Rant could feign indifference. Not that, somehow, there wasn’t full of joy taken from Manchester United’s outstanding victory over Liverpool on Sunday, but that schadenfreude didn’t take complete hold. The truth, however, is that there is very little more enjoyable than beating Liverpool at Anfield. Better still when the opposing captain departs in rambunctious ignominy – on his last appearance against United to boot. Pleasure from football is not always so beholden to the misfortune of others, but Sunday’s rare event will be savoured all the more for Steven Gerrard’s 41-second cameo.
Indeed, United – in the club’s various guises – has won just 25 times at Liverpool’s home ground since 1894. Four of those victories have come in the last 10 visits to Anfield. Amid that clutch of wins, Sunday’s will rank as one of the sweetest in recent memory. And not just for Gerrard’s folly, albeit one that left the traveling masses in raptures.
The immediate observation, of course, is that Louis Van Gaal’s side has strengthened it’s position in the Premier League’s top four, with Champions League qualification a step closer today. The Dutchman’s team holds a five point gap over Liverpool, while Manchester City and Arsenal are within two points with just eight games to go. United could yet secure second place – an achievement no less remarkable for its inherently anti-climatic nature.
More pointedly, it was a game in which United’s soul might just have been rediscovered. Once lost, now found, in the heart of enemy territory. On the day the visitors excelled for near enough an hour. The sharp passing, high-tempo pressing, and astute tactical make-up was everything United supporters want from Van Gaal’s team. From any United team. No longer raised is the cry of ‘attack, attack, attack.’ United attacked and Brendan Rodgers’ side capitulated in the most satisfying manner.
It has been a long-time coming, but on this evidence – and to a lesser extent that of victory over Tottenham Hotspur a week previously – the Dutchman’s oft-discussed philosophy might just have come to the fore. There is too deep a history of underwhelming pragmatism this season to draw any definitive conclusion, but something has finally clicked.
Where United’s play was generally a cut above the hosts’, two Juan Mata strikes dripped in world-class. The Spaniard’s smart right-footed finish from Ander Herrera’s decisive pass in between the hapless Alberto Moreno and Mamadou Sakho oozed attacking verve. It was a combination that did for both Spurs and Liverpool in the past fortnight – 90 minutes that Moreno will not soon forget.
Then came something truly special from Mata on the volley following Angel di Maria’s lofted ball. Mata twisted beautiful as if performing an homage to Manuel Negrete. Except this was all for United.
And to think that Van Gaal has not always sought to integrate either Spaniard in his side this season. After two fine performances from the former Chelsea midfielder over the past week that argument is now put to bed. Herrera’s sharp mind and astute passing is every bit as integral to United’s success over the next eight critical games.
Van Gaal enjoyed his moment. It is the finest of his short tenure at Old Trafford and not just for the result, but also for an astute strategy superbly executed. Details notwithstanding, Van Gaal won United the game, outfoxing Rodgers for the second time this season.
“The first half was very good because I knew in advance that Liverpool would press us and they did, but we played them off the pitch in the first half,” said Van Gaal in the aftermath.
“We scored a fantastic goal and we gave nothing away, so it was a superb. We beat Liverpool again with their own weapons and the pressure on the ball. Now the gap is five points ahead of Liverpool and six ahead of Tottenham and Southampton so the moment to win is one of the most important in my career.”
Indeed, it was. Yet, the afternoon was not all positive. It is churlish to pull up Van Gaal’s side for a dip in the last 30 minutes, but United’s drop in intensity allowed momentum to drift towards Rodgers’ outfit. The Reds remained one strike away from disappointment for far too long at Anfield. It is a habit that has lasted the campaign long and one that must be broken should United hope to regain the Premier League next season.
“In the second half, everything changed because of the red card,” said the Dutchman. “Then we are not playing like a team, we are running with the ball, unnecessary losses of the ball, we don’t press the opponent with the ball and that was different in the first half, so that was not so good in the second half.”
Then there are questions over players that failed to perform at Anfield: notably Wayne Rooney, not for the first time against Liverpool, and Di Maria. Rooney has 13 goals and four assists in 26 appearances across all competitions this season. All but two have come in the Premier League. No shame there, although just three have come against rivals for European places: Tottenham Hotspur last weekend, Liverpool in December, and Arsenal last November. Of those games, Rooney’s strike at the Emirates was the only goal that directly secured United three points.
And even if the limited output is mitigated by Van Gaal’s use of the player in midfield – just 10 of 26 appearances have been as United’s principal striker – then meritorious performances have rarely followed.
Di Maria’s turn was even worse at Anfield, despite the Argentinian chalking up an assist for Mata’s second. That’s nine this season for the former Real Madrid midfielder. Yet, Di Maria struggled to come to terms with a game in which United enjoyed a numerical advantage for most of the second half. The player’s distribution continues to be ragged and his commitment seemingly limited.
Whatever the caveats this was United’s best performance of the season; a game in which it was possible, perhaps truly for the first time under Van Gaal, to foresee a genuine renaissance. It is certain to be an interesting summer.
Before then Van Gaal’s side must negotiate eight games – three of which come against City, Chelsea and Arsenal. European qualification is now more likely that not, but not yet guaranteed.
Europe will be decided in May. Today, there is the glow of victory over United’s most fierce protagonist. That, and Gerrard’s moment, which left the travelling support happy – and laughing just a touch as well. Schadenfreude. Thy be a fan’s best friend.