Manchester United’s start to the season had been exceptional, so good that had they won here it would have been their highest ever points tally after eight games of a Premier League season. And yet the doubt lingered: were all those straightforward victories evidence of a side in good shape or of a simple fixture list? Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Anfield leaves the question unanswered, but it did feel like an opportunity missed.
It was as though United had failed to understand what it was up against. This is not the Liverpool of the eighties. It’s not the Liverpool that challenged for the title under Brendan Rodgers. It’s not even the Liverpool of the same time last season. This was a wounded Liverpool, a vulnerable Liverpool, a Liverpool that had leaked 14 goals in the seven games since hammering Arsenal. Their defense has been exposed again and again this season. Yet United never put it under pressure. In the whole game they had one shot on target, a slightly snatched effort from Romelu Lukaku that Simon Mignolet beat away with a degree of comfort.
A point at Anfield should never be scorned, and perhaps in derbies usual considerations apply less, but this seemed like an opportunity for United to register a win in a game their title rivals will find difficult, particularly given the absence of Sadio Mane. What is disappointing is less that they failed to do so, but that they barely made the effort. United played this like they were playing one of the continent’s great teams; at the start of play, Liverpool lay seventh in the Premier League.
“We came for three [points] but in the second half we felt difficult to do that with the dynamic if the match,” Mourinho said. “I was waiting for Jurgen to change, waiting for him to go more attacking but he kept three strong midfielders all the time. Probably you think we were defense and they were offense but if you are at home and you don’t change anything….”
That, though, seemed like classic Mourinho misdirection. It’s true that the game petered out and that didn’t throw caution to the wind late on, but there’s little doubt why that was. Liverpool, essentially, had two chances in a game of limited quality. First Philippe Coutinho, whose shimmering and jinking, although not always judiciously employed, provided most of what few highlights there were, created a chance for Roberto Firmino to cross for Joel Matip. The Cameroonian’s shot, though, was deflected to safety by the toe of David De Gea, the gangling thwarter of Liverpool once again. Then in the second half a Joe Gomez cross found Emre Can and, slightly clumsily, he fired over the bar.
For the most part, though, United’s two compact banks of four – there was a reason Ashley Young started this game in midfield – denied Liverpool the space to create. Liverpool is at its most dangerous turning the ball over and attacking with rapid transitions. That’s why their record in recent seasons – the 5-0 defeat to Manchester City after Mane’s sending off – is so much more impressive than their record against lesser sides who sit deep against them.
But United played like a smaller team with little ambition and lots of long balls out of defense towards a largely isolated Lukaku. The Belgian touched the ball just 22 games in the game, less than anybody else who started the game, even Mkhitaryan, who went off after 62 minutes. When he infuriated the Anfield crowd by grappling with Joe Gomez after 34 minutes it was probably born of a desperate need for human contact.
Tactically, perhaps, Mourinho’s approach made sense: the best way to stop a side countering after winning the ball back off you is not to have the ball in the first place. But in terms of the title race it did not. There remains no manager in the world so good at killing matches than Mourinho. When he came to Anfield last season, it made sense for him to snuff the game out: Liverpool had won its previous five games while United’s previous away league match had been the damaging defeat away. Any sort of point was necessary to stabilize the season.
This time, the momentum was the other way. Liverpool needed a performance to quell the nascent murmurs of discontent. And they got it; or at least Klopp was happy enough, pointing out the two best chances fell to his side and that his team “protected our offensive situation against the one of the best counter-attacking sides in the world.” That perhaps, speaks of a growing maturity – but then that argument was raised last season: the idea that Liverpool have found a new maturity and that they deserve credit for not having lost their discipline would be more convincing had United shown anything in the way of attacking ambition.