The name of the game for both teams was pressure.
While there are little stakes in a preseason game — even in a rivalry matchup — the pressure exerted, not by the situation, but by the players on one another made the difference.
Squashing any remote chances created by Manchester United, Liverpool FC swarmed the midfield and controlled the pace of play for the majority of the first half. Any signs of a play created, despite the heroics of Manchester United’s Alexis Sanchez, were crushed by a Liverpool defensive line that would oftentimes double up on the man-to-man coverage, making it hard for the forward as well as the midfielders to push.
The heavy press offered success on the offensive end by allowing Liverpool more possession time in the offensive zone. By forcing the turnovers on Manchester United’s side of the field, less was asked of the offensive end of the midfield and allowed the forwards all the room in the world to move — a strategy that allowed Liverpool to dominate the game against Manchester United in a 4-1 win.
The offensive pressure forced the Manchester United defense to respond. But while it did, it came only in high-danger situations. The defensive pressure was finally forced off Manchester United. However, it came off like a procrastinator would, carelessly, lazily and, often times, too late.
The last-minute effort by the defensive line worked during a few of the early scoring chances, diverting the passing lanes so that the passes were too far forward for Dominic Salanke or Mohammed Salah to garner within the box. Even when garnered, the stuffed box would be too crowded for a clear shot from the Liverpool forwards.
But as Liverpool caught on to the opportunities it was given, it made the most of the space allowed by the Manchester United defense to start a play. The time given was enough for the dynamic duo of Salah and forward Sadio Mane to force chances.
Around the five-minute mark, midfielder Rafa Camacho started the ball out with time to view for the open man. Spotting Mane, the pressure was then transferred toward the young forward, who’s offensive talents can’t be ignored, as the ball was passed to him. Opening the opportunity for Salah, the Egyption forward found himself by the near-post with no one in front of him. Ball at his feet and inches away from the goalline, Salah’s slight back-heel tap went astray, and the ball was cleared and out of play.
The pressure from the attack didn’t stop from there. Salah continued his offensive onslaught with a header coming around nine minutes. The attack came amidst a crowd of three Manchester United defenders and seemingly caught the defense off guard, as his header went uncontested and sailed straight toward the top of the goal.
If it weren’t for the heroics of a last second touch by the Manchester United goalkeeper, who extended himself fully for the save, the score would have better reflected the dominant play by Liverpool to that point.
The breakthrough finally came at the 28th minute, as Liverpool finally found the payoff from its repeated offensive pressure, when Salah and Mane found one another to create a threat Manchester United just couldn’t settle. Forced into a bad position by his late contest, defender Demitri Mitchell gave in and fouled Salah at the baseline within the box — allowing Salah to draw the penalty.
Mane put an end to the open frames of the scoreboard and tacked on a point for Liverpool with a line drive to the left of the goal during the penalty kick.
Despite the wavering methodology that the defense had played with, the offense of Manchester United stayed true to what had created the little chances the team did generate — which were chances through counters.
Earlier in the game, Manchester United had seen its only other scoring opportunity from a counter that had opened the fast break. Even while Sanchez was falling down as he controlled the ball, he managed to lob it to an open man who found the back of the net but was ruled offsides.
Immediately after the score from Liverpool, Manchester United countered with a quick draw from the circle and a pass to midfielder Juan Mata, who redeemed his team’s performance by drawing a free kick just slightly outside of the box and within scoring distance.
With a creative shot toward the top left of the goal, in a curve ball, the score was evened by midfielder Andreas Pereira, and the momentum seemingly turned in favor of Manchester United for the first time. However, whatever momentum the team had garnered was quickly diminished through, again, the efforts of the Liverpool defense and midfield.
Where Manchester United’s midfield was unorganized and frustrated, Liverpool’s thrived through concise passing that didn’t settle with just winning a possession but turning it into a scoring opportunity.
While the halftime score was even, very few who watched the game could call Manchester United’s efforts on par with Liverpool’s. It was simply a one-sided affair. And the score showed that after the second half.
From the get-go, Liverpool made the adjustments, and Manchester United did not.
Despite substituting a large part of the starting lineup, Liverpool didn’t skip a beat even as it widened its formation. It kept its same aggression, and ultimately, Manchester United paid the price for being unable to match Liverpool’s intensity.
Striker Daniel Sturridge saw a pass from a contested Xherdan Shaqiri. Despite being in traffic, Shaqiri had settled the ball and turned his back to face a cutting Sturridge.
The play exemplified the makeshift chemistry of the team. Shaqiri was a new acquisition, yet made the most of his time on the field by meshing well with the remainder of the roster. In a game where many were sat out due to circumstances, the ability to create chemistry as if it had been there for years helped determine the victor.
Manchester United’s defense, who had subbed out starting defender Eric Bailly, saw the quality of the backline drop, as the team was forced to make crude contests, many of which resulted in fouls.
At the 74th minute, another foul was committed by Manchester United. This time, it was in the box for another penalty kick. As if the decline had snowballed, the intensity of the defensive players had all but vanished. Now down two by a converted penalty kick by midfielder Sheyi Ojo, the situation that had seemed salvageable for Manchester United flipped a 180.
And as if to rub salt on the wound, Ojo extended a scoring chance that failed to find the net, in part due to Manchester United defender Axel Tuanzebe’s positioning, and gave it up for midfielder Ben Woodburn. Woodburn then passed out to Shaqiri, allowing him an open score — through a bicycle kick.
The game, which went so poorly for Manchester United and so positively for Liverpool, is hardly an accurate reflection on the state of either clubs, in terms of either missing players and differing levels of intensity. However, when it came to, Liverpool found its chance to shine through hardnose defense and cohesive offense.
Preseason carries a different weight. There’s no standings, no life-defining title. But between the efforts to live up to fans’ expectations and the on-field intensity, there were all types of pressure, and all of them came in favor of Liverpool.