1. Intense Liverpool
Jurgen Klopp described the match as "the mother of all games" before kick-off and it certainly didn't disappoint. Both sets of supporters and players clearly agreed with the German manager, as everyone involved raised their level of intensity for the 90 minutes.
"Liverpool created an atmosphere that was fantastic," admitted Louis van Gaal after the match. In the opening exchanges there were plenty of challenges and the speed the game was played at obviously helped Liverpool to exert their supremacy.
Jordan Henderson set the tone when he picked up an early booking for a high boot. It wasn't the outcome that the Reds captain desired so early in the game, but his will to be first to the ball was something that his team continued throughout the encounter.
With midfielders and full-backs looking to advance beyond the defence, Manchester United struggled to contain the third-man runs into the area. Daley Blind pulled down Nathaniel Clyne to concede a spot kick in the 19th minute, which Daniel Sturridge duly accepted. David de Gea did get a hand to the Liverpool striker’s well struck penalty, but couldn’t keep it out.
A minute later Sturridge swung the ball into the path of Adam Lallana, with Marcos Rojo forced to head it out for a corner. Liverpool were noticeably in the ascendancy and Philippe Coutinho almost doubled their lead when Sturridge provided a low cross for the little playmaker. De Gea was forced into action once again and pulled off a fantastic one-handed save to ensure that the score remained 1-0.
With half an hour gone, Chris Smalling missed a diving header and the ball fell to Sturridge again. The pacy forward was quickly closed down by De Gea, as the Spaniard spread himself to smother yet another opportunity.
“The atmosphere tonight was unbelievable,” said Klopp. “It was really great and I want to say thank you to everyone who was involved in it.”
2. United poor in defence
Adam Lallana arguably put in his best performance in a Liverpool shirt, but there were plenty of other high quality contributions from his team-mates. The former Southampton midfielder combined with Brazilian duo Roberto Firmino and Coutinho at regular intervals and ensured that United’s defence never had a moment's rest.
Coutinho was superb at receiving the ball with his back to goal as he utilised an array of flicks, tricks and passes to manoeuvre his way onto the counter-attack. He stung De Gea’s fingertips in the 54th minute with a free-kick from 25 yards that the goalkeeper tipped over the bar.
When Firmino left Blind and Juan Mata in his trail the Anfield crowd purred with excitement, as the attacker’s Cruyff turn between the two United players summed up the difference in quality on display.
“We did not cope with the high pressure of Liverpool,” confessed Van Gaal. “We had expected that, for me it was a surprise that we couldn’t cope.”
Klopp was pleased with the overall display, but expects more from his team in the pursuit of perfection. “In the first half because United didn’t make too much pressure, we had a lot of time on the ball and we lost a little bit of patience,” admitted Klopp. “We made risky passes which were not necessary, we need to stay patient and not get bored of simple passes.”
The trio pressed out of possession and switched roles in a fluid manner with the ball. “We had control of the game because they couldn’t pass the play like they wanted, as every spare pass is a counter-attack,” added Klopp.
3. Van Gaal's switch backfires
It wasn't the fact that Van Gaal switched formation at half-time, as the Dutch manager rightfully felt that Liverpool controlled the first half and he needed to be more proactive in order to avoid a repeat in the second period. However, the decision to use Michael Carrick as the central defender in a three-man defence backfired.
"You bring Carrick on to pick up the ball in midfield and to be brave, instead he (Van Gaal) puts him in the centre of a back three," criticised United legend Paul Scholes after the game. United moved to three at the back at half-time, with Carrick replacing young forward Marcus Rashford.
Surprisingly Rojo was moved into the centre, whilst Blind took up the left wing-back role. This was likely due to Rojo’s better speed in comparison to Blind in a foot-race with Sturridge, whilst Rojo’s lack of match fitness meant that he would have struggled to motor up and down the wing.
However, Carrick’s failure to effectively deal with a cross from Henderson saw Liverpool extend their advantage. His attempted clearance fell to Lallana, who controlled it expertly before setting-up Firmino. The forward made no mistake beating De Gea for a second time and giving Liverpool a commanding margin.
“It was absolutely deserved; it was a great performance from the first second to the last,” admitted Klopp. “It’s only the first leg, we know this but we needed to win it and we did it.”
“In the second half, we tried to press like Liverpool and we changed the shape,” said Van Gaal. “Then you saw that Liverpool had some difficulties, but we didn’t create too many chances.”
With four minutes remaining Carrick panicked and conceded a corner with substitute Divock Origi bearing down on the United skipper. Van Gaal has previously confessed that it’s a risk to play Carrick in the position due to his lack of mobility and with United unable to control the tempo of the game, this proved to be the case.
It could have been worse for United as Marouane Fellaini threw an arm out at Emre Can in stoppage time, with the former Everton midfielder already on a booking for a late tackle on Clyne - he will surely now face retrospective action.
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