Saturday, July 20, 2024

Manchester United’s fearless youth overcomes Liverpool in FA Cup classic as Red Devils advance to semifinals

Another day for Manchester United to beguile and probably deceive you. This was a side befitting of their status, diminished though it might be from their historic peaks, of FA Cup semifinalists and top four contenders. Erik ten Hag’s side were dominated in the second half, thrust to the brink of what might have been a season-ending defeat. And yet United’s youngsters were not cowed and refused to listen to legs and minds that must have been screaming out for a break.

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In the first exchanges, Alejandro Garnacho flew at the Liverpool backline with determination and energy. Two hours later he was doing just the same, laying on the winner for Amad Diallo in one of the great FA Cup ties, a 4-3 triumph for United over their great rivals, ending Jurgen Klopp’s hopes of a farewell garlanded with four trophies.

United might just claim one of them if they deliver two performances like this in the Wembley sunshine, starting with the rising force of the Championship Coventry City. That and the Champions League spot that Aston Villa and Tottenham insist on opening up for them would mean that this disastrous season would somehow conclude with Ten Hag at even par for year two. Such a scenario may well not come to pass. 

Make no exception, this performance is the exception rather than the rule. With 10 league games to go, United’s goal difference is just where it began. Their non-penalty expected goal difference puts them 13th in the Premier League. For the majority of normal time, they were plagued by those familiar issues: green pastures where a midfield should be, an inability to control possession or build from the back. The fearlessness of youth rarely compensates for systemic issues.

Sunday it did. By the time of Diallo’s winner, the exhilaration Garnacho brought to the early exchanges seemed a lifetime ago. How could the young Argentine do such damage over so long a timescale? United had begun by doing to Liverpool what Liverpool had so often done to them. The visitors were throttled in their own third of the Old Trafford field. They were ferocious when the ball broke loose, flying towards Caoimhin Kelleher’s goal. 

A quickly taken free kick and Marcus Rashford was away. Thursday’s rout in the Europa League seemed to have sapped more energy on Merseyside than most might have expected, heavy legs and minds failing to plug a gap in the backline that Garnacho drifted into. Kelleher parried the initial effort but only into the path of Scott McTominay, who bundled home his ninth goal of the season.

For an instant,  the game was there for United, Andrew Robertson just about denying the effervescent Garnacho. He, Mainoo and Diogo Dalot have the look of building blocks in a future United squad, whether under Ten Hag’s tutelage or someone else’s. They have the legs to get from one end of the pitch to the other and/or the vision to see what might come if their moves break down. The Dutchman indicated at the start of the season that he wanted this team to become the world’s leading purveyors of transition football. In attacking terms, United may not be there but they are not bad at all, a team who can blitz even Liverpool or Manchester City in a few short moves.

A great team, however, needs to be able to play the transition game at both ends. The team Ten Hag went with had something of the feel of an NBA team committed to crashing the glass and leaving no one back to protect against the fast break. A pass map like the one behind is fine if your more attack-minded midfielders can get back to aid the defense. McTominay did on occasion, making a few neat interventions on the edge of his own box, but he does not have the pace to keep up with a Liverpool counter. 

It did not particularly matter if Fernandes was back or not. Both of Liverpool’s goals could have been slowed, perhaps even stopped, with a little more off-ball effort. Jarrel Quansah was able to ease away from first Rashford and then Fernandes, Alexis Mac Allister subsequently larruping a shot in at the near post via the leg of Mainoo. Three minutes later, on the stroke of half time, what had been United’s lead was Liverpool’s, the ball rolled from the right side of the penalty area to the left, where no one seemed minded to put pressure on either Luis Diaz or Darwin Nunez. Andre Onana did well to get a glove on the ball but could only divert it to Mohamed Salah who sparked the most rapturous of celebrations among Liverpool supporters for the 13th time.

Ten Hag might argue that Casemiro’s absence robbed him of the chance to deploy a more robust shield in front of his defense. On the basis of this season it is an open question whether the 32-year-old, unavailable due to a muscle injury, would have helped or hindered United. He certainly does not resemble a long-term solution. 

United couldn’t even rustle up something for the short term in the second half. When your defining trait is playing on the counter, it is a hard task to convince your opponent to gamble with their lead by committing bodies forward. Another thing United cannot do is what Liverpool did just after the hour mark had been passed, pinging the ball around for minutes at a time before upping the intensity and forging a shooting opportunity. When the ball did come to the man who is supposed to make his team tick all Fernandes did was spray long balls for tired legs to chase after. Only impressive saves by Onana and in particular Liverpool’s baffling decisions in the final third kept this tie alive.

Thanks to them, United might have won the game in normal time. Antony delivered that rarest of things — a convincing right-footed touch — to draw his side level. Rashford should have had a walk-off winner, Christian Eriksen releasing him with a ball over the top that deserved better than a side-footed strike wide of goal. Ten Hag had emptied his bench of attackers in pursuit of parity and Rashford continued to test Kelleher’s goal.

Those familiar gaps in front of a now-undermanned United defense kept popping up however, Eriksen getting across only in time to deflect Harvey Elliott’s shot past Onana. Ten Hag had chucked the kitchen sink out a long time ago, the times sufficiently desperate that a center back pairing of Eriksen and Fernandes seemed to make sense. Harry Maguire was needed as the target man up top.

It was a fittingly baffling conclusion to this game that Diallo, a player cast to the fringes by Ten Hag, would change this game in so many ways. He did first with defensive excellence, denying a Liverpool counter at one end before stealing possession and giving the ball to McTominay, who would slip in Rashford for the equalizer. Then came the transition moment this team is waiting for, Diallo stealing the ball just outside his box and flying forward with Garnacho to win this unforgettable tie. Off came the shirt, out came a second yellow from John Brooks and Diallo was afforded a hero’s exit.

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