Marcus Rashford downs Liverpool as Man United thrive without Paul Pogba
MANCHESTER, England -- Three quick thoughts from Old Trafford on Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool.
1. Rashford exposes Liverpool's flaws
Marcus Rashford marked his first Premier League start of 2018 with both goals as Manchester United punished the defensive mistakes of rivals Liverpool to seal a 2-1 win at Old Trafford.
The victory, which lifts United five points clear of Jurgen Klopp's team in second place, was sealed in the first half by Rashford's two strikes.
But while the 20-year-old, impressing in front of England coach Gareth Southgate, took his goals in clinical fashion, the failure of Liverpool to defend both properly was a return to their early season failings.
And Dejan Lovren, who had a spectacularly bad performance during the 4-1 defeat at Tottenham, was at fault again for both of United's goals.
On both occasions, Lovren was beaten in the air by Romelu Lukaku in aerial challenges, with the United forward winning the flick-ons to tee up Rashford.
For the first goal, Rashford easily turned Trent Alexander-Arnold in the penalty area before beating goalkeeper Loris Karius with a powerful shot into the far corner.
And the second was another fine finish by Rashford, who scored after Juan Mata had latched on to Lukaku's second flick.
Although Liverpool pulled one back with an Eric Bailly own goal in the second half, the visitors struggled to display their attacking flair at Old Trafford.
And United held on to claim the win that takes them one step closer to securing Champions League qualification and runners-up spot behind runaway leaders Manchester City.
2. Cut off supply line as you neutralise Liverpool
Before this game, Liverpool's front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane had scored 45 Premier League goals between them this season, so their threat to United was obvious.
To have any hope of winning this fixture, United simply had to find a way to keep them quiet -- a task few clubs have managed this term.
But United found a way, and it was by cutting off the supply line to Salah, Firmino and Mane, with the Liverpool midfielders dominated by the hosts.
Liverpool's much-vaunted forwards made it easy for United, though, because none of them was prepared to drop deep and go in search of the ball.
If it didn't come to them, they were not willing to put the work in to bolster their midfield numbers, and that will be a concern to Klopp, especially if Liverpool have ambitions of making progress in the Champions League.
Top teams will have noted how United snuffed out the threat of Salah, Mane and Firmino, and they will copy the blueprint.
United also dropped deep, often defending their 18-yard line, to nullify the threat of Mane and Salah's pace.
With so many teams focused only on attacking nowadays, Jose Mourinho's approach was a reminder of the importance of a sound defensive plan, and the fact that Liverpool's goal came from an Eric Bailly own goal underlines the success of United's approach.
3. Pogba absence helps United
Paul Pogba's absence from the Manchester United team due to an injury sustained in training on Friday could have been perceived as a negative by Mourinho, but the Frenchman's absence ultimately worked in the home side's favour.
Pogba has been out of form in recent weeks, and his performance at Crystal Palace on Monday was bad enough to warrant him being dropped for this game. But the £89M man is still a key man in Mourinho's team, and it is difficult to envisage him being left out against Liverpool.
But without him, United were a much better team -- they were more organised and disciplined.
Scott McTominay's emergence as a holding midfielder has given United balance and helped lift Nemanja Matic's game, perhaps because the former Chelsea man knows that McTominay will not wander forward and abandon his defensive responsibilities as Pogba does when selected in that role.
Without Pogba, Mourinho is also able to accommodate Rashford and Juan Mata in the team, and both were crucial to this result.
Rashford's two goals from his left-sided attacking position -- Pogba's favoured role -- justified his selection, while Mata was able to provide a link between midfield and attack in the absence of the roaming Pogba.
The debate over Pogba's best position and his value to this United team will rage on, but when Mourinho's team can play so well without him, it does not bode well for his future as a cornerstone of the side.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_