Blades paid no attention to the script - The big talking points from Liverpool 2, Sheffield United 1
Twenty eight years ago, not long after he had joined Chelsea from Sheffield United, Vinnie Jones used some paper, sellotape and a permanent marker pen to write his name into Stamford Bridge folklore.
Moments before they went into battle at Liverpool, searching for their first win there in over half a century, the famously combative midfielder crept out of the Londoners’ dressing room and performed an impromptu makeover of the ‘This is Anfield’ sign designed to strike fear into the hearts of visitors.
“Are we bothered?” Jones had scribbled on the piece of A4 he then taped across the framed poster. It was a message designed to resonate not only with his own team mates but the opposition players as well. And it had the desired effect, with efforts from Dennis Wise and Jones himself securing a famous victory.
Puncturing the aura of invincibility which has developed around Jurgen Klopp’s squad was the biggest challenge facing Chris Wilder’s side when they travelled west on Saturday night.
It was a task they approached with the same devilish relish as Jones, only succumbing when Diogo Jota pounced just past the hour mark having earlier taken the lead through Sander Berge. Despite slipping to their fifth defeat in six outings, this was a performance to restore United’s confidence and self-belief.
“It’s ruthless and cruel, this division, we’ve felt that out there,” Wilder said. “There’s a lot of disappointed people in our dressing room. But that tells you a lot about what they produced. There were a lot of good things we can take away with us, and we’ll learn from the experience.”
THE RIGHT ATTITUDE AND PLENTY OF ABILITY
Unbeaten on home soil in 61 Premier League outings, even Wilder, whose pugnacious approach has fuelled United’s rise through the divisions, was unable to stop himself lavishing praise on Liverpool beforehand. Describing the reigning champions as “by far and away the best” outfit in the competition last term - “The only other ones who could even come close was Manchester City,” he said - the United manager attempted to tread the fine line between recognising the achievements of Klopp’s star-studded line-up and making his own men feel inferior.
It was a trick he performed with an impressive degree of expertise, reminding that United had pushed Liverpool close at Bramall Lane last term. They did so again thanks to a combination of attitude, ability and an intelligent game plan which very nearly produced a shock result.
“They are tough opponents,” Klopp said. “Very tough opponents. They caused us problems, with all the quality they have, but we adjusted a few things and stayed patient.”
JURGEN IS A FAN
If United had been in need of a pick me up beforehand, Klopp came up trumps; paying both Wilder and his players a series of remarkable tributes.
“What a guy Chris is - and what a football manager,” the German wrote in his pre-match programme notes. “A brilliant leader for his club and without doubt one of the standout coaches working in England right now.”
“We prepared for a team that reflects their outstanding manager,” Klopp continued, insisting that United’s results of late do not reflect the “incredible” standard of their performances. “Committed, brave, inventive, positive and in the fight until the bell rings at the end of the last round.”
An even greater filip came in the shape of Fabinho’s 12th minute foul on Oli McBurnie, which presented Berge with the chance to fire United in front from the spot following a VAR review. It was not an opportunity the Norwegian was about the pass up, sending Alisson the wrong way in front of an empty Kop.
United maintained their lead until Firmino equalised during the closing stages of the first-half. That fact the Brazilian’s effort came against the run of play reflected the brio of United’s performance.
UNITED PAID NO ATTENTION TO THE SCRIPT
Written off by many ahead of the contest, Wilder’s men negotiated safe passage through the opening 10 minutes before seizing control following Berge’s conversion. John Egan’s clearance denied Sadio Mane as Liverpool came bursting out of the blocks while Aaron Ramsdale, who had been beaten to the ball by the Senegalese, did well to tip an audacious long-range free-kick from Trent Alexander-Arnold over the crossbar.
But thanks to the energy of Ben Osborn - who forced Alisson to save soon after Oli McBurnie had dragged wide - and George Baldock’s superb delivery from wide positions, United caused Liverpool all manner of problems. Ethan Ampadu, parachuted into the starting eleven alongside Osborn and Rhian Brewster, was also impressively composed in front of their rearguard.
Had Oliver Burke shown a little more at the death, snatching at his shot after finding himself in space on the edge of the area, United might well have secured a draw. But Burke, who replaced former Liverpool centre-forward Brewster at the beginning of the second period, justified his introduction by producing several of the powerful, sweeping runs which have become his hallmark.
“Oli, I thought he was superb, a proper number nine and Ethan brought us real mobility in midfield,” Wilder said. “George was back to his snarling best as well, but there were lots of really good contributions out there. And there had to be, because of the quality of who were up against.”
MORE THAN JUST A GAME
Results mean more in South Yorkshire and on Merseyside than in many other parts of the country, thanks to their social context. Flying the flag for regions largely forgotten by successive governments, their clubs are standard bearers for communities whose contributions to the nation are no longer valued by politicians.
Football is the vehicle which enables their voices to be heard above the din of big business - to strike a blow against the establishment. It is for precisely that reason why the sight of Liverpool’s owners flirting with the idea of constructing a European Super League sits so uncomfortably with large sections of their support base.
In tandem with United’s, many donated the price of a pay-per-view ticket for this game to a local food bank rather than line the pockets of those hoping to exploit draconian social distancing guidelines introduced during the latest phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, and which have left the economies of both cities teetering on the brink of financial collapse.
United went about their business with the passion of a team fighting for something much bigger than three points throughout the ‘Tier Three’ derby. Despite failing to stretch their lead after Berge’s intervention, McBurnie ran his blood to water in attack while Baldock peppered Liverpool’s rearguard with a series of tantalising centres. Firmino benefited from a slice of good fortune when the ball, after Ramsdale had done well to parry a Mane header, fell kindly for him in front of an empty net before Jota nodded home just past the hour mark.
“We could have done better with their goals,” Wilder said. “And we could have done better with some of the positions we got in. Yes, we want points. But I’ll take that type of performance from the boys all day long. If they keep on doing that, the points will definitely come.”
Liverpool: Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho, Gomez, Robertson, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Jota (Milner 83), Firmino (Minamino 83), Salah, Mane. Not used: Adrian, Jones, Shaqiri, Phillps, N Williams.
Sheffield United: Ramsdale, Basham, Egan, Ampadu, Baldock, Stevens, Lundstram (McGoldrick 75), Berge, Osborn, McBurnie, Brewster (Burke 53). Not used: Verrips, Norwood, Sharp, Robinson, Jagielka.
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral). VAR: Andre Marriner (West Midlands).