So, at The Athletic, we thought we’d watch the game with some experts. People really in the know. People who work in the game.
Over a few hours of light-hearted chat and healthy snacks (beer and pizza sadly off the menu… it’s only the start of the season after all), we learned where Liverpool went wrong and where United went right in the company of…
Sone Aluko: Even if they’d got a result they’d have to change their team for Liverpool, it’s a completely different game.
Sam Vokes: You can’t lose 4-0 to Brentford and expect to stay in the team.
Jenny Sugarman: I’m interested to see how they play out against the Liverpool press, which is so good, particularly when Firmino is in it.
Aluko: That second goal against Brentford… it will have been the out ball in training, but in the game it wasn’t really on. That was the pattern they’d worked on, but they haven’t reacted to it. Elanga, Rashford, it’s counter-attack. That’s the blueprint.
Tim Spiers: Monday Night Football is the ‘must-watch’ at times of crisis for a club like Manchester United. Is it well respected within the game, too?
Vokes: I think it is. You’ve always got comments on it at the training ground the next day.
Aluko: Sometimes I feel like they’re making a radical statement, something that can go on Twitter.
Sugarman: But generally the analysis is really good, the way they combine videos and interviews, although there is hyperbole, too.
Marcus Rashford is on screen doing a pre-match interview.
Aluko: He needs a big season.
Vokes: I know, I just want him to do it.
Sugarman: Is he a No 9 or better from the left?
Aluko: I think I prefer him from the left, I’m not sure he’s clinical enough. He burst onto the scene and we’re still waiting for that real big season. I think he’s got the attributes to put it all together. I’m not sure he takes players on enough… the amount of times he turns back against a full-back. I’m like, “Just go for it.” It’s not easy playing for United, especially the pressure. Playing counter-attack might suit him tonight.
Sugarman: Jota’s a big miss for Liverpool. Landing on second balls in the box, anticipating where it’s going to be, he’s so good at that.
Aluko: From a tactical point of view I can fully understand why Ronaldo’s not playing. But it’s Ronaldo, so it’s such a big one to leave him out.
Sugarman: I’m not sure Ten Hag is in a position to really lose by leaving him out… if it’s a defeat tonight people will say they were going to get beaten anyway. If the players he’s brought in do well then he wins. Where else can they go from the Brentford game? And he said wants to press them, Ronaldo’s not going to do that.
Vokes: I genuinely think it’s tactical, it does make sense.
Sugarman: I think 2-1 to Liverpool, although any Liverpool midfield without Thiago will miss him.
Aluko: Liverpool 3-1.
Vokes: I’ve got Alisson in my dream team so I just want a clean sheet for Liverpool to be honest. They’ll win 2-0.
It’s a good start from United, who have won a free kick in a decent position. Liverpool have a man lying down behind the wall.
Vokes: I can’t get my head around that, personally.
Sugarman: I just think when they’re committing five players to that wall and you’ve got an overload in the box, to not then deliver that…
Spiers: Would you ever consider not putting a wall up at all?
Aluko: The goalkeeper would kill you.
Vokes: I’ve heard keepers speak about this before, I was speaking to a keeper once and he wanted it, but I just don’t think you can be seen to not be having a wall. He’d have a full view, back yourself. Whoever is taking it would freak out!
It’s Manchester United who take an early lead through Jadon Sancho.
Vokes: Composure there.
Aluko: Massive gaps!
Vokes: For someone who’s been questioned for their goals that is great composure, no snatching at that.
Sugarman: You can see him on the penalty spot waiting for that to come in with nobody marking him. Van Dijk’s not marking anyone, he’s just standing there. And he’s got that much time Fernandes can point where to put the shot! When the ball’s gone wide, there’s no United centre-forward to mark, so Van Dijk has to step up onto Sancho. He’s got Robertson alongside him as well, so one of you defend the space and one mark the player.
Liverpool are struggling to gain a foothold.
Sugarman: They’re really missing Thiago and his ability to progress the ball.
Aluko: Milner’s not doing a thing, Henderson’s not really playing.
Sugarman: Milner’s been part of the front press at times. Firmino’s dropping really deep to get on the ball.
David de Gea’s goal kicks are long. Very long.
Vokes: No playing out from the back today!
Sugarman: There’s such a reluctance to play out. Nobody else drops deep to give De Gea an angle.
Aluko: They’re just hitting Elanga who’s one of the smallest players on the pitch.
Sugarman: It’s a balance between making a mistake which might cost you a goal and just giving the ball back to the opposition. But Liverpool haven’t managed to really penetrate centrally yet when getting into their create phase, so it’s working for United at the moment.
Spiers: Are you watching from a striker’s point of view, Sam?
Vokes: Yeah, I think you do, naturally. You’re watching it from Firmino’s eyes, for example, he’s coming deeper than midfield sometimes to get the ball, although he might be able to feed Salah or Dias from there. The No 9 role has changed quite a bit over the years. Firmino, I really like him, he’s judged on his goals sometimes but what he’s done for that front three is ridiculous, plus the distance he covers.
Aluko: I’m the same, I watch the 10s from an attacker’s point of view and what a coach would tell me to do.
Spiers: United’s wide men are staying so high the whole time.
Sugarman: And then because you haven’t got a progressive midfielder, in the transition you’re able to get the overload in the back line because they’re playing quickly into those two wide players staying high, particularly Elanga.
Spiers: How long does it take for a manager to come in and implement a playing philosophy? Should we be judging Ten Hag on the first three games?
Aluko: No, not at all. I’d say it takes half a season at least. Although it depends how big the change is from the previous manager.
Sugarman: He’s also got to decide if he’s going to go all in with his ideas from the first day or try to progress and gradually change things bit by bit. Every manager is different. And they’ve had some conflicting styles over the last few managers at United, so it’s like from scratch again.
Bruno Fernandes almost scores an own goal but it hits the chest of Lisandro Martinez on the line. There is hilarity and laughter from the panel.
Vokes: What on earth has happened there?!
Sugarman: Goal-line clearance against your own team-mate.
Vokes: He’s celebrating it like he meant it! Oh, wow.
Spiers: United are so fired up. Does that come from the manager, or the players themselves?
Vokes: I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s been some back and forth last week and things have been said between the players. Obviously, the manager has had his input.
Aluko: If you lose 4-0 and you’re playing for Man United, or if you’re just a professional footballer full stop, and you’re not fired up for the next game? Come on. But if they concede a goal we’ll see what they’re made of, if their heads drop.
It’s half-time, Manchester United 1-0 Liverpool.
Spiers: When you’re at home, will you watch what the pundits say at half-time?
Aluko: Honestly, I watch the game muted. At the end of the game, I’ll listen to what the pundits say to see if they saw it the same way, but I think sometimes narratives go through the commentary, so I don’t want to be influenced by it.
Spiers: Remind me never to come and watch a game at your house.
Sugarman: Getting into critiquing the women’s game instead of talking about the development of the game is such an important step. The thing that gets really old and frustrating is when there’s a mistake, particularly around goalkeeping, and all female goalkeepers are then rubbish. There’s some analysis that is a bit tired, but generally critiquing is a good step.
Spiers: How much has analysis at a club changed over the years?
Vokes: It’s so easy now because you’ve got an app, you get an email through.
Aluko: You get the game, your own clips from the game and through the week you’ll get the changes the coach wants to make. I’ll have an individual 15 minutes with one of the coaches on our clips and what he wants to go through. Then the team will have meetings on playing out, defending, set pieces… so you could have five meetings. You can’t say you don’t know!
Vokes: The analyst was never in the manager’s office years ago, they’re so close to each other now. The analyst will run down to the changing room at half-time with a laptop. They’re all mic’d up as well so the manager can say what he wants a clip of during a game.
Aluko: At half-time, it’ll be clips of what he wants to do, maybe on the press there’s a free man so keep looking for him, things like that.
The teams are out for the second half.
Spiers: What needs to change in the second half from a Liverpool point of view?
Sugarman: More patience in possession, which they had for the last 10 minutes of the half. That then allows them to get more bodies on the United back line so those slide balls can cause problems. The first 30 minutes when they were trying to play forward, Firmino was dropping so deep, Salah was staying wide and Dias was coming in. So more patience to get those numbers forward. United can sit deep, although they won’t want to invite that pressure on. And more of Harvey Elliott on the ball.
Spiers: Anyone have particularly good or bad memories at Old Trafford?
Aluko: Not good memories. Lost twice.
Vokes: I remember being under siege a lot. We (Burnley) drew 0-0 there and were absolutely battered. But we always seemed to get a draw there. Great place to play, though. Being a Stone Roses fan and walking out to that… best part of the day!
Marcus Rashford puts United 2-0 up.
Vokes: Big celebration. You can tell Rashford means that. Masterplan coming off the left. Down to the armpit for offside though.
Aluko: So hang on, after Man United’s horrific start… if they win this they’re ahead of Liverpool? Everything changes.
Vokes: That’s such a good finish.
Sugarman: He opens up like he’s going to bend it in the other corner. Keeper won’t be happy being beaten on that side.
Spiers: Tactical switch has made the difference.
Sugarman: Rashford’s been a bit narrower than Elanga in the first half, who was quite wide and stopping Trent (Alexander-Arnold) progressing. But Rashford’s more in that half-space.
Vokes: The crowd have really bought into this, too.
Sugarman: Do you find you rush decisions a bit more in an atmosphere like this because you feel that extra pressure?
Aluko: The other side of bravery is that someone has got to really take the ball, get hold of it, play your own style of football, impose yourselves. Liverpool’s midfield hasn’t done anything, I can see why he’s bringing Fabinho on.
Spiers: Sone, you played with Andy Robertson at Hull City, did you see that potential in him?
Aluko: Attacking wise? Yeah, from day one. Defensively? Not at all. He just wasn’t great one-v-one. But it’s ridiculous how good he’s been. He always had a great left foot, so fit, up and down all game, won all the bleep tests and the yo-yo tests, but just defensively I didn’t think he would be this solid.
Sugarman: His positioning has really improved. He used to get caught out at the back post at Liverpool in those first few years but he’s much better at connecting with his centre-half now.
Aluko: I’m not sure Klopp was a big fan of Robertson at first. He used to play Moreno a lot, I remember Robbo wanted to go on loan at one point, Watford I think. But at Hull, we used to sit quite deep… Liverpool, you’re pressing high, going forward and giving the ball away and there’s all that space behind you, it’s completely different. That was a big change for him.
Spiers: Any chance of a Liverpool comeback here?
Vokes and Sugarman shake their heads.
Aluko: Maybe, because this is a basketball game now, both teams are one good pass from being in. It’s not like Man United are dominating the game, they’re dangerous on the counter-attack. It’s open. If Liverpool get one before 75 minutes, it’ll be interesting.
Vokes: It’ll be hard for United to keep their press up.
Carvalho is being readied for Liverpool, with a coach showing him some instructions on the touchline.
Spiers: What are they specifically saying to you at those times?
Vokes: Sometimes you have a set piece guy with a folder in front of you going like that (flipping pages) and you’re like; ‘I haven’t got a clue.’
Aluko: You just hope there are no set pieces! If it’s a corner you listen for it, but everything else, just hope someone knows where to be.
Vokes: Your head is swimming going on, it’s hard to take stuff in. And you guarantee, if it’s the 85th minute, the ball doesn’t go out of play for so long.
There are 17 minutes left at Old Trafford and Bruno Fernandes has been booked for diving.
Spiers: How often have you dived in your career?
Vokes: I’m not the most elegant diver! I couldn’t if I tried.
Aluko: A fair few times, to be fair. I got a two-game ban in Scotland, the first player to be banned in Scotland for diving. For Rangers. It was for a penalty, which we scored, then after the game they’d brought in some new rule so I had to go to Hampden for a hearing. I walked in the room, saw the three guys and just thought, ‘I’m finished!’ Two games was very harsh. I got booed for months at every stadium.
Sugarman: Michael Oliver has actually been really good tonight, he’s let the game flow, there’s been a lot of tussling but he’s let them get on with it.
Mohamed Salah pulls a goal back for Liverpool in the 81st minute. Players jostle for the ball immediately afterwards.
Aluko: Here we go. That’s just desire from Salah.
Vokes: Sone, you called it. United haven’t picked up their men when they’ve come back out.
Sugarman: Great header and great anticipation. I’ll never understand this wrestling over the ball. You’re just wasting more time.
Vokes: I’ll never get it. What are they doing?
Aluko: The anxiety in this stadium now… it’s going to spread.
Spiers: Do you actually get nervous defending a lead or are you too focused on what you’re doing?
Vokes: I don’t tend to. We’re attackers, too, we can blame the defenders. You’re always aware of the time as well. First thing I look for in a ground is the clock.
The clock is ticking down into stoppage time at Old Trafford.
Spiers: Do you watch much football?
Vokes: Not a great deal, to be honest. When you have kids, you just want to switch off.
Aluko: I watch most games.
Spiers: For fun or to analyse and learn things?
Sugarman: I watch a lot but it’s hard to watch for fun because I don’t think you can watch without analysing it, which can sometimes be a bit annoying.
Aluko: Yeah, I’m the same now.
It’s full time and Manchester United have got their season up and running with an important 2-1 victory. Liverpool remain winless after three league games.
Vokes: United do look different. Those changes worked really well.
Sugarman: I guess we need to see if this is them just being up for the Monday night game against Liverpool or is it the start of something new? They’ve got Southampton (Sam’s hometown team) next week.
Vokes: United have got no chance then.
Aluko: They’ll have new players as well, they’ve spent £60million on Casemiro.
Vokes: It feels like a reactive signing.
Aluko: So, after all that, United are above Liverpool.
Sugarman: If Roy Keane’s happy you know you’re doing well. He’s rarely happy about anything.
Spiers: He’s talking about drive and passion but it can’t just be about that.
Aluko: Every team wants to win. Sometimes you’re working really hard at the wrong things. I’ve rarely faced a team and thought, “They don’t fancy this.”
Sugarman: Yeah, obviously they want to win every game. They’ve also played at a completely different level of intensity today and with more confidence in what they’re doing. That isn’t just from a couple of training sessions.
Aluko: Sometimes you believe in the system and it works but it’s hard to keep doing it to the same levels. And maybe part of you thinks,”What we’re doing is a bit risky”. It’s not that you don’t want to succeed, you’re just doubting whether it’s the right thing. If you don’t believe in the manager’s tactics then it’s hard to execute.
Sugarman: You could see they didn’t believe in the tactics last week.
Vokes: That was reiterated today in that they didn’t play out from the back. Basically: “We’re not doing that, we’re going long.”
Aluko: Exactly. The players didn’t like doing it. At Ipswich, if we didn’t play out from the back, it would look like we’re not at it today. At United, it’s the opposite. If they’d played out from the back they could have looked nervous.
Vokes: It’s interesting. You very rarely see the so-called bigger clubs going long. You’ll do well to see that again all season. And they didn’t necessarily have a target to aim for, either.
Sugarman: It’s a way to pin the full-backs in though. Also, if they don’t start with Fabinho, overload again in that first half, there’s no one filling that space between midfield and the defence. Liverpool have a lack of flow. Henderson and Milner are very good at what they do but they can’t do it on their own. Henderson can press and turn over the ball brilliantly, but he’s not going to be the creator or support the full-backs in transition. He can do it, but it’s not what he’s good at. So then you’ve got the absence of your injured players, you’re also taking away something from the player filling in.
Aluko: The injuries they’ve had are in the wrong positions. United will have looked at that with Eriksen, Fernandes and McTominay and fancied it. Whereas if Thiago, Fabinho and a third midfielder is there, it’s completely different.
Spiers: For United, how can you account for the difference from the Brentford defeat to this?
Sugarman: That’s what’s baffling about it, how can you be so bad one week against supposedly inferior opposition and then go and beat Liverpool?
Aluko: It’s the beauty of football. Maybe Liverpool was the game they needed. Credit to Ten Hag. He made tactical gains, he got Rashford in that channel for the second half and that’s where the goal comes.
Vokes: With the players he’s dropped… and then he’s changed it at half-time when the team’s winning, which is rare. He’s not scared of making big decisions.
Sugarman: I guess we’ll see if it all falls apart again next weekend!
(Top photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)