Plus: Liverpool continue their poor streak of slow starts over the past few months under Jurgen Klopp; Manchester United's running statistics improve as manager Erik ten Hag makes a subtle dig at Cristiano Ronaldo
Tuesday 23 August 2022 12:20, UK
The 5'9" Lisandro Martinez stood six feet tall by the time Manchester United had secured Erik ten Hag's first victory.
Little more than a week ago the £57m Argentine centre-back had been hauled off at half-time after being dominated by Ben Mee and Brentford, with questions over whether his height, or lack of, would be able to cope in the Premier League.
Darwin Nunez's Liverpool absence undoubtedly helped, but the 24-year-old showed his quality on the left side of United's defence up against Mohamed Salah. It was a different challenge - one of positioning and patience, knowing when to step in and be aggressive.
"Being 5ft 9in is a problem," said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher. "But if I think of the best centre-back I've ever seen it is Franco Baresi. He was 5ft 9in, 5ft10. If you are that height, you have to be outstanding in everything else. He was 10/10 in everything else, 6/10 in the air. Martinez did that tonight. He has to win the game on the floor, he has to read the game. That will compensate for his height."
Ten Hag's decision to drop Harry Maguire for Raphael Varane was vindicated too - the ex-Real Madrid defender looked the ideal partner for Martinez, calm and collected.
The difference a week can make.
It's been a woefully slow start to the season for Liverpool - quite literally.
Jurgen Klopp's side have now conceded the first goal in nine out of their last 10 competitive matches in all competitions - and in all of their last seven Premier League matches. The first time that last statistic has happened in their top-flight history.
Some may point to fatigue picked up by Liverpool during their 64 matches last season as to why they are not so sharp. But the fact it has happened in the first three games of this fresh, new season shows Klopp - who dismissed the idea of one sole reason for starting slow before last week - has an endemic in his team.
"We've conceded an early goal. Again. We've started slow. Again," Andy Robertson told Sky Sports. "We can't keep on going behind. In the warm-up, it was the quietest I've heard this stadium and they [the United fans] wanted something to lift them and we gave them that.
"We need to come together and address it as a team. We have to be a team that starts the game well and puts the pressure on the other team. Fulham started better than us, they started better than us today. The back end of last season, it already kicked in. We can't keep giving them a goal start."
Bournemouth come to Anfield next and if Liverpool go behind again, then Klopp can't keep blaming different excuses.
Manchester United found their intensity.
After running 13.8 fewer kilometres than Brentford in their previous game, United looked a completely different team. Erik ten Hag's side ran 18 more kilometres this week, bettering Liverpool's distance covered statistic of 109.96km by racking up a total of 113.06km.
United also went from 92 sprints at Brentford to 167 against Liverpool. And despite having just 30 per cent possession against Jurgen Klopp's side, they put on 200 pressures compared to Liverpool's 88.
Ten Hag praised his front three for the pressure they put on Liverpool without the ball - and also may have made a subtle dig at Ronaldo, who started at Brentford but played just five minutes off the bench against Liverpool.
"Sometimes strikers think they cannot do it because they have to save their energy for offensive actions," the United manager told Sky Sports after the game. "Nowadays it's a demand and that is what you saw. It makes me happy Rashford and Sancho scored the goals."
Had Virgil van Dijk forgotten his glasses and needed to know when the next train out of Manchester was departing on the timetable? Or, was it just mind-boggling bad defending?
"I didn't realise how much time I had," said goalscorer Jadon Sancho, who was given the freedom of Old Trafford to slide home Manchester United's opening goal. Even Bruno Fernandes was pointing to his team-mate about where to place the ball. This was all because Van Dijk was standing in a central area, like a statue, with both hands behind his back which allowed Sancho the time to side-foot a cool finish home. Put someone like John Terry, Jamie Carragher or Nemanja Vidic in that situation and no way would Sancho had been given such time.
Carragher said: "It's the one thing I'd question him on. In most departments, he's 10 out of 10. But he does lack intensity at certain times. Can he just hang his leg out? You've got to throw yourself at it."
"If you analyse Van Dijk there, he's been sloppy all season,' former United captain Roy Keane said.
"He's got to get out. He's not moved his feet."
While United's players celebrated, James Milner could be seen raging at Van Dijk, making the obvious point about why the defender didn't press Sancho. "Go out to him," Milner screamed at the defender, who didn't look too impressed about being dug out by his team-mate.
As Keane referenced, this wasn't a one-off from Van Dijk either. You only have to go back seven days to find more arrogant defending from the Liverpool centre-back when allowing Wilfried Zaha to fire a finish past Alisson in the 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace. There was also the foul on Aleksandar Mitrovic that led to Fulham's penalty on the opening weekend.
Van Dijk is a supreme footballer but at the moment he needs to go back to basics.
"It's the first time I've seen Marcus Rashford play like he did when he first came on the scene where he was running through on goal regularly. It was a big moment," said Sky Sports' Gary Neville.
Much like Manchester United's performance, it is much of a mystery how or why Rashford suddenly rediscovered his confidence here, but what a time to do it.
The 24-year-old had five shots at goal - the most he's had in a match since October 2020 - and scored his first Premier League goal since January. He sparkled with the ball at his feet, showing his raw pace over five dribbles.
He played through the middle in the first half before moving to the left with orders to further scare Trent Alexander-Arnold, eventually scoring with a perfect finish past one v one master Alisson.
Gareth Southgate, were you watching?
For all Trent Alexander-Arnold brings going forward, he is completely let down by an indefensible inability to defend against big players.
Once again, the Liverpool right-back was taken advantage of in brutal fashion by Marcus Rashford and Anthony Elanga. That came very early on when Rashford barged his England team-mate out the way to charge through on goal.
Then, Alexander-Arnold was played around by Christian Eriksen and Elanga for United's first - then was nowhere to be seen when his man, Rashford again, burst through for the second.
Alexander-Arnold's defending has been questioned regularly. Bullied by Brentford in Liverpool's 3-3 draw last season, the defender also lost track of Vinicius Junior in the Champions League final and was beaten at the back post by Aleksandr Mitrovic on the opening weekend of this campaign at Fulham.
His repeated defensive frailties could suggest why England manager Gareth Southgate has never really rated Alexander-Arnold in major tournaments.
"He lacked intensity," said Jamie Carragher about the full-back for United's first goal. "The right side of the defence was a problem for Liverpool," said Gary Neville when asked about the second.
And when Alexander-Arnold has an off-day going forward, like he did at Old Trafford where he regularly overhit passes, then Liverpool have a real problem down that flank.