Jadon Sancho’s opener had just hit the back of the net, but the investigation has already begun.
When he rolled the ball past James Milner, Sancho only had Virgil van Dijk between him and the goal. Van Dijk grabbed his ground with his hands behind his back as he looked to cover the space, before dropping Sancho into the lower left corner.
Milner’s debrief consisted of yelling at his teammate: “This is your ball. This is your ball!” and “Go for it.”
The question is who was right? Could Van Dijk have done more, or was Milner right?
The case against Van Dijk
This is nothing new from Van Dijk.
In the previous match at home against Crystal Palace, he made sure not to block the shot when Wilfried Zaha passed the net to score.
When a player is on the edge of the zone or shooting from a tight angle, you can understand Van Dijk’s reluctance to stick to a leg. You risk a deflection that your goalkeeper could miss, so it may be best to trust your teammate to get a clearer view of the shot and (often) to save it.
When the ball is very close to your target, you simply have to engage.
Admittedly, in the United game, Liverpool’s defensive structure is a mess at the firing point, and Milner’s dive creates a sense of panic in the penalty area. However, with Sancho storming inward, he looks at the ball, controlling it with his left foot before turning back to his preferred right.
At this point, Sancho has not yet had the opportunity to fully evaluate his options – then you have to close the corner and try to disrupt whatever action he takes.
As you can see above, Sancho also had the opportunity to pass to Bruno Fernandes if Van Dijk rushed him, but there are two things to answer there. First, it was already a high-quality opportunity as Sancho was about to shoot, so the lack of action did little to reduce the probability of the goal.
Second, if Van Dijk is indeed engaged and Sancho makes a pass, there is an additional action that can occur in the sequence that could lead to another defensive action elsewhere in Liverpool. It was unlikely, but surely you should die trying?
“There was only one player who tried to stop him, let me say it like that. I saw Millie trying. It wasn’t a lot of help,” Klopp said.
At that moment, when the ball is very close to your goal, the most important person is the player who gets the ball – and Sancho has had time to choose where he is.
Indeed, Fernandes had time to pick Sancho’s place for him, helpfully pointing toward goal as the 22-year-old looked at the shot. That’s when you know the defense wasn’t good enough to stop the shot.
In defense of Van Dijk
What else was he supposed to do?
The domino effect caused by the chaos from his teammates meant the damage was done largely by the time Sancho received the ball.
When Joe Gomez moved to (unsuccessfully) blocking the cross, Van Dijk was forced to hold the entire central area of the penalty area. If he had also been thrust into the challenge, the gap would have been even greater. By the time Sancho cut inside, there was simply too much ground to make up for realistically stopping the shot.
Jordan Henderson was playing the defensive midfielder that night in place of Fabinho. Although Henderson is aggressive off the ball, he lacks the defensive intelligence to cover space and “sniff out” the danger. When the ball is pulled to Sancho, you can easily imagine Fabinho getting over this problem before it even hits Sancho’s toe. Instead, Van Dijk had a lot to do at once.
Furthermore, he wasn’t too far off in blocking the shot. Looking at the reverse corner, you can see that he placed himself between Sancho and the goal – but may have benefited more by turning one yard to his right instead of five yards forward.
Van Dijk was also unaware of Alisson’s actions behind him, with the Brazilian mistaken for Sancho turning inward. The ground he then had to make up to cover his right side of the goal was simply too much.
Van Dijk often trusts his keeper, and he has done so again on this occasion. Unfortunately, this time around there were a lot of bugs around to get his team out of trouble again.
The role of Joe Gomez
Being restless is never good for a defender. Being confused in building a goal is worse.
Much has been said about Trent Alexander-Arnold and his defensive ability but Gomez has shown that he cannot cover his right-back or provide such a vital balance.
This might sound harsh considering Gomez has made his seventh Premier League appearance in the calendar year on Monday night and before the match had just 335 minutes of league football in 2022.
But aside from injury and positional competitiveness issues, Gomez was a defender earlier in his career and should thrive in these situations.
He could be more aggressive and come out strong for Christian Eriksen, but Liverpool keep their defensive line well and there is a noticeable lack of midfield coverage.
Team play to pass the ball behind the Liverpool defense is incredibly elegant, with accurate and fast passes.
But Gomez’s defensive move was ineffective.
The recovery path (white dotted arrow above) is parallel to the ball and this provides plenty of room for Ilanga.
Instead, it should run diagonally to close the space (red arrow) and get close to preventing the initial shrink, or at least pressing enough to make the pass more difficult to execute.
While playing the pass, Elanga has space and time – due to running at a bad angle from Gomez – to select the undo option.
He even has room to pass across the face of the goal but chooses to cut the ball back, given the positioning and movement of his teammates.
With a slightly faster acceleration towards his target, Gomez was in a position to block Sancho’s efforts in the bottom corner.
All this without discussing the role in building Alexander-Arnold, who arguably should have been significantly tighter with Ilanga when he received the ball. Instead, the Liverpool right-back was caught in a no-man’s-land as United easily played one and two around him.
It shows that compromising a goal is rarely due to an individual mistake or act, but is more often the result of the overall team structure.
Oh, I’ve been a fly on the wall in half the time.