Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri at the double to beat Manchester United and regain top spot

Liverpool 3-1 Manchester United: The home side made short work of their rivals despite Alisson Becker’s first-half mistake which allowed Jesse Lingard to give United a lifeline

Miguel Delaney
Sunday 16 December 2018 18:47
Liverpool FC: A look back at 2018

One big change, two massive deflections, but all for Liverpool to stay resolutely on course. Jurgen Klopp’s side are still first in the league after his inspired introduction of Xherdan Shaqiri brought the two decisive goals for a 3-1 win, and the German’s first victory over Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.

This is the product and value of being proactive, the value of Shaqiri's signing, and a lesson for United. The gulf between the teams was often embarrassing, and that’s even allowing for the hard work Liverpool made of this match, as well as Mourinho again dropping Paul Pogba.

There was an element of luck about both of the key goals given they were both from those deflections, but that was no blind luck. It didn’t come out of nothing. It came from Klopp proactively responding to what was happening, and his team looking to force the issue, and also from Mourinho’s approach.

The Portuguese's defensive gameplan was rendered irrelevant, as was the Alisson error that had seemed for a while like it would give United an undeserved point, just like on their last two visits here.

It could even be argued that this was the flipside of both of those 0-0s in 2016 and 2017. Sitting that deep and ceding the ball means you need it to bounce your way every time. It didn't. That was the difference here, and one huge difference between the teams.

It is also a big difference between Liverpool this season and last season, and potentially in the title race.

You could certainly feel that in the joyous celebrations for the goals and after the game. This was obviously about much more than beating United.

For all the times they showed similar force and attacking will last season, they too often lacked another option on the bench like Shaqiri. This was exactly why he was signed. He was decisive.

Sadio Mane opened the scoring for Liverpool

And it was all the more creditable from both he and Klopp, because Liverpool looked to have so frustratingly lost their way. They looked to have lost the chance at what should have been a big win. Klopp proactively addressed an evident mental block in his team, an anxiety.

Because that gulf between the sides was really most visible in a vigorous first 20 minutes for Liverpool. They looked like they had sensed a fragility about United, and were willing to punish it… except their own anxiety about this so often got the better of them.

It killed so many promising moves, particularly in that onslaught of an opening 20 minutes. It was as if Liverpool were in such an overdrive to overwhelm United that they couldn’t stop once they got to the box, when a bit more pause and poise was required. All of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, Naby Keita and Sadio Mane were guilty of poor touches just when they looked to have got beyond that amassed United defence, who themselves looked so much less sturdy than the last few encounters at Anfield.

Fabinho meanwhile looked like he was too often resorting to long shots, until he was finally the player to show the kind of composure that was required. Duly, the goal followed.

After a move admittedly started by Firmino’s force allowing him to beat Eric Bailly to a ball he had no right to get and then brushing the centre-half aside, the ball eventually found its way to the edge of the box and Fabinho.

The midfielder picked out Mane rather than trying to pick his spot, and the forward so calmly chested it and finished it in the same move.

It felt like it was coming, but also necessary for Mane, after he missed so many chances in the midweek win over Napoli.

That made the source of the United goal all the more ironic. Alisson had kept Liverpool in the Champions League on Tuesday, but here kept United in a game they really had no right to still be in. They had been that submissive, that outplayed.

Alisson made a crucial error

The Alisson error was that bad, as it came out of nothing. Romelu Lukaku got down the left and played in what should have been an easy cross to deal with, only for the goalkeeper to fumble it.

Jesse Lingard was still alert enough to take the chance. No distractions from social media there. He was the sharpest player on the pitch in that moment.

And this was the thing too. The goal didn’t just level the score, but the play. It changed the entire tone of the occasion that much.

Having previously looked so fearful in every movement, United were now so much more assured. Liverpool meanwhile seemed to have lost their flow, and impetus. The hesitation that afflicted their play in the box began to be seen all over the pitch.

That reached a nadir during an extended period where Liverpool’s only attacking idea was to take punts on a series of long shots.

Klopp had to change something, but also seemed to need a player who could do something different; a game-breaker.

This was of course was precisely why Shaqiri was bought, and precisely why he was brought on. To do something different.

He immediately made the game difference, changing the pace of it, and then the score.

That was signalled by his very first contribution, a surge forward that Liverpool had been lacking for pretty much all of the game since the United goal, and that almost paid off.

It was enough. There was an electric charge about the team again, as Mane then burst down the left in a similar way to what Shaqiri had just done on the other side. Through two deflections, it made its way back to the Swiss playmaker, and he made sure it went in.

Sure, that release of a goal required two deflections too, but that was kind of the point. Liverpool had forced their way through. They didn’t get stuck.

There was a new vibe about Liverpool again, and a new Kop hero. Shaqiri didn’t just change the game, but secured it.

Xherdan Shaqiri was the match-winner

It was again a show of force as he burst onto a Liverpool attack that had broken down, and again saw another deflection.

Again, though, that’s the kind of thing that happens when one team is mostly looking to attack, and one team is looking to just sit and congest.

It helps explains the league positions. United are still sixth, 11 points off the top four, perpetuating what is a very mid-table record. Liverpool’s league position is still on top, for another week at least.

Klopp finally enjoyed a day against Mourinho and United, because Shaqiri more than had his day.

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