Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s post-match interview with Sky Sports after Sunday’s defeat at Anfield was redolent of a Donald Trump press conference – replete with comments aimed at his own loyalist audience and efforts to deflect from the real issues he faces.
It’s was understandable. After all, the Norwegian is quite often and necessarily in defensive, deflective mode post-match, fighting for his life, desperately hanging on to a job he surely never expected to get.
But just because he was really addressing the “folks back home,” feeding into a growing narrative that seeks to downplay the quality of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and hoping to curry a little favour in the process, it doesn’t mean his words and the manner in which they were delivered shouldn’t be challenged.
After all, as we’ve become all too aware with Donald – leaving nonsense unquestioned, letting it be repeated and spread, allows it to become for some, more or less fact.
Use of terms and phrases like “direct,” “long balls” and “putting you under pressure” was pointed. And the look on his face when mentioning the dangers Liverpool pose from set pieces was of a man who had found something unpleasant on the sole of his shoe.
It was a baby-faced character assassination of the league leaders and local rivals. Or at least an attempt at one. The choice of words was pejorative, designed to elicit images of Charles Hughes football. Wimbledon football.
Yes, Liverpool’s football is often direct, but not in the way the United manager was hinting – as he attempted to conjure up ghosts of the Crazy Gang aerial assault percentage game.
Instead, Liverpool’s direct football is daggers in your heart stuff, rapier like, precisely arrowed, swift vertical passes into feet and danger.
The term “long ball” particularly rankled. Yes, the Reds go long as part of their strategy – but primarily with long passes, most often cross field to switch the play, and not long balls.
To be fair, Klopp’s men will sometimes launch a ball behind the high line of an opposition defence for Mane or Salah to chase. It’s a tactic – to make the opposition take a step back, to stretch them from front to back – but it’s clearly not their only tactic nor one upon which their game is based.
More common is the raking cross field pass, from full back to full back – or from centre half to full back. And they are passes – played with wonderful accuracy to the advanced Robertson or Alexander Arnold occupying space created by the runs of their front men.
The two full backs, so devastating in attack, typically receive these passes unopposed – a key difference between a long pass and a long ball. With the latter, it’s always a battle and a scrap, the emphasis being on winning the second ball. With long passes, and Liverpool’s long passes, the result is clean possession in dangerous space.
The cross-field pass is crucial to how they pull apart the opposition when in possession and facing reticent deep lying defences. An approach Solskjaer would do well analyse and try to mirror, as United time and again fail to unlock teams who defend deep against them.
And yes, Liverpool do put their opposition under intense pressure when out of possession. But it is a sophisticated and intelligent strategy, all triggers and traps, that allows them dispossess opponents often in their own defensive third.
Perhaps Solskjaer was thinking back to Liverpool’s heavy metal football approach, the early Klopp years, where chaos, controlled to some extent, was the order of the day.
But that Liverpool is not today’s Liverpool. For the Merseysiders have morphed into a team now capable of controlling the tempo of the game, of resting on the ball, of playing devastatingly in the transition from almost any turnover anywhere on the field of play.
They stretch opponents from side to side and back to front, unhinging and unlocking them. In short, Liverpool have a depth and quality to their play that has allowed them dominate every opponent this season – the league table and victory in 21 of 22 league games doesn’t lie.
And set pieces? Well, Liverpool’s proficiency in the area is yet more evidence of good coaching, intelligent use of resources and attention to detail. Solskjaer, as he struggles to keep his job, might do well to reflect on that.
The gap between the two clubs stands at 30 points, with the Henderson and co also having a game in hand. And we’re still only in January. Manchester United’s manager may play to the gallery, but amount of spin can deflect from the Old Trafford and Anfield realities.