Exposed: Liverpool’s defensive woes, Manchester United’s systemic flaws

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“Let’s see if we can survive until Sunday when we have a game against a super team that is one of the favourites to win the Premier League,” said Tottenham Hotspur coach Jose Mourinho on Tuesday after his side knocked out Chelsea from the League cup on penalties.

Mourinho was referring to the game against Manchester United amid fixture congestion brought about by Tottenham’s Europa League qualifiers.

In hindsight, the comment by Mourinho, who at the time was involved in a series of digs and counter-digs with United counterpart Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, couldn’t have been more tongue-in-cheek. The Portuguese had departed United after falling out with the club’s board in December 2018 following a string of poor results. Since then, United have fallen into the topsy-turvy cycle of results symptomatic of the post-Alex Ferguson era.

Spurs won 6-1 as the Premiership ended a crazy weekend with champions Liverpool’s high line defending being caught out by Aston Villa; new signing Ollie Watkins scoring a hattrick in the 7-2 victory. Never have any Premier League champions let in that many.

With United’s chief executive Ed Woodward and owners, the US-based Glazer family, already facing flak from fans after another transfer window plagued by a lack of signings, Mourinho and Tottenham dissected the 13-time Premier League champions’ flaws in full public glare at Old Trafford. Despite United earning, and converting, a first-minute penalty, Spurs dominated the game. Leading 2-1 when United’s Anthony Martial was sent off in the first half, Spurs inflicted on United their joint-worst defeat in the Premier League era.

If there was a match that illustrated how disjointed United have become in recent years, it was this. Questions have resurfaced over Solskjaer’s tactical acumen. The Norwegian had started his managerial stint with a series of remarkable results including the famous 3-1 win in Paris in March 2019 that saw United erase a two-goal deficit at home and knock PSG out of the Champions League.

“Ole’s at the wheel, tell me how good does it feel,” soon reverberated across the Old Trafford terraces. However, almost two years since his first United game as manager, not many fans seem confident about Solskjaer’s ability to steer the club back to the top.

Against a Spurs side playing its fourth game in eight days, and eighth in 22, United lacked intensity and were outwitted. While Harry Maguire, a £80 million signing last season, had a poor afternoon, French World Cup winner and club record signing Paul Pogba seemed invisible at times. The vaunted United midfield was overwhelmed by a better-organised Spurs side.

United do have a squad capable of beating anybody on its day, as some results last season showed. The problem is that those days don’t come very often. United’s lack of cohesion on the pitch is an indictment of both the manager and the owners. A club that lacks a clear transfer strategy, often pays inflated fees and wages and is accused of being content with commercial success can perhaps only get so far on the pitch.

SHOCKER AT VILLA PARK

Watkins had already scored a hattrick when he hit the crossbar. As the TV broadcaster replayed Watkins’s miss, one couldn’t miss the bizarre positioning of Liverpool goalkeeper Adrian standing in for the injured Alisson.

As the cross was delivered towards the box from Villa’s right flank, Adrian moved further to his right and away from target man Watkins. Even the English commentator in the global feed seemed shocked. “He is on his way out of Villa Park there, with the position he is in!”

Watkins’s miss was not enough to save Adrian as Villa handed Liverpool their worst Premier League defeat. An Adrian mispass in his penalty area started the nightmare, the ball meant for Joe Gomez reaching Villa’s enterprising skipper Jack Grealish who passed for Watkins to convert.

It is not the first time that an Adrian’s error has hurt Liverpool. Earlier this year, he made a similar mistake in the Champions League Round of 16 second-leg against Atletico Madrid as Liverpool crashed out after leading on aggregate early in extra-time.

According to stat aggregator Opta, Adrian has made five mistakes directly leading to goals in 21 games. First-choice goalkeeper Alisson has made the same number of errors in 92 games. However, Adrian was hardly the main reason behind Liverpool’s humiliation on Sunday.

The Reds looked vulnerable almost every time Villa, who finished 17th last term, attacked. Dean Smith’s side shrewdly dealt with Liverpool’s high line drawing the Reds into their half and regularly using wide players to create space. Juergen Klopp has never shied away from admitting that his is a high-risk strategy. His team did manage to create multiple chances on Sunday but their capitulation at the back was startling.

“Rubbish mistakes,” Klopp said later. The German coach has evolved his high-press over the years. But he will be concerned by recent defensive vulnerabilities despite having in Virgil van Dijk one of the finest centre-backs in the game now. Since resumption of football in England in June after the coronavirus pandemic, Liverpool have conceded more goals in proportion than they used to since the 2018-19 season.

The Reds leaked the least goals in the Premier League in the last two seasons – 22 in 2018-19 and 33 in the next. Before the lockdown, Liverpool had shipped 21 goals in 29 games. In the nine games since resumption in 2019/20, they conceded 12 times. This season, they have already conceded 11 goals in four games, three of them against newly promote Leeds United.

The ease with which Villa ran away with Sunday’s game could call for some serious introspection at Anfield. But unlike Solskjaer, who will be feeling the heat in the Old Trafford hot seat, Klopp can begin his inquest with far less pressure.



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