Three points from Anfield as Liverpool and Man United served up a tense, but unsatisfying, 0-0 draw.
After all the hype, anticipation and intrigue, they served up this. Liverpool against Manchester United was billed as one of the games of the season, and it was: it was one of the worst games of the campaign so far.
There were moments to epitomise the match, such as when Sadio Mane tried a back-heel and tripped himself up, or when Zlatan Ibrahimovic, scorer of 398 goals in his club career, got a header woefully wrong when he had the chance to make it 399. That apart, Jose Mourinho’s expensively assembled “Galacticos” were defensive. Jurgen Klopp’s intrepid adventurers were muted. Instead of drama, they provided dullness. The ratio of shots to free kicks was far too low. Liverpool had overdosed on excitement earlier this season; Monday night brought the antidote.
Liverpool may deem it a missed opportunity. They could have gone level on points with Manchester City at the Premier League summit and, perhaps as significantly, six points clear of United. Instead, Mourinho’s men began a pivotal week, which also includes a trip to Chelsea, with a display of resolve.
United could take solace, too, in the robust nature of their defending. Liverpool had scored nine goals in their two previous games at Anfield. They rarely threatened to score once on this occasion. It took them half an hour to record an effort on target. Even then, Roberto Firmino’s header was directed straight at David de Gea. Almost an hour elapsed before their first chance of note when De Gea denied Emre Can with a fine sprawling save.
Philippe Coutinho is both a specialist in the spectacular and an expert in scoring against elite opponents. When he let fly from 30 yards, therefore, it seemed certain that the ball would nestle in the net. Instead, De Gea flew across his goal to tip the Brazilian’s shot wide. It’s not the first time Liverpool have come to rue his excellence.
Antonio Valencia also played his part in preserving parity with a last-gasp challenge on Firmino, but Ander Herrera was the outstanding player on the pitch.
Mourinho showed a strange naivety in his previous, potentially season-defining game. There was no repeat of the first-half debacle against Manchester City, in which United were outnumbered in midfield and attempted a high pressing game with slow forwards and a semifit winger. But his gifts as a defensive strategist have not completely deserted him. Monday night’s draw was a reminder of the times he came to Anfield with Chelsea intent on keeping a clean sheet, and aided by De Gea, he secured another.
Yet it was not just due to the goalkeeper. Mourinho’s pragmatism was apparent in a cautious, physical selection. The rebuilt Main Stand towers into the Liverpool skyline, but it wasn’t the reason why Anfield felt the land of the giants. Not with the sheer size of a United team featuring five huge figures in Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly and Marouane Fellaini.
While he has tried to portray himself as Louis van Gaal’s antithesis, Mourinho borrowed a trick from his predecessor’s handbook in recalling Fellaini and Ashley Young, both scourges of Liverpool during the Dutchman’s reign. It was a very Fellaini sort of occasion, too, a scrappy game in which the Belgian was actually one of the more effective players. He breaks games up, a policy United adopted. Their refusal to be cowed was displayed by their most callow player as Marcus Rashford clattered into James Milner in the second minute.
United were content to keep men behind the ball, but the choice of Rashford on the right was significant. With the Liverpool left-back, Milner, almost operating exclusively up field, there was room for the quick teenager to exploit on the counterattack. A dangerous cross from him was one of the few highlights of the first half.
He was also one of only three starters to show any attacking intent. So was Pogba. Spared many defensive responsibilities in playing as the United man closest to Ibrahimovic, the man touted as the world’s best midfielder, at times, appeared to be a second striker. Yet the exuberant characters in attack can seem kindred spirits. There is a chemistry between them. But when Pogba carved out a chance for Ibrahimovic with a deep cross, the Swede misjudged his header completely, and rather than pilfering the points, United shared them.
There have been times this season when Liverpool seemed greater than the sum of their parts, a blur of energy as they run relentlessly and combine seamlessly. Remove two-thirds of their first-choice midfield, at least from the start, and they were a different side. A lesser one.
Deprived of the instinctive understanding that has made them such a formidable unit, Liverpool looked more disjointed. The great gegenpressers did not press as often or as effectively as usual. Or, to judge by his touchline histrionics, as much as Klopp wanted.
It was not a sentiment that was voiced often 12 months ago, but until his introduction for the final half-hour, Liverpool missed Adam Lallana. Georginio Wijnaldum’s reputation may also rise in absentia. The Dutchman has not been the most conspicuous success story of Liverpool’s season, but his importance was apparent when he was unfit.
In their place, they had a misshapen triangle. To use Klopp’s terminology, Can played almost as a second No. 6, closer to Jordan Henderson than to the striker Daniel Sturridge. Moved infield as the third central midfielder, Coutinho was subdued. He had Ander Herrera for company more often than he may have wanted.
Meanwhile, Sturridge was an ineffectual presence in attack. It was little surprise he was the man to make way for Lallana; by then his Premier League goal drought had stretched to 615 minutes, and it is easy to imagine his next appearance will be as a substitute. Lallana brought spark and verve to Liverpool, Coutinho was liberated upon his arrival and Firmino busier, but their slow start proved costly.