On Sunday, Liverpool showed how it's not only improving but it can also continue the title-chasing battle with Manchester City, while Man United's flat, uninspiring performance demonstrated a side who is clearly out of ideas.
With 20 minutes remaining at Anfield, Liverpool seemed to have run out of ideas. It had overwhelmed Manchester United, had taken 15 second half shots to zero and 76% of second half possession, and yet it hadn’t broken through, hadn’t undone the damage caused when Alisson’s first half mistake gifted Jesse Lingard an improbable equalizer. And then Xherdan Shaqiri came on and three minutes later he slammed in a goal that gave Liverpool the lead. Seven minutes later, he got another to make it 3-1 and the points were safe.
There are plots and sub plots, doubts raised and questions answered, but in the short term at least the most important aspect of the game is that Liverpool won and, in so doing, moved back above Manchester City at the top of the table. Two games before the season’s halfway point, the title race remains very much alive.
The result matters in that regard, but it also matters in terms of what it means for Jose Mourinho. Had his side hung on and United had recorded its third successive draw away to Liverpool, he would probably have regarded it as vindication for his setup. Two seasons ago, a 0-0 draw at Anfield seemed evidence that Mourinho was beginning to instill his ideas, that he could still frustrate an opponent in rampant form. Last season, a 0-0 draw was a bafflement: United had been in good form whereas Liverpool had won one of its previous eight, and yet Mourinho had played cautiously and, in so doing, had effectively surrendered the title to Manchester City, as though he lacked the stomach for the fight.
Here, the attempt was to frustrate an in-form Liverpool, to kill the game and absorb pressure. It was perhaps logical in the circumstances, but those suggest just how badly United is at performing. The gap between United and Liverpool is 19 points and after 17 games that is an extraordinary margin.
Perhaps, in that first 28 minutes of the second half, it could be claimed United’s approach was working –the defending may at time have seemed ramshackle, but the bodies in the way gambit was working. Certainly it’s reasonable to ask just why so many Liverpool defenders ended up taking highly speculative pot shots from range. But under it all the question is why? Why is United, in Mourinho’s third season at the club, reduced to this? And is there any chance of that situation improving?
ROBINSON/CLEGG: Liverpool's Evolution From Moneyball to Big-Spenders
Jurgen Klopp, speaking of playing City, said in January that he sees no point in sitting deep and defending the edge of your own box because to do so is to hope to win the lottery. Against a good team, there is always a chance of a brilliant shot flying in the top corner, or a being unlocked by a moment of supreme skill or ill fortune. The introduction of Shaqiri gave Liverpool new purpose and new imagination, demonstrated the depth of the squad and the options available to Klopp. Both his goals were deflected, but that’s what happens if you keep asking an opponent to shoot. In the wider context of the game, there was no sense in which United was unlucky.
Liverpool’s approach this season has been noticeably less ferocious than it was in the latter part of last season, seemingly part of a deliberate plan to keep its players fresher for longer. The question was always when it would put the foot down and, when it did, would it be able to find the same level it had in the spring.
Tuesday’s game against Napoli was the first real showing of the old Liverpool, albeit without the finishing that would have delivered the emphatic win that its performance seemed to demand. That continued in the early stages at Anfield here and for thirty minues, United reeled as again this season, Mourinho made major changes. There would have been 10 from Wednesday’s defeat away to Valencia but Chris Smalling was injured in the warm up meaning Eric Bailly kept his place. And, yet again, the result was chaos as defensively, United was a shambles in the first half.
As on Tuesday, though, Liverpool struggled to take advantage of its dominance. It did take the lead after 24 minutes when Sadio Mane, who had missed a hatful of chances against Napoli, running off Ashley Young, took Fabinho’s pass on his chest and calmly volleyed it in. It was the first goal Liverpool has scored at home against United in Klopp’s time in charge. Liverpool, though, probably should have been further ahead and, when the difference is only one, it renders a side vulnerable to a moment of misfortune or a mistake.
It was a combination of the two that brought United back into the game on the half hour, with its first attack of any note. Allison fumbled Romelu Lukaku’s cross from the left but probably would have got away with it had he not pushed the ball against his knee as he landed. The ball span loose and Jesse Lingard cleverly lifted the ball over the prone keeper to equalize.
United was gifted a lifeline and yet it couldn’t take advantage, never looked like taking advantage. Liverpool continues to look better and better and more like it can carry on the fight to City. United’s long slow descent, meanwhile, carries on as even the hope of fourth place is 11 points away. Liverpool had 36 shots to United’s six and that is simply embarrassing.