Monday, 20 January 2020

Front threes, combined XIs and Manchester United’s quest for relevance

As a younger sibling, I can understand the plight of Manchester United. Though they were founded chronologically prior to Liverpool, they share many traits with a second child.

They lived for a long time in the shadows, watching on with begrudging respect tinged with envy as Liverpool conquered all before them. Even when the Red Devils’ time came, each accomplishment was tinged with the knowledge that it had all been done before – the benchmark had been set, and they were simply measuring up to these impossibly high expectations.

For a brief, ecstatic period, their star shone brightest: through decades of graft, they finally laid claim to the title of most successful club in England. The attention was theirs, they were the new benchmark. And then, just like that, they weren’t.

Like the kid from the state school who made it to Oxford then went back to live with his parents while his sister carved out a successful career – this is all hypothetical, of course – United fell swiftly from the perch they had spent years constructing. Already, the waters of their success have been muddied: Liverpool’s Champions League, Super Cup and Club World Cup titles have left them requiring snookers in the form of Community Shields to cling on to their claim of the biggest trophy haul.

More importantly, the shift in the trajectories of the two clubs has been seismic. Just as Liverpool’s ‘come back when you’ve won 18’ banner felt increasingly hollow up until the day the challenge was met, equally it seems inevitable that even United’s contrived trophy count including the showpiece season-opener will be surpassed sooner or later. For all the kid from Old Trafford may protest, the big brother is back on top.

This is not easy for them to take. As the derby approaches, historic clips have inevitably surfaced – videos such as Dirk Kuyt netting the exemplar poacher’s hattrick would once have been the hit of nostalgia Liverpool fans needed just to get through the weekend, but with only more success on the horizon they can look forward with confidence. For United, retreat into their past glories is the only place of safety remaining.

Some, though, choose to stand and stay swinging. This is where things get embarrassing. Again, it is hard not to feel sorry for them – all Liverpool fans of a certain vintage will remember the days of trying to sneak players into combined XIs in school debates, kidding themselves that the two clubs remained at least on a par. The truth of the matter, though, is that this season Liverpool’s own ‘combined eleven’ has a record points haul for this stage of a campaign. United are 5th, with a tally that could have seen them as low as 10th in previous years.

One of these teams is not like the other. Jurgen Klopp cannot yet be compared with Alex Ferguson, who it is far easier to praise now that he is not the cause of constant torment, but he has had a similarly transformative effect on his club. He has awoken the ‘sleeping giant’ – that comforting phrase that serves as a crutch to underperforming clubs – and restored them to the status of the greatest team in the world. There is no particular shame in the fact that Manchester United cannot match this: nobody can.

This comes as little solace, though, to the United fans – the rivalry is too deep, the habit of measuring up against Liverpool too ingrained.  The advancement into the latter stages of the Champions League, the unlikely survival of top four hopes: these will never wholly satisfy, not so long as the side from Anfield overshadow it all.

These frustrations have manifested themselves in the form of claims that United’s front three somehow eclipse Liverpool’s. Aided by social media accounts eager to cash in on the potential for engagement, statistics showing that the front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have been outscored by that of Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial have spread like wildfire.

The numbers are of course correct, but presented without context they are utterly meaningless. They cannot be separated from the positions of their respective teams – while United fans can clearly be pleased that their forwards have an eye for goal, they should have a closer look at the Samba d’Or holder and the previous two African Player of the Year winners before attempting to make favourable comparisons.

Truly world class forwards should be facilitators as well as goal-scorers. Goals win games, as those pushing hard for Rashford’s inclusion in Liverpool/United XIs will incessantly tell anyone prepared to listen, but it must be asked how the Old Trafford outfit have become so reliant on the front three. Naturally, some fingers must be pointed both at the quality behind them and at the manager. However, there is more to it than that.

Roberto Firmino can be found deep in midfield as often as he can be seen running off the shoulder of the last man. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are not averse to shifts as auxiliary full-backs, covering spaces left by the marauding runs of the two full-backs following a turnover of possession. The European and world champions operate as a unit, getting the best out of the team as a collective. This requires far more intelligence from the front three than lurking on the halfway line ready to break: it will be recalled that they played far more in this fashion two seasons ago, when Mohamed Salah broke the Premier League goal record.

If Liverpool wanted to limit themselves to counter-attacking raids, their front three could eclipse United’s numbers with ease. We have seen them do it. There is duly a whiff of desperation about the comparisons, which ultimately are merely a cry for relevance as the club slides towards the risk of obscurity.

That is not to diminish Rashford, Martial or Greenwood individually, all of whom look like reasonable talents. If United can hold on to them, they are in a far better position to claw their way back to the top than Liverpool found themselves in at their nadir. Perhaps, before too long – probably with a different manager at the helm – a reasonable debate can be had about who would get into a combined eleven. For now, though, the last cries of defiance in the face of a record-breaking Liverpool team ring empty.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Spurs 0-1 Liverpool: Player ratings

Alisson Becker
Liverpool had to work for it, but a 1-0 triumph against Spurs in the capital was enough to move them an astounding 16 points clear of second-placed Leicester City. It was a determined performance from front to back, and Klopp’s men weathered some second-half scares to emerge victorious. Everybody came out of the game with credit, but there were some standout performers. Here are the player ratings:

Alisson: 9
You know you’re having a good game for Liverpool when Gary Neville singles you out for praise. The Sky co-commentator pointed out that a string of ‘easy’ saves for the stopper were only made to look so simple by the Brazilian’s impeccable positioning. His handling was also faultless – as Spurs pushed for an equaliser late on, any fumble could have proved decisive. The distribution was as accurate as ever: very occasionally he picked a pass that put the defence under unnecessary pressure, but ultimately the whole defensive unit has trust in each other’s ball-playing abilities. An excellent performance.

Trent Alexander-Arnold: 8
Anyone still determined to place question marks over Alexander-Arnold’s defensive qualities would have been given pause for thought by his performance in this game. He marshalled Heung-min Son excellently for most of the match, stepping up to the plate when the South Korean began to push forward more in search of a goal. A recovery challenge that put him off when he was through on goal was the most eye-catching moment, although much of his best work was done in quietly shepherding the wide forward into safe positions. It wasn’t Trent’s best day going forward, but we saw the other side of his game.

Joe Gomez: 6
The first game since his return to the side where Gomez has looked a bit shaky, but ultimately he still played his part in keeping another clean sheet. Lucas Moura caused him problems early on, and he was forced into a professional foul on Son, but he coped well with the threat of a second yellow hanging over him for much of the match. A loose pass that nearly let Dele Alli in on the hour mark earned him a rollicking off Virgil van Dijk, but his partner was able to bail him out.

Virgil van Dijk: 9
Another colossal performance from the big Dutchman. He kept his head when everyone else started to look a little shaky, injecting the element of composure needed to weather the eventual Spurs storm. His big challenge to deny Alli was a decisive moment in the match.

Andy Robertson: 7
A bit rash from Robertson at times – he lunged into a couple of hefty challenges, and was probably fortunate to end the game without a booking. He supplied some good deliveries, though, and was largely effective defensively. Serge Aurier put in a quality cross from his flank late on which Giovani Lo Celso should have converted, but it would be harsh to attach too much blame to the Scotsman.

Jordan Henderson: 7
The captain looked a little vulnerable under an early high press from Tottenham’s front line, but as Liverpool seized control and Spurs settled back into a more familiar Mourinho shape he came into his own. He put in a great cross for van Dijk, although the Dutchman was narrowly offside. Minutes later, he put in a brave header which many would have shied away from – this allowed Salah to pick out Firmino, who scored the goal which proved to be the winner. He was arguably guilty of being a little negative when Tottenham continued to sit back at 1-0, but in the end a second goal did not prove necessary.

Gini Wijnaldum: 5
Not the best day at the office for the Dutchman. He was largely anonymous going forward, occasionally showing off his ability to glide effortlessly past players but mostly just serving as a conduit to receive and recycle passes. On another day, he would have had to take the blame for an equaliser – it was he who was robbed by Lo Celso with fifteen minutes to go, forcing Alexander-Arnold to intervene and unsettle Son. He came into his own more in the final few minutes, where his continued energy was impressive and allowed Liverpool to escape out of their own half.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (subbed for Lallana, 61’): 7
The former Arsenal man looked like he was enjoying himself against Spurs, constantly providing progression from the middle of the park. This came at the cost of a few stray passes, but he regularly looked likely to make things happen in the first half. His driving runs were too much for a distinctly underwhelming Tottenham midfield. A quieter second half, withdrawn on the hour mark for Lallana.

Sadio Mane (subbed for Origi, 81): 8
This one may seem a little generous, but Mane put in an excellent all-round performance. In the first half he was a live wire, exploiting the inexperience of Japhet Tanganga and causing him real problems. He also picked some intelligent passes infield when others would have favoured the overlap, exploiting the lightweight Spurs midfield. He did not make the most of a difficult chance on 35 minutes, volleying into the ground and over, but took up all the right positions. In the second half he was less active going forward – he still forced a good save out of Paulo Gazzaniga from a header, but his most notable work was in his tracking back. He was regularly found deep in his own half supplying an extra body as Mourinho finally pushed men forward, so it was something of a surprise when Klopp replaced him with Origi.

Roberto Firmino: 8
A typical Firmino performance. He showed off some great feet, supplied a finish and routinely harried the Spurs back line. A remarkable turn early on was one that will make highlights reels, although he probably should have finished past Tanganga on the line. He got his revenge on the youngster in the 37th minute, completely selling him with a delicious feint before firing beyond the goalkeeper. A couple of flicks to teammates didn’t come off, but there was a merciful reduction in the misplaced simple passes that have crept into his game recently.

Mohamed Salah: 8 (subbed for Shaqiri, 90’)
Yes, it’s parity for all of the front three. It was a great collective performance from them: they all put in the defensive yards, while putting together some attacking combinations that were at times as intricate and fluid as we have seen from them. While Firmino got the goal, it could have been any of them – Salah had to overcome the attentions of Davinson Sanchez, who was usually quick to push out to him, but his tricky play in tight areas created more space for Mane in particular. He also bested the Colombian centre-half sometimes; he could not quite find a final finish of his own, but claimed the assist for the goal.

Lallana – 6
Origi and Shaqiri – N/A