MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Long balls in the air to a big strong centre forward, crunching tackles, speed and physicality — Manchester United beat Liverpool on Saturday the old-fashioned way.
Both the goals scored by Marcus Rashford in the opening 24 minutes came from long balls towards the head of United’s Belgian target man Romelu Lukaku.
Liverpool’s Croatian central defender Dejan Lovren couldn’t compete with Lukaku in the air and that was something United knew before the game.
“Lukaku was confident from experience that could be dominant towards Lovren,” United manager Jose Mourinho said.
It wasn’t the only aerial battle that United considered exploiting either.
“We had also the possibility of the long ball to Scott McTominay and to play against (Andy) Robertson in the air,” revealed Mourinho, who appears to be bucking the trend of aversion to direct football.
The long ball to a target man was once over used in English football with teams playing the percentage game of hoping a knockdown from a forward would land for a team mate.
But when played by a top team with a quality striker like Lukaku, capable of directing a header into the path of a team mate or bringing it down and driving forward, the approach can be highly effective.
Certainly it was proved enough to open up Liverpool’s defence.
“Long balls to Lukaku and second situations. Lukaku is one of the best strikers in the world, we needed to be around to pick up the ball, we were not and Rashford could use the situation twice,” said Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp.
It wasn’t only the use of long balls that gave the game the feeling of an encounter from earlier times.
Despite the abundance of international talent on display, the game was played at the kind of frantic pace typical of English derby games down the years.
Challenges were flying in from the outset and composure was in short supply but Mourinho felt that mood to the game helped his side.
“In the first half, the game gave us the opportunity to be direct, fast and score goals,” he said.
While Liverpool enjoyed the bulk of possession, especially in the second half, United’s back four showed other timeless qualities providing solid, organised defence and gave little space to their opponents.
“Our team was always in control. Even in set pieces, corners, dangerous situations we were in control so I think we deserved it,” said Mourinho.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge