Zlatan Ibrahimovic saved Manchester United from humiliation and taunts from Liverpool with a late equaliser in a game which ended in a draw at Old Trafford on Sunday night. The Swede’s clever header canceled out James Milner’s penalty to split the points between the teams, as they had another draw after the same result in their first encounter.
United were good in parts, but wasteful. They were made to rue Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s missed chances when Pogba crazily handballed a clearance from a corner, allowing Milner to slot past David De Gea and give his side the lead.
The atmosphere was crazy and reached peak levels as United chased a result following Ibrahimovic’s equaliser, but it wasn’t to be. United are now 5 points behind second and the second half season race is well and truly on.
It was a disastrous day out for the Frenchman, who couldn’t get anything to go right for him on Sunday. His touch was off, Liverpool gang marked and tackled with every touch he made.
The penalty he gave away was calamitous, and summed up his struggles at set pieces in the first half. He was beaten on six straight set pieces by Dejan Lovren, and it wasn’t until the second half he found his footing. The occasion got the better of him and for the first time as a Manchester United player, he struggled.
However the bigger picture must be seen. He’s arguably been the best midfielder in England since he arrived alongside N’Golo Kante and leads every most statistical categories for midfielders. One bad performance doesn’t change that. He’ll be back to his best in his next outing.
Lack of Clinical Finishing Bites Again
Manchester United’s hallmark this season hasn’t just been dropping points this season, it’s been from not taking their chances. It rang true again for them as they missed first half opportunities which could have given them a vital lead early on.
Paul Pogba put a left footed chance past the post and should have done better, whilst Henrikh Mkhitaryan perhaps took a touch too many and allowed Simon Mignolet to close the angle off and save his goal bound effort.
The Red Devils’ unbeaten streak has pushed to sixteen, but they would have preferred their tenth straight win in addition to that. It’s not the end of the world, but it could have been better.
Mourinho’s Pragmatic Ways Pay Off
Jose Mourinho has been called stubborn tactically, but his willingness to make changes and adjust to situations are not given enough credit. Regardless of whatever criticism will come his way he will make a decision with a player or choice of tactic, such as holding Mkhitaryan back or substituting certain players on and off the pitch.
With United chasing the game, Mourinho decided to leave Marcus Rashford on the bench and give Marouane Fellaini another chance to win back the fans’ favour, and it appears he took another step towards doing that. The Belgian almost scored, hitting the post before Ibrahimovic nodded home from Valencia’s resultant cross.
“I had Rashford or Marouane to put on as my final substitution and Liverpool were playing defensively,” Mourinho said. “I looked to their bench and I didn’t see anyone there who could have helped them cope with more direct play.
“The people need to know what Marouane Fellaini is great at and what he is not so good at,” Mourinho continued. “Marouane is very good in some aspects. I was looking to the pitch and only saw yellow shirts in the box. I thought it’s difficult to penetrate so I thought we should go direct.”
More often that not, Mourinho has got it right lately The only criticism that could have come was bringing Wayne Rooney on for Michael Carrick. Liverpool game planned Carrick out of the game in the first half (though his unbeaten run in the first team continued), and his manager brought him off at half time. Rooney struggled though, and perhaps was the wrong choice for the situation. It seemed novelty of his goalscoring chance more than anything else triggered his introduction.
Herrera Leads Like No Other
Ander Herrera was utterly superb yet again versus his club’s most hated rival, outdoing his brilliant display from Anfield with an even more industrious display. He outplayed the entire Liverpool midfield, casting a shadow over highly rated rival Jordan Henderson with his pressing and movement.
He was stuck into challenge after challenge, breaking up play and shuttling the ball forward whilst Pogba struggled and Carrick wasn’t able to impose himself. Despite preseason concerns that he would not be able to play any sort of “6” role, he has thrived even when operating from a deeper position.
The Spaniard continues to rise as a leader in the Old Trafford dressing room, and must surely be working his way into discussions as a future Captain of the club. He wears his heart on his sleeve for United, and he’s equally adored by fans as a result.
Squad Work Is Not Yet Done
Although Jose Mourinho’s reclamation projects in the likes of Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and others have been great to see, Sunday was a reminder that some players still in the team are not bonafide first XI players for the team long term. They all likely have carved out futures for themselves, but are not the first names on the teamsheet.
Jones struggled, and another defender to join the ranks is still required. Matteo Darmian for all his effort comes off as a makeshift left back. He’s a good defender who is too limited going forward for a system like Mourinho’s that requires full back width and involvement.
There is promise, and 17 games left to place the team back where they belong. Jibes about still being sixth will come, but the progress is evident. There’s a long way to for United yet this season, and they still believe that way is up.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic spoke post match: “We did simple mistakes. We were not feeling comfortable under the pressure of the opponent and I think we played the wrong way. If we would have played like we did in the second half in the first half it would have been a different game.
“We were more direct [in the second half]. We did too many mistakes in our build-up [in the first half].” Ibrahimovic now has 19 goals from 29 appearances this season, with his latest effort closing the gap on fifth-placed Manchester City to two points. The former Sweden striker added: “We would have liked to win, of course, to close the gap even more, but we haven’t lost a game for a long time.”