x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Manchester United pay the penalty for failed game plan against Liverpool

Steven Gerrard steered the ship with two penalties, but Manchester United’s tactics left them all at sea.

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard scores his second goal during during the English Premier League match against Manchester United at Old Trafford on 16 March 2014. Peter Powell / EPA
Liverpool's Steven Gerrard scores his second goal during during the English Premier League match against Manchester United at Old Trafford on 16 March 2014. Peter Powell / EPA

The simple thing is to say that Manchester United paid the penalty. They did, and not just for their inability to maintain discipline inside their own box.

United paid the penalty for a half-hearted approach and an inability to play at pace, for misguided signings, for slow defenders, for a lazy tactical plan that Liverpool expertly exploited, for appointing a manager who looks increasingly out of his depth at Old Trafford.

They summed up a season’s decline in 90 minutes of mediocrity and ineptitude. At the end, manager David Moyes walked down the touchline with a look of resignation. He was, as he showed in his post-match quotes, at a loss to explain quite why his side had been so poor. He could not answer why they are unable to overcome the top sides, as a mediocre record of one win in a dozen Premier League games against the top nine indicates, but, flat and floundering, they are the antithesis of this inspired Liverpool team.

To focus too much on United’s failures would be unfair. Liverpool secured their most significant win of the season in style. Their first triumph at Old Trafford since 2009’s 4-1 demolition was similarly seismic. This rubber-stamped Liverpool’s status as title contenders. It underlined the swift change in the balance of power between historic rivals. Now they are the rising force, United the slumping giant.

It was remarkable in every respect, in the method as well as the result. No visiting team in the Premier League era had ever been awarded two penalties at Old Trafford. Liverpool got three. Indeed, they should have had four. Steven Gerrard converted the first two. Luis Suarez garnished a memorable win with the sole goal in open play.

The flurry of penalties and appeals were signs that United were clueless to halt the free-running Liverpudlians. They were duly punished, even if not for the first offence. Referee Mark Clattenburg ignored Liverpool’s entreaties when Marouane Fellaini clumsily tripped Suarez.

He proved more receptive either side of half time. Moyes’s men gave him little choice. Rafael da Silva, cautioned for hacking down Gerrard, could have seen a second yellow card in the space of two minutes when he swatted away a Suarez touch with his right hand. This time Clattenburg pointed to the spot. Gerrard duly sent David de Gea the wrong way.

It was taken with the authority Gerrard exudes. So, too, was his second. Jordan Henderson flighted a chip into the United box. Joe Allen chested it down and was barged by Phil Jones. Gerrard went to the same side of De Gea’s goal and with the same outcome. His radar went slightly awry when Daniel Sturridge went to ground rather theatrically. Nemanja Vidic had not made contact with him but, already booked, was shown a record-breaking fourth red card against Liverpool. Gerrard struck the post then, but Sturridge’s earlier antics may have cost his side another spot kick when the striker was clipped by Michael Carrick.

Nevertheless, the Liverpool captain had already proved his point. Sir Alex Ferguson infamously claimed Gerrard was not a “top, top player”. It was not simply the fact that he scored twice from 12 yards. It was the pressure on his shoulders that made both so significant. If penalty taking is a test of character, Gerrard passed with flying colours. “Peerless”, said manager Brendan Rodgers afterwards.

How this rudderless United side require a leader of his stature.

They have no such unifying force. It is a reason why they are so much less than the sum of their parts. On paper, this United team overflowed with attacking ability. On the pitch, they were insipid and ineffective. Poor Juan Mata, the most expensive player in United’s history, was a passenger. A man who prefers to potter along in the inside lane looked incongruous in a game played at 100 mph.

Wayne Rooney has signed a new contract and Robin van Persie has pledged to stay, yet neither lived up to his billing as one of the world’s foremost strikers. Rooney had one shot well saved by Simon Mignolet and Van Persie missed an easy header, but the star striker was, once again, Suarez, who converted the third. Moyes’s misery was complete.