Something strange happened on Sunday afternoon. Not only did Marouane Fellaini come inches away from scoring the all-important equaliser in Manchester United’s game against Liverpool, only for the post to deny him, but Jurgen Klopp exposed a side of himself that maybe we haven’t seen before.
It’s understandable that Klopp will have be frustrated to see his team concede six minutes before the end of the match. On the back of losing to 13th-placed Southampton in the League Cup and drawing 0-0 at home to League 2 side Plymouth Argyle, Liverpool really could have done with a result at Old Trafford.
Still, the comments the German made were just fairly odd. Firstly, he was upset that United hadn’t offered an official welcome to Liverpool in the programme ahead of kick-off. For a man who claims to understand the rivalry, this was a strange observation, but more than that, why would he care? Why would it matter one jot whether Liverpool were welcomed in the programme or not?
The remarks that have gained the most coverage though, both in the press and on social media, are the snobbery he showed towards Jose Mourinho’s tactics which successfully earned United a draw in the final minutes.
Having conceded a totally needless penalty when Paul Pogba handled an unthreatening cross in the box, United spent the rest of the game chasing a result. With 14 minutes left to play and United still trailing, Mourinho opted to send on Fellaini.
The last time the manager did this against Merseyside opposition, Fellaini conceded an 89th-minute penalty. However, on this occasion, the decision certainly paid off. United supporters were pleasantly surprised with the player’s contribution in these final minutes, with him doing well in the air and retaining possession successfully.
The key moment for Fellaini came five minutes from time when he got a touch on a cross from Wayne Rooney, which was agonisingly too high for the Belgian to get any decent contact on, but his glancing header hit the woodwork regardless. The rebound fell to Antonio Valencia who put in the cross to Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the equaliser.
“They played long balls in a wild game. We played the better football and had the better plan,” Klopp said after the game. Liverpool’s goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was named Man of the Match by the BBC and Liverpool’s defender Dejan Lovren by Sky Sports, telling you all you need to know about which side was playing the more attacking football.
Still, Klopp wasn’t finished there. “When Fellaini came on, it wasn’t football anymore,” he said.
These comments started a war on social media, with Liverpool fans hailing their manager and criticising their long-time enemy Jose Mourinho. In retaliation, United supporters dug up statistics which discredited Klopp’s claim.
Sky Sports published match stats at the end of the game that showed 20% of United’s passes in the game were long balls, compared to 19% from Liverpool. People, with more time on their hands than they would like to admit, made video compilations showing the huge number of long balls Liverpool played throughout the 1-1 draw. Most of these long balls came to nothing though, whereas United’s long balls had the return of a goal.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise though as, this season, Liverpool are ranked 12th in the league in the number of long balls played, meaning that even clubs like Stoke have played fewer. By contrast, United are ranked 17th.
The final nail in the coffin for Klopp’s credibility with his criticism was the fact that he has employed similar tactics himself in the past. When chasing a goal against Arsenal a year ago, he put defender Steven Caulker up front and launched long balls up the pitch. They scored an injury-time equaliser and even Arsene Wenger managed to avoid the football condescension of criticising the manner in which Liverpool went about the score.
More important than the nitpicking over who plays more long balls, though, is the conclusion that should be drawn over whether it matters or not. Liverpool have played more long balls than United this season but the only number that really matters is the points on the board. Liverpool are currently five points better off, so it’s fairly irrelevant if they’ve got those points hoofing the ball up the pitch or playing the most beautiful football the league has ever seen.
Likewise, if United spent the last 14 minutes of the game booting the ball up in the direction of Fellaini and it helped them get a goal, why is that an issue? The idea that football has to be played in a certain way for it to be valued or successful is ludicrous.
On Sunday afternoon in Merseyside, Manchester City completed 622 passes, boasting a massive 70% possession. In contrast, United completed 410 passes to Liverpool’s 300. Only one of those teams got stuffed 4-0 though, by Everton, who, out of interest, completed 200 passes. If United’s 14 minutes “wasn’t football anymore”, I wonder what Klopp would make of Everton’s approach of long balls up to Romelu Lukaku.
Of course, that’s not to say the only thing that matters about football is the winning. Manchester United fans can testify to that after two seasons under Louis van Gaal, when even victories weren’t heavily celebrated at times having endured 90 minutes of painfully boring football. Fans want to be entertained.
That said, there’s no way that you could look at the final 15 minutes of football at Old Trafford on Sunday and say that it was poor football or boring to watch. It was scintillating and ended with Mourinho getting the goal he desperately craved, while Klopp’s wait for his first league victory over United goes on.
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