In yet another underwhelming Northwest derby, it had become clear by half-time that it was Liverpool’s match to lose after an already injury-hit Manchester United were forced to make three substitutions during the first 45 minutes and settle for Marcus Rashford leading the line despite suffering an obvious injury.
Any points missed would be dropped for Liverpool, especially in the context of the Premier League title race, and gained for a weakened United, but the visitors failed to take advantage of that opportunity in what transpired to be a disappointing ninety minutes for both teams.
But it could have all been very different for Liverpool had Jurgen Klopp reacted to events at half-time with the boldness, intelligence and astuteness required to win trophies through a daring substitution – swapping centre-back Joel Matip for playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri and accordingly pushing Fabinho back into defence.
Here’s why the switch-up would have won the game for Liverpool…
With Rashford clearly unable to press from centre-forward as he played through an injury, Liverpool’s centre-backs were luxury to the most space on the pitch on Sunday.
Tellingly, Matip recorded the second-most touches of the ball of any Liverpool player but while he certainly wasn’t pedestrian with possession, aside from one marauding run into the opposition box his impact offensively was inevitably limited.
And considering United really weren’t offering much in attack by that stage of the game, the Cameroonian’s defensive qualities only became increasingly irrelevant.
Fabinho would have been the ideal candidate to serve a dual role alongside Virgil van Dijk – helping him stop counter-attacks before stepping into midfield to try and create an overload in deep-lying pockets, which in turn would have helped make space further forward.
Fabinho’s forward passing is probably the best and most consistent of any player at the club as well, so he would have been perfect for pushing balls through a packed midfield.
Without meaning to sound disrespectful, Scott McTominay was the obvious weak link in Manchester United’s starting XI. It ultimately ended up being a decent performance from the Red Devils academy product despite looking nervy in stages, but largely because nobody really tested him as the midfield anchor. By the full time whistle, he hadn’t made a single tackle.
More than any Liverpool player, Shaqiri was best-suited for the job of troubling McTominay as a natural No.10. Yes, McTominay would have always dominated him in purely physical battles, but the Swiss has the guile and trickery to take advantage of the 22-year-old’s inexperience.
A few direct runs at McTominany would have made matters very interesting, especially if Shaqiri forced the towering midfielder into a booking. But McTominay was left largely unscathed by what’s supposed to be one of the most fearsome attacks in Europe, undertaking a relatively simple job of screening in front of an isolated Daniel Sturridge. Opportunity missed.