Manchester United and Liverpool played out a goalless draw at Anfield with United maintaining their position at the top of the table.
United haven’t lost away in the league for a year and Liverpool haven’t lost at home in the league for three times as long. In the end, both records continue, and although the result on the day favours United, you had to think that Manchester City would see themselves as the biggest victors of this result.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw his team navigate a nervy start and will have ended it thinking his players had two big chances to snatch all three points.
United came into the game with Fred and McTominay in midfield and Lindelof in defence. Pogba started from the right of the front three, with Martial on the left and Rashford through the middle.
Liverpool had their well-documented injury issues but the champions have never quite looked as vulnerable as their visitors have been on occasion, save of course for the freak defeat at Villa Park early this season. Villa Park was the venue of their last game, nine days ago, when they played against a very weak home side, so Klopp could have no complaints about the freshness of his players.
Solskjaer’s midfield selection was made with the intent of breaking up the hosts dominance in that area but it did not work in the early stages; Liverpool bossed possession and when Fred and McTominay did get in on the ball, they were only giving it away to another home player.
Frustratingly for United it seemed as if they were not doing themselves justice – only a quarter of the game had passed when it seemed as though Solskjaer was going to have to change things around if they wanted to make a positive impact on proceedings.
The pre-match talk had been about the composure of Liverpool’s centre-backs but Maguire and Lindelof were the anxious ones, often giving the ball away deep and in dangerous areas and inviting speculative efforts.
It was speculative from United too – but their free-kick in the 33rd minute from Fernandes went just wide.
Within the next minute, Salah opened up space around Maguire but Firmino could only hit his shot straight at De Gea.
Solskjaer moved things around with Pogba coming in from the right and it helped the team look not so rocky; but they were still wasteful, with lots of time on the ball for the centre-backs which ended up going all the way back to the goalkeeper or punted harmlessly and aimlessly out of play.
Certainly, there was none of the authority that a team with serious championship pedigree might have wanted to display against a rival missing a couple of their key players. You could argue that Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams put in worse showings.
The second half started with a repeat of that possession surrendering; wasteful and hasty long passes from Pogba, or aimless ‘up in the air’ clearances from the defence.
On the hour, a Robertson cross almost found Firmino, but Maguire got just enough on it to put him off.
Soon after, Martial was brought off for Cavani – the Frenchman had been better than Rashford, but had not put forward a completely convincing argument for himself. The change finally did help United have a sense of urgency and for the latter stages were arguably the better side.
In the 65th minute, Fernandes had United’s first effort on target, a long range shot that caused Alisson little trouble. Ten minutes later, he had another – good work from Rashford and Shaw on the left resulted in a cross from the latter, but Alisson was again equal to it.
Thiago then tested De Gea with a long range shot but the keeper did well.
United’s best chance came in the 83rd minute – the visitors had just wasted a break through Rashford when Wan-Bissaka played the ball to Pogba, but the midfielder’s thrashed shot was too close to the home goalkeeper. He should have scored.
With a couple of minutes left, and Solskjaer sensing there was an opportunity, he decided to bring on Greenwood for Fernandes, who was clearly unhappy to come off so late. Greenwood didn’t have a touch as the game petered out without a goal.
A good result? In the context of the season, yes. In the context of a title race, if such a matter is for serious conversation, it’s a chance missed.
Solskjaer made a number of big calls with his selection – Eric Bailly was taken out of the team after his recent good form. Luke Shaw, Victor Lindelof, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba were all selected to play from the start on an occasion that could be said to be the biggest opportunity they’ve had to make a statement about their own ability in a United shirt. All four have faced doubts and there have been moments where supporters would have not been too unhappy to see any or all of them moved on. Now with United in a position where they look like they can challenge, this was a big test to see what they were made of.
It was also a selection which put the manager under the spotlight. Two years into the job and he was selecting four players who have been so divisive. It was a gamble – no, not exactly a lottery, particularly considering that this game would still be tough for United no matter what you consider their strongest team to be, but still, one that was certain to be held against him if the result wasn’t right.
Now here’s a difficult one – all four played well. Lindelof was good, Shaw was superb. Martial was the poorest of the quartet but may have done something different to Rashford had he rightly been kept on. If he watches the game back, Solskjaer might lament not bringing off Rashford early enough for it to have made a difference.
Pogba might have won the game. United won’t often get as good a chance to do so. It was a good result in isolation but in terms of a title chase, Pogba’s effort might have summed up his entire career at the club – when it came to the crunch, it didn’t happen, leaving every commentator and supporter to argue over the merits of his performance.
De Gea 7