Manchester United 0-0 Liverpool: 16 Conclusions

1) It would have been terribly tidy, for the purposes of introductions to pieces like this one, if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival at Old Trafford had turned things entirely on their head.

The last time these two met was also the last game of Jose Mourinho’s reign at Old Trafford, and Liverpool’s 3-1 win at Anfield kept them one point clear ahead of Manchester City at the top of the table. United, meanwhile, were at perhaps the lowest ebb of the Premier League era, if not in points then in perception: 11 points off the top four, with their record signing out of the side and a manager taking them nowhere.

Things have not gone completely topsy-turvy since then, but where Manchester United have been flying under their new manager, Liverpool have stood still. They are still top and still one point clear, but more out of the festive-season charitableness of closest rivals Manchester City than out of having maintained their own brilliance.

The fact that Liverpool should consider this a fortunate away point against an in-form side tells you everything about how things have changed over the last two-and-a-half months – and how precarious Liverpool’s lead at the top has become.

 

2) The game actually started rather promisingly, with both sides bringing great energy to the opening minutes and Liverpool forcing a backpass out of Ashley Young after only 20 seconds.

United were lucky that Roberto Firmino strangely allowed the ball to run on to David De Gea when it looked as though he could have taken it around the keeper, and then wasted the indirect free kick awarded against De Gea for handling it.

The pattern that the first half would take – when it was actually in play at all, amid all the disruption that afflicted it – was set in those early minutes: Liverpool would pass the ball around with vim, vigour and purpose, but fail to break into the United box, at which point the hosts would try and force a quick counter.

The effort was certainly there from both teams, but the decisive quality was lacking, particularly on Liverpool’s side of things.

 

3) The inability to make things flow properly wasn’t helped by the constant interruptions for injuries and substitutions: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was forced into making all three of his in the first half and was made to worry about one or two other players besides, while Jurgen Klopp had to make his first change in the 31st minute.

Ander Herrera was the first to fall, replaced by Andreas Pereira; Jesse Lingard came on for Juan Mata, only to limp back off for Alexis Sanchez; and Daniel Sturridge was pressed into action after Firmino rolled his ankle.

We knew squad depth would play a part in the fight for the title and the Champions League places, but these two sides were having it put well and truly to the test in the space of 45 minutes, let alone a whole season.

 

4) That first United substitution, in particular, did not speak highly of Fred’s standing at Manchester United. For Herrera to be picked ahead of him was to be expected, but for Scott McTominay to get the nod ahead of the Brazilian – his first start since 1st December – was eyebrow raising. Pereira’s introduction then served to show that Fred is now fourth in the pecking order for his preferred position.

At least Liverpool’s own expensive midfield signing, Naby Keita, was being kept out of the side by three in-form players, having started all five of their last five games. Fred has played just 62 minutes in 2019, and those were against Championship strugglers Reading in the FA Cup.

It isn’t Fred’s fault that Manchester United made him the world’s 11th most expensive signing of the summer window last year, but to spend that amount of money on a player only for neither Mourinho nor Solskjaer to fancy playing him speaks really poorly of United’s transfer business.

We laid into Jose Mourinho after the reverse fixture that proved the final straw, and we stand by that, but the sooner United can sort out the huge issues that afflict them at board level, the better.

 

5) United had the better chances of the first half despite that disruption. The best of those chances came on 40 minutes, when Romelu Lukaku slipped a perfectly-weighted through ball in behind the Liverpool defence for Jesse Lingard to run onto.

That pass was absolutely mucky and made us do all kinds of funny feelings, so imagine how fizzy our knickers got when Alisson came off his line to snatch it out of Lingard’s feet before he could inflict any damage. Not for the first time this season, it was a phenomenal piece of goalkeeping from the Brazilian.

 

6) The first half’s casualty list should have represented a significant advantage to Jurgen Klopp: he had two substitutions available to him for the second half where Solskjaer had none.

Unfortunately for him, he was unable to make that count. Xherdan Shaqiri had nothing like the impact he had had in his two-goal showing off the bench against United at Anfield, and De Gea resolutely refused to drop the ball onto Divock Origi’s head as Jordan Pickford had done for Everton.

It was not for a lack of trying anything different – he changed shape from 4-3-3 to 4-4-1-1, and took off both his captain and top scorer. And United did more than their part to make it difficult for the visitors, more on which shortly. But Klopp will be more than a little frustrated that nothing he could throw at the opposition made a blind bit of difference regardless of to fully react in turn.

 

7) On paper, removing Salah for Origi looks like the death-rattle of a manager on his way out, but it was justified on this occasion. The Egyptian was unable to get into the game at all, with his day encapsulated by the free kick he curled way over the bar on 15 minutes.

Salah has a bit of a weird tendency to do something really Sunday league early on in a game –blazing a shot 10 yards wide from eight yards out because he’s not looked up, or that free kick – before suddenly remember he’s Mo f’n Salah and turning into his usual unstoppable self.

It’s like watching a Hulk Hogan match circa 1985; no matter how poor he might look early on, you’re just waiting for him to Hulk Up and destroy his opponent.

That moment never came here, and so you couldn’t blame Klopp whatsoever when his number went up, regardless of Firmino’s earlier withdrawal. As Chelsea fans can tell you, there’s no point sticking stubbornly to plan A when it just isn’t working.

 

8) It wouldn’t be fair either to Salah or, more importantly, to Luke Shaw if we didn’t point out that the main reason for that was because the left-back was absolutely brilliant for Manchester United, and easily the best player on the pitch.

A combination of horrendous injuries and ill-treatment from his previous manager had threatened to make Shaw one of English football’s forgotten men, like David Bentley or Jack Wilshere. But this performance was a huge statement that he has put those days behind him and is ready to take up his long-promised mantle of being England’s first-choice left-back.

That is great news for United and England both. When you remember that Young, Danny Rose, and Fabian Delph performed that role at the World Cup last summer, and that Shaw is putting in performances like that at 23 years old, you realise what a boon a fit and in-form Shaw would be to Gareth Southgate.

 

9) We hate to bang on about the differences between Mourinho and Solskjaer’s versions of United, but for one, big games like this act as a really good yardstick for that progress; and two, come on, it was 0-0 and there were barely any chances on goal and we’re only just over the halfway line with these conclusions. Matt Stead and I tossed a coin to see who got which of these two big Sunday games, and I’m beginning to feel a bit like this whole thing is somehow just a massive conspiracy.

In any case: much has been said about how good the reinvigorated Paul Pogba has been, and that continued in this game, but in a totally different way

The midfielder was forced to fulfil a number of different midfield roles thanks to those myriad injuries and Liverpool’s late change of shape, but performed all of them brilliantly, particularly when assisting Shaw in defence, but also as the fulcrum around which United launched their fast-paced counters-attacks that threatened to catch Liverpool out on more than one occasion.

 

10) Couple those counters and Liverpool’s urgency with the incredible tightness of the game, and were left with a ‘next goal wins’ feeling that has been common for Liverpool over the last couple of months, including in that 3-1 win back in December just prior to Shaqiri’s introduction.

The difference between then and now is that then the front three were firing. Liverpool scored 48 goals in 20 games between the start of the season and the end of 2018; since the turn of the new year, they have scored just 11 in seven.

It could be as simple as opposition defences having figured out a way to play against them. United’s strategy certainly worked well enough: they were relatively happy for Liverpool to have the ball in wide advanced areas, and perfectly contented to let them pass it around their back four, but responded intelligently, quickly and sharply whenever Klopp’s side got the ball into the areas represented by a large 25-yard semi-circle radiating from the centre of De Gea’s goal.

But it’s not like Liverpool don’t have players capable of breaking that down; it’s simply that, for whatever reason, they aren’t at the moment.

 

11) Philippe Coutinho’s absence has barely been felt over the past 13 months, games like this cry out for a player with his ability to make something out of nothing.

The Reds did not take the opportunity of the January transfer window to follow up on their abandoned attempt to sign Nabil Fekir from Lyon last summer, either with a renewed bid for the Frenchman or by targeting somebody else. We suspect their biggest priority this summer will be to put that right.

 

12) United continued to look the more dangerous side despite Marcus Rashford effectively playing three-quarters of the game on one leg, and had a 75th-minute goal disallowed for an offside decision against Chris Smalling from a well-worked free kick.

Make that an own goal, in fact, as Joel Matip passed the ball straight into his own net. The offside decision was correct, but marginal. You wonder how both sides would have reacted had it been allowed to stand; Liverpool might have been better off pretending it had…

 

13) “It was a strange game, We started really well. All the injuries in the game obviously cost us rhythm. It happened to us with Bobby [Firmino] and that was a catastrophe,” said Klopp after the game.

“United played with a completely new midfield and three up front. We lost our rhythm and couldn’t get it back.”

We gave Liverpool plenty of praise for their ability to come back from behind earlier in the season – quite recently, in fact – but their recent issue is just the opposite: a failure to follow through on positive starts.

Against Leicester they took the lead after three minutes but ended up drawing 1-1. Against West Ham they took the lead after 22 minutes, and again the final result was 1-1. Against Bayern they looked threatening several times in the first 40 minutes, but failed to carry the momentum into the second half.

Whether it’s down to fitness or nervousness or bad luck, it is a habit Klopp’s side will need to shake off fast if they are to stay top of the table.

 

14) Ultimately this is probably not a bad point for either side, and Solskjaer certainly seemed the more upbeat of the two managers after the game. And why wouldn’t he be? To labour a point, this was a world away from the performance they put in last time these two met; and after the injury nightmares they sustained in the first half, the fact that they held on to keep a clean sheet was commendable.

“You come out with so much positive today because the fans, they were the 11th man today because we had half a Marcus,” said Solskjaer.

“I can’t remember David having to make a save, so we kept them out of it, and we probably created one or two massive moments that we could have scored.”

Lots of positives indeed. Shaw and Pogba were superb, as discussed, but so too were McTominay, Smalling, and Victor Lindelof, who all played to the best of their respective abilities. They may not have the best squad in the division, but Solskjaer has thus far managed to get the best out of them.

 

15) James Milner was correct in his assessment that this result will only come into context come the end of the season – particularly given that Manchester City have their own trip to Old Trafford still to come on 24th April.

But with just one point separating them from the current champions, Liverpool must find a way to keep things in their own hands, rather than relying on the generosity of either City or their own opponents.

As Milner said: “We’ve got to look where we can improve when we’ve got the ball and teams are sat back. We’ve come up against it a lot this season and obviously teams are showing us a lot of respect against us with the players we’ve got, and that’s something we’ve got to adapt to and work out how to break down.”

 

16) The feeling in the office here ahead of Liverpool’s trip to Manchester City back on January 3rd – back when the Reds still had a seven point advantage – was that a defeat would be a blow they would not recover from.

‘Momentum’ and ‘form’ may be statistically nebulous, but they are also psychologically vital, and the evidence so far is that Liverpool are struggling with having lost them; not disastrously so, but enough that if they carry on like this in their remaining 11 games, City will overtake them. It will now only take one more Liverpool slip-up to give City the opportunity to do just that.

Liverpool are now less than 1,000 minutes of league football away from the title, and to keep that in their own hands, they must now make every one of them count.

 

Steven Chicken is on Twitter

 

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