Stats can be brilliant. Stats can fill you with confidence, convince you that something is a done deal before a ball has even been kicked. They can tell you more about a player than watching them alone can ever do.
Stats don’t take emotion into account, though. They are the purest of analytical tools, breaking down into numbers something that can’t always be predicted.
Before yesterday’s game the stats suggested that United had an 18% chance of making it through to the quarter-finals of the Europa League. That was based on the number of teams who had overturned a 2-0 away deficit in Europe before this round of fixtures.
You’d have taken those odds before the game. You’d have taken a 2-0 home win before the game, too. The reality is that this United team is genuinely very poor. A combination of mediocre players and a terrible manager has left them looking constantly vulnerable. All Liverpool needed to do was score a goal and the tie would be as good as over, with United more likely to show some class and dignity in the stands than score four goals, and it never seemed like they show some class and dignity in the stands.
Nervy for fans because of the opposition – but ultimately that was very comfortable. Huge gulf between the teams over two legs #lfc
— James Marsh (@Marsh_JC) March 17, 2016
Still, though, it’s United. It’s United in a European game against a Liverpool team that is generally lacking experience in Europe. It’s United with the best goalkeeper in the world between the sticks, determined to prove to Real Madrid and other suitors that he’s better than this shower he’s currently having to play alongside.
Say what you want, but this tie was far from over before a ball was kicked, no matter what the stats might have suggested.
Weathering The Storm & Making Mistakes
It always felt like the first twenty were huge for Liverpool. Yes one goal for us would have meant them having to score four, but an early goal would have given them confidence and got Old Trafford rocking. It would have given a Louis Van Gaal team that, despite its flaws, knows how to defend something to get behind. It would have made it a long night indeed.
So when the clock ticked past the twenty minute mark and it seemed as though we’d done enough to take the sting out of United I allowed myself to breath a sigh of relief. All of the caveats about it being Manchester United and us not having a good run of it at Old Trafford lately, losing eight of the last nine, remained in place. Yet it felt as though we had the mental edge after keeping them at bay despite them getting a number of chances.
Just as we were beginning to look like we’d rode it out. Still, we score 1 and then still need another 3
— Ian Salmon (@IanRSalmon) March 17, 2016
For my money Anthony Martial made the most of the challenge from Nathaniel Clyne, but you’ve really got to ask what Clyne thought he was doing in the first place. It was arguably his worst performance in a Liverpool shirt, with the normally rock solid right-back at sixes and sevens for most of the game. His decision to stick a foot in against a player who was always going to hit the deck easily considering the referee was voted the worst at the World Cup in 2014 was a daft one.
United’s goal, then, shook my confidence. Even though we had had arguably the better chances and even though the stats were still on our side, this was a better United performance than the one we’d seen at Anfield last week.
Weirdly, though, the goal actually seemed to free Liverpool up. Before United scored it seemed as if we didn’t know whether to stick or twist. We were clearly playing them on the counter-attack and yet we didn’t know how many people to commit or how much to pressure them in the final third.
Yes United have had chances but we could easily have scored 3 in that half. Thought we looked a real threat on the break from 30-45
— Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) March 17, 2016
Then the goal allowed the shackles to come off. The players seemed to know that they had the beating of this mediocre United side and they also knew that Van Gaal’s whole plan was to try to take it to extra time. Come out for the second half 1-0 down and the nerves might have started to show, United might have grown in confidence and things might have shifted.
The Magician & The Toiler
Let us be honest with each other, shall we? Who wasn’t slightly infuriated by Philippe Coutinho’s first half performance? Yes he’s a stunning player when he’s in the mood, but things didn’t seem to be coming off for him in the first half, did they?
Both Coutinho and Sturridge were infuriating to watch, with the former trying things but seeing them fall flat and the latter completely and utterly not at the races. Then Sturridge went and hit the bar from a free kick and Coutinho scored THAT goal. As if we ever doubted them…
Having mercurial players on the pitch allows for mercurial moments. As poor as he was for the first forty minutes of the tie the little Brazilian seemed to have something click for the remaining fifty. Towards the end of the first half alone he was suddenly sensational, weaving his way in and out of United’s players and picking passes with ease.
In the last five minutes of the half, Coutinho scored and created two chances (including one clear-cut).
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) March 17, 2016
Daniel Sturridge is another world-class player in the same bracket as Coutinho; he’s the sort of guy that can pluck something from thin air and make the game come alive. Yet it just wasn’t happening for him last night. It’s clear that he’s still a long way from being the player we all remember from 2013-2014.
He was furious to be taken off just after the hour mark, that was clear for all to see. That’s good, that’s fine, that’s what we want to see. Players should want to play and they should be angry if they’re taken off the pitch having offered little. The question is, was he angry with himself for under-performing or angry with the manager for not giving him longer to prove himself?
Sturridge’s face…. So he’s off in the summer then. That sub needed to happen though. Desperately.
— Erin Mc (@ErinNYC75) March 17, 2016
In his post-match interview after the first leg at Anfield he seemed to suggest that Jürgen Klopp is managing his time. “I’m ready to play”, he said. He made it clear that it was the manager’s choice to remove him from the action and not his own decision or a problem with his fitness.
Liverpool fans have been here before with him, though. We know what it’s like to see him rushed back from injury only to see him disappear off again. The manager is playing it the right way, in my opinion. He’s not only protecting the England striker from another injury but he’s also negating the idea that we’re dependent on him if we want to play well. Sturridge is injured? That’s fine, he’s not our world any more.
Coutinho’s goal was a flashback to his youth, a reminder of why futsal is so revered in Brazil. Whilst a player like Milner might have elected to pass it across the face of the goal in the same situation and Sturridge himself opted to blast it in the same position last week, Coutinho picked his spot and delivered. Cool, calm, magical. The Brazilian went from out of sorts to killing off United with a simple shuffle of his feet.
How good was Mamadou Sakho last night? Whilst Clyne struggled and Milner was functional, the Frenchman showed just what an extraordinary player he can be if he’s given time to settle into the team. He’s developing a real partnership with Dejan Lovren that seems to work in spite of the fact that they don’t actually seem to communicate much.
Sakho & Can outstanding tonight – making a mockery of those who don’t rate them. Lovren also has been brilliant. #LFC.
— Si Steers (@sisteers) March 17, 2016
That some people still don’t rate the former PSG man because ‘he looks a bit gangly’ is remarkable. When he’s fit and firing he is an absolute beast in Liverpool’s defence, refusing to be beaten no matter who he comes up against.
It’s entirely fair to say that his performances were found wanting earlier in the season, but that must also come with the qualifier that he was rushed back from injury because we basically had no fit defenders. Given the choice I’m quite sure Klopp would have wanted to ease him back in gently, sharing defensive duties around until he was back to something approaching full fitness.
His performances over the two legs, but especially at Old Trafford, shows why he’s so highly rated by those in the know. Joey Barton compared his physicality to ‘a clown trying to spin plates’, and whilst that might be a touch unfair you can see his point. Sakho lacks grace, but why does that matter? He’s an exquisite passer of the ball, a brilliant tackler and a strong header. He’s exactly what we’ve been missing at the back.
There’s little doubt that his form is in no small part due to the team’s new found defensive solidity. In our last eight games we’v scored sixteen whilst conceding only three. Martial’s goal was the first one Liverpool had conceded in 458 minutes of Europa League play.
Despite what the revisionists might like to suggest, Brendan Rodgers brought an awful lot of good things to Anfield. The one area he unquestionably lacked ability in, however, was in the defence. Klopp, the former defender, has come in and sorted that out. Now we’re ready to strike from the front without worrying too much that we’re building on sand at the back. The future will reveal how dangerous we can really be, but United have already had a taste of it.
Bring on your Dortmund.