“We were the better side, played better football, had a better plan.”
“We stopped them playing but they also did very well from the defensive point of view.”
Everybody loves a good story, especially here at Latest News. The creation of narrative is as old as we are as a species. The past, after all, is just a story that we tell ourselves, so the same thing should work for the future, right? Well, not really. The problem is that the loudest and most powerful people in any group will always set that narrative. In the microcosm of the story of humanity that is English football, the screechiest power-brokers have long been Manchester United.
Well before the hysteria-mongers of Sky Sports had started tweeting about the introduction of the new spider-cam, the rolling ‘news’ outlet were relentlessly peddling the tale of United’s intimidating form, the imperiousness of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the reemergence of Jose Mourinho as the daddy of them all. We all knew what was supposed to happen here. It was Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp’s time to stand aside and allow the ineluctable progress of the Mancunian giants. Martin Tyler’s voice was meant to crack in ecstasy as he celebrated another United moment for the montage sections. It was Macheda Time.
The excuses were there, should Liverpool’s German gaffer have wanted them. He was deprived of the only true source of pace in attack by Sadio Mane’s absence, denied the full fitness of Philippe Coutinho, the most creative talent on the club’s books and thwarted by a last-minute injury to the bastion of reliability and ever-presence that is Nathaniel Clyne. Then, most bizarrely, the murky meddling of FIFA resulted in the eleventh-hour unavailability of Joel Matip, a man who has been a towering source of security in the Reds’ defence whenever he has played. Liverpool, then, were set fair to fail.
The match, as we know, did not pan out like that. Liverpool matched their hosts and surpassed them in many areas. After a worrying couple of runs from the much-feted Anthony Martial, Trent Alexander-Arnold set about the kind of performance that resulted in his French opponent being hooked and the Clyne-related anxiety of Redmen being lessened. The redoubtable James Milner put his team ahead from the penalty spot and Liverpool led deservedly for a lot of the game, before the master tactician Mourinho went full Big Sam and decided to throw on the tower of hair and elbows, Marouane Fellaini, in order go route-one for the final twenty minutes.
In the commentating gantry, Atkinson ululated in delight as the Old Trafford crowd rose to acclaim the inevitable result of the head-tennis that ensued. Narrative, right? Sky editors were already choosing the stirring musical accompaniment for this latest tale of predicted glory.
If the Liverpool fans of weak resolve were already throwing up their hands in defeat, worse was to come. Wayne Rooney, the Evertonian Scouser, was also brought on. As he bore down on goal with time running out, Sky’s utterly-non-biased commentator wondered aloud if it was “in the script” or, with a flourish of romance, “in the stars,” that the follically-challenged United captain would win the day. The immediate shattering of that hope, by an Emre Can interception, was one of the highlights of the season for this scribbler. Klopp’s Liverpool, like 90s rappers, Cypress Hill, ain’t goin’ out like that.
The gap may have widened to the top but Liverpool have weathered the storm of misfortune, gone to their bitterest rival and left with mostly enhanced reputations. The Anfield men are level on points with second-placed Tottenham and are still ahead of Arsenal. 17 games remain, 10 at Anfield.
Narrative be damned.