Manchester United are setting wrong kind of records as Liverpool throw away Premier League top spot

Written by on April 7, 2024

As Harvey Elliott bent the ball into Andre Onana’s arms with Liverpool’s last desperate swing on the day, they ceded momentum in the title race, Manchester United were handed a preeminent spot among Europe’s biggest clubs again. It might only last a few minutes given that Sheffield United were soon trailing to Chelsea but as the final whistle rang out at Old Trafford, the scale of the defensive failings under Erik ten Hag this season became apparent.

Elliott’s shot was the 554th on the Manchester United goal this season, the joint-highest in Europe’s top five leagues before kick off at Bramall Lane. Darmstadt, Salernitana, Almeria: some of the worst defenses across the continent this season have held their opposition to fewer shots than United. Only five of the 96 teams from the top divisions in England, Italy, France, Spain and Germany have given up more expected goals (xG) than Ten Hag’s.

At the start of the season, Andre Onana was a figure of fun or fury, depending on your view of United’s struggles. Now he leads the Premier League for total saves. This is not a good sign, nor are the 5.52 goals he has prevented according to Opta’s post-shot xG model. No goalkeeper should routinely have to make the six or more saves that Onana so frequently delivers even while his sheet is muddied up by the penalties he has no chance to reach, the close-range finishes that he is powerless to stop because his outfielders lose their men and their duels at set pieces, as transpired when Darwin Nunez flicked Andrew Robertson’s corner on for Luis Diaz to volley home at the back post.

Ahead of Onana, chaos. Injuries might have robbed them of many senior defenders — Willy Kambwala impressed on his second start — but that is no excuse for the lack of organization and discipline whenever the ball was coming towards their goal. The man who was supposed to imbue United with these qualities, Casemiro, has instead proven to be one of the greatest liabilities in this team. It is not just that he can’t cover ground and Ten Hag does nothing to compensate for that. His clearances were panicky, his passing wayward. The former Real Madrid man might still be the one who sets the tone for United. They are an utter mess.

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Shot map for Manchester United 2, Liverpool 2. TruMedia

It was little short of a miracle that they somehow avoided yet another hammering from Liverpool on Sunday afternoon. The sheer confluence of events required to rob them would be hard to credit were it not for the fact that Ten Hag’s side have been running on a cocktail of vibes and dumb luck for most of this season. If Nunez making the wrong call was not such a surprise, Luis Diaz somehow hooking over the bar from close range late on was, as were the string of openings and dangerous positions that Liverpool didn’t even turn into shots. Then came Jarrell Quansah’s instant of youthful indiscretion, a loose pass across his 40-yard line stolen by Bruno Fernandes, for once finding his target with a long ball as he lobbed a helpless Caoimhin Kelleher to draw United level.

When Kobbie Mainoo’s magnificent curling strike from the edge of the box gave United an undeserved lead there was an opportunity to at least prove defensive rigor was within them. Instead, they dropped too deep, desperately trying to hold out from their own penalty area. A clumsy challenge from Aaron Wan-Bissaka on Elliott and Liverpool would have their equalizer, Mohamed Salah converting from the spot.

Jurgen Klopp might claim otherwise but this was two points dropped for Liverpool, all the more so given that it allowed Arsenal to retain top spot. He seems to understand that his rivals will not be so profligate. Asked if he will be cheering on United when the Gunners visit Old Trafford next month, he said, “Probably. If we are still around [in the title race] then that would be great but Arsenal are a good football team. If [Manchester United] play like they did today [Arsenal] will win the game. I am 100 percent sure of that.”

The sort of convincing win at their great rivals, no matter how diminished they are these days, that this could have been with better finishing would have been an injection of fuel to the Reds’ engine. History, even the very recent sort, be damned. This team ought to depart Old Trafford knowing they will not face many more opponents in the run-in who are so prepared to afford them space. Perhaps his counterpart in the Manchester United dugout had simply grown too frustrated of his critics saying his side played like one without ideas or organizing principles. 

Ten Hag has bristled of late at the suggestion that he doesn’t have a footballing philosophy. Since pre-season, he has hammered home his desire for United to be the great counter-attacking team in the sport. As a headline description of this team’s football, it is perfectly adequate, the issue that there is no great indication that United have dug down into the details that will show them how to sustainably win football matches.

Across the great expanses of green space at Old Trafford, you could see examples of a team insistent on playing their way against a vastly superior opponent. Three days after leaving Casemiro with far more space to cover than his creaking legs could allow, Ten Hag set his midfield up in exactly the same way. Mainoo advanced high but United were not pressing with the sort of organization and aggression that might discomfort Liverpool. Instead, Fernandes chased the ball high and low, a state of affairs that invariably left the hosts one light defensively when the club captain had been passed around.

A team that wants to devastate opponents on the counter is certainly entitled to leave their wingers high, shading their defensive duties in the top that they’ll be ready to pounce should the ball break United’s way. However, it was perverse to have Alejandro Garnacho abandon Andrew Robertson, one of the game’s great wingbacks, whenever Liverpool stepped into the attacking third. On more than one occasion he seemed taken aback that he had the ball in a dangerous spot and no one was trying to stop him.

It was as if Liverpool couldn’t believe how easy it was to play against Manchester United. If so that is a failing on their behalf. Watch the tapes of Brentford, Fulham, even Everton in defeat: this is a defense lab-grown as fodder for Salah et al. They really should have blown them to pieces.

The post Manchester United are setting wrong kind of records as Liverpool throw away Premier League top spot first appeared on CBS Sports.


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