Well, how are we going to remember it? For just the second time this season, Liverpool failed to score in the league. Its offensive efforts on a sunny afternoon in Manchester were limited to a 40-yard shot by Daniel Sturridge that merely dribbled into David de Gea’s gloves. The much-hyped clash finished goalless and there was never really any chance that it would end differently.
If anything is ever going to be imprinted in our memory from the encounter, it would be the spate of injuries that spread like a contagion on the Old Trafford pitch. Manchester United was forced into all three of its substitutions in the opening half and Roberto Firmino was replaced by Sturridge too. But by the end, it was the blow to Liverpool’s title challenge that enraged manager Jurgen Klopp. He grew visibly irritated as the game wore on, seemingly frustrated by his team’s inability to impress itself upon the proceedings.
The turn of the year has not been generous to Liverpool. In 2019, the Reds have won only three of their seven league matches. At the end of January, Liverpool had the chance to go seven points clear of Manchester City. The gap is now down to a single point. The loss of form has affected most players in the team, even the previously unstoppable Mohamed Salah. It’s difficult to escape the sense that history is once again weighing heavily on Liverpool.
The weight of the past was inescapable on Sunday as well as the two most celebrated English clubs met each other. In the build-up, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was keen to stress the importance of this encounter – till this day, one of the very few tweets by him was a picture of Marcus Rashford’s jersey when he scored the winner against Liverpool at home last season. “Liverpool at Old Trafford is always the first game you look for on the fixture list. That’s the same every year but this feels even bigger because Liverpool are going for the title with City,” Solskjaer had said.
If it was so, it certainly did not feel like it. Although the occasion and the atmosphere urged insistently, both teams took an hour to rouse themselves. At least Manchester United could point to the loss of key personnel for its iffy display. Liverpool, however, were hamstrung by the occasion.
Klopp’s plan to limit Paul Pogba, by and large, worked as Jordan Henderson kept a tight leash on him — another accomplished performance after his excellent display against Bayern Munich — but little else did. In keeping with the subdued tone of the contest, there was not a lot of initiative to appreciate. United was content to let Liverpool pose the questions but were faced with only polite enquiries.
The host’s threat on the counter was more prominent. Liverpool had prepared for that eventuality by transitioning to a 3-4-3 in possession as the deep-lying Fabinho played the role of a third centre-back. This setup also allowed Liverpool to switch possession from one flank to another as Andrew Robertson and James Milner were positioned high and wide. But the latter’s wastefulness in good situations was a major source of frustration for his team.
Klopp spoke afterwards of the difficulty his team faced in sustaining its rhythm due to the numerous stoppages but the lack of urgency was concerning too. Against a United team without the services of Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera — the latter had to go off in the 20th minute — Liverpool must have felt confident in its ability to register a first win at Old Trafford since 2014. But the young duo of Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira was rarely threatened. The trio of Henderson, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum played together in midfield for the first time and their lack of involvement in the creative process seemed to be a consequence of the experiment.
In fact, if not for decisive interventions by Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Allison Becker just before half-time, United may have even found itself ahead. By then, the man who built his career as a ‘Super Sub’ had been forced into using up all of his three substitutions. Fortunately for Solskjaer, his players did not give him more headaches as they went on to earn only their second clean sheet in home league matches this season. Even Liverpool’s switch to a 4-2-3-1 in the second half, with Salah leading the line, was blunted with ease. The off-colour Egyptian forward bid an early goodbye to the match soon after.
United’s players could have had chances to score in the second half but the offside flag came to Liverpool’s rescue multiple times. However, right at the death, it was Chris Smalling’s failure to touch home Romelu Lukaku’s cross in the six-yard box that reprieved the Reds. It could easily have been worse for Liverpool but it is difficult to claim that the visiting side deserved any better.
The last meeting between the two teams, at Anfield in December, had led to the premature end of Jose Mourinho’s time with United. Both clubs have come a long way since then. The turn of the calendar has brought frustrations back to Liverpool even as United feels resurgent again. After an afternoon of tedium on Sunday, it is Jurgen Klopp who was left with more questions than answers.
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Updated Date: Feb 25, 2019 10:43:22 IST