Liverpool this season has been slick, energetic and, at times, viscerally exciting to watch; Manchester United as been tepid, sluggish and broadly frustrating. Liverpool had run further than any other side, United less far than any other side. Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp had seemed thrillingly modern; United and Jose Mourinho had seemed a little stale. In that regard, Monday's goalless draw was greeted with far more satisfaction in Manchester than on Merseyside.
That in itself, though, tells a story, as did the late substitute of Luke Shaw for Ashley Young, a switch made apparently because the winger was further from the touchline than any other player and his slow trot off the pitch wasted the maximum possible number of seconds. United is very much still in what might most kindly be referred to as a building stage. It remains seventh in the table, three points behind Liverpool and five points off the top. If that is to change for the better, there needs to be significant improvement, but a point at Anfield can at least be painted as a building block toward that.
Liverpool, so exciting at times this season, was largely frustrated Monday, as it had been at Burnley. Against teams that stop it from playing out of the back with occasional focused pressing and that can pack men behind the ball, it perhaps struggles for fluency. There is a question mark, too, about goalkeeper Loris Karius, who had another edgy performance.
But this really was about Mourinho, for whom this was a return to basics. There was a focus on keeping the shape, on killing the game almost from the opening kick. The back four barely shifted: there was rarely a thought that either fullback would break forward. Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera, operating at the back of midfield, provided a constant shield for the back four as United relied on long balls forward towards Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Young was included from the start in a league game for the first time since United’s 1-0 win at Anfield in January, presumably for the quality of his crossing and set-play delivery and for the fact that, thanks to Louis van Gaal’s fiddling, he has experience at fullback. Young played on the left side of midfield, but both he and Marcus Rashford on the right dropped back when Liverpool had the ball to form what, with the back four staying very narrow, was effectively a back six.
From the start, United slowed the game down, took their time about every set play, the aim always to frustrate Liverpool and wait for the mistake, just as Mourinho’s Chelsea had goaded Liverpool into errors in its 2-0 win at Anfield three seasons ago in the game that effectively denied Brendan Rodgers’s side the league title.
For half an hour, Mourinho’s approach worked perfectly. Liverpool may not have made the sort of huge error that would have cost a goal, but it did make a series of little errors–misplaced passes, over-hit balls, poor decisions, needless free kicks conceded–that prevented it from developing any kind of flow. Perhaps in the absence of Georgino Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana to injury–Lallana finally came on just before the hour mark–Liverpool’s fluency would have been hit anyway, but there’s no doubt United encouraged and induced the mistakes.
Gradually Liverpool came more into the game without ever fully taking control, notably stepping up once Lallana had replaced Daniel Sturridge, who had another disappointing match. It took excellent saves from David De Gea to deny first Emre Can and then Philippe Coutinho, and Antonio Valencia made a vital last-gasp challenge on Roberto Firmino in the second half. But there was no equivalent of the blitzes that devastated Arsenal and Chelsea.
That is to Mourinho’s credit, but it’s hard not to follow that thought with the subsidiary one of, “Is that it?” That’s the problem of being a coach of a club of Manchester United’s stature and traditions, that has spent as much money as it has–there was one half chance for Ibrahimovic, while world-record signing Paul Pogba, used Monday as the central creator in a 4-2-3-1, was again quiet. Of course under Sir Alex Ferguson there were games when it set up to spoil–although not often in the league–and in an away game at Anfield, especially given the respective form of the two sides, it’s not especially problematic. The concern, though, is what else United has.
What if De Gea hadn’t made both those saves? Has there been anything in the eight games United has played so far to suggest it had a way back into the game? This perhaps is not the game after which to make sweeping conclusions, but certainly there was nothing here to dispel the notion that Liverpool under Klopp is a brighter, faster, more modern side than United under Mourinho.