Liverpool supporters had their scarfs and banners aloft as they bellowed out the insufferable “You will never walk alone” anthem. Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao sat on the United bench, Van Gaal had done the wise thing; he named an unchanged side for probably the first time since he had taken charge of United. He opted not to disturb the team balance that had United revert to the slick attacking unit of past against Tottenham. Moving with verve, guile, steel, and pomp Manchester United were able to quiet the Anfield faithful early on. United kept possession for the large parts of the opening exchange, even the balls lofted up field found their mark. Mostly because the gravitational field from, Marouane Fellaini, the colossal Belgian with the mercurial chest kept sucking the ball in preventing it from being blocked off by Emre Can. Fellaini, a key piece of the puzzle for United this campaign has a chest even Optimus Prime would envy.
It would be Fellaini who channeled the ball to the splendid Ander Herrera, the Spaniard had the quickness of movement and thought to lay a bunker splitting pass to his compatriot Juan Mata, who had evaded the over eager Albert Moreno. The left footed Mata rampaged down the right, and unleashed a precise shot with his right foot to the far side of the outstretched Mignolet. The ball pinged off the lower left post before nestling in, Anfield was stunned but United’s early dominance had paid off and rightfully so. Brendan Rodgers would have sensed that his 3-5-2 formation he had adopted for the game would be vanquished with United doubling (triple at times) up at the ends of the back three. Fellaini, Blind and Rooney (who had another torrid time at Anfield) attacking Emre Can, while Herrera, Mata, and Valencia tormented Moreno. There was no indication that Rodgers intended to pivot from the formation he had picked.
What is telling is that Rodgers also fell into the same snare Pochettino found himself in with his Spurs team. The one-paced Daley Blind at left back enticed both young strategists to place their speediest players on that flank; Pochettino deployed the resurgent Townsend while Rodgers inexplicably placed the fleet footed Sterling at right wing back. While to his credit Sterling did get behind Blind on one occasion, but for the most part he and his manager found out first hand that where Blind lacked in speed he made up for in velocity of thought. Daley Blind’s overall football intelligence makes him a force on any patch of the pitch he happens to find himself on, his exchanges with Ashley Young and Fellaini kept Sterling pinned back. However the key battle was won and lost in Spain. Juan Mata and Herrera baited Moreno while he remained on the pitch, Moreno’s coupe de grace came when he was unceremoniously hooked by Rodgers for the constantly agitated Balotelli. The Spaniard could not make out what to do with his compatriots on the Liverpool left flank, Moreno frequently over pressed and could not make enough ground to recover when it most mattered.
I have purposely delayed mentioning Stephen Gerrard and his 45 seconds of shame because I believe it is a distraction from what was a very strong United showing on the day. Gerrard was sent on for Lallana who was probably concussed from his up close and personal with Phil Jones. 'Captain Fantastic' managed one patented Hollywood pass, one over aggressive tackle on Mata, a willful stamp on Herrera, and a red card greeting from Atkinson. Gerrard was probably irritated about having to watch the proceeding from the bench, being his last competitive match against his bitter rivals. He probably was more incensed about how his teammates were being bullied in almost every aspect, so therefore took it upon himself to be the harbinger of steel and passion. Gerrard lost control - His red card was well earned and well given.
United made the man-advantage pay. LVG switched gears by withdrawing Young, for Angel Di Maria. It was the Argentine who found the impressive Mata with a lovely chipped pass, and Mata rewarded him with an assist made in the heavens. The technique Mata adopted would have made the legendary Pele, who was in attendance, sit up in his seat. In a fraction of time, Mata adjusted himself to the flight of the ball and executed a sumptuous scissor kick volley of cinematic quality. That would prove the match winner, Liverpool put up some resistance via a slightly deflected shot from Sturridge. The intervention from Phil Jones cleats had left his goalkeeper De Gea in limbo. The goal might have provided Liverpool with some false hope; in fact they would end up with only 1 shot on target from 4 attempts on goal. Juan Mata by himself was 2 for 2, with 100 percent strike rate and a 93 percent pass success rate. United had 4 attempts on goal with all of them on target. United maintained 82 percent pass rate with 58 percent of total possession. LVG will be vindicated in that in all the tension, madness, and turmoil none of his players lost their heads and got sent off. His pre-match preparation paid dividend.The most telling stat was a 2-1 victory away to Liverpool, and creating a 5 point cushion between United and Liverpool the closest challenger.
Rooney’s Anfield anguish continued as he failed to convert from the spot after Daley Blind won a penalty from a blatant bundling over from the embattled Emre Can. Martin Skrtel lost his head at the very end as he left one in on David Gea in a desperate attempt to rescue something for his side. The FA might very well take another look at it, as it was not apparent Martin Atkinson saw or addressed the incident on the pitch. The most satisfying fallout is the mad scramble by the press and punditry to redefine to the world where they think Manchester United is as a team, and what they think the, formerly taunted, Van Gaal philosophy is exactly. Like we did not know that already for ourselves – we were just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.