The good news for Liverpool after a disjointed 0-0 away to Manchester United is that it regained the lead in the Premier League and, having played the same number of games as Manchester City, it leads its rival by a point. The Premier League remains in its grasp; win its final 11 games of the season and the league will be Liverpool’s for the first time since 1990.
Going to Old Trafford is never straightforward. A point there can never be described as a poor result. City still has an away derby to come. This, though, was a fourth draw in five games in all competitions for Liverpool and there is a distinct sense that the momentum that carried it through November and December has been checked.
This was a weirdly unconvincing display from Liverpool. Ravaged by injuries, United seemed there for the taking and yet Liverpool was oddly diffident. There were glimmers of quality but, as against Bayern on Wednesday, the mechanism was not quite running smoothly and passes were misplaced with bewildering regularity.
It’s a problem that has blighted Liverpool all year. The defeat at Manchester City was perhaps a little unfortunate, but since then it has stuttered on, often finding results but without playing particularly well. Only against Bournemouth, a 3-0 win that should have been even more emphatic, did it really cut loose but Eddie Howe’s side, especially away from home, often seems an acquiescent opponent for the elite because of its focus on a passing game.
Liverpool does not press as hard this season as it did last, a necessary retrenchment to try to preserve limbs that, by the end of last season, were obviously fatigued. Pressing was always Jurgen Klopp’s trademark and, as he said, it is the best playmaker in the world. But at the tempo he attempted, it is perhaps not sustainable over the 50+ games of an English season. The shift in approach made sense and has been justified by a marked improvement in Liverpool’s defensive record.
The problem is that without pressing, the lack of an actual playmaker in this midfield becomes clear. It was obvious, for instance, as Liverpool vainly chased the game away at Paris Saint-Germain. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, out for the entirety of this season with a knee injury, is missed in that regard, but so too is Philippe Coutinho. Selling him to Barcelona was probably a necessary move given the player’s desire to leave and it helped the finance the signing of Virgil van Dijk, but it has left a dearth of flair. That may not be such an obvious problem if the much-vaunted from three were playing well, but at the moment it is not.
And that despite playing a United side that, for the first half at least, was in a near-permanent state of flux. Having already lost Nemanja Matic to an injury in training, United was then forced into another rejig of the midfield midway through the first half as Ander Herrera pulled up. Worse followed for Solskjaer two minutes later as Juan Mata succumbed. There was an issue too with Marcus Rashford, who appeared to take two tablets at the break in play for Herrera to go off – although he didn’t seem in obvious discomfort when running.
He had set up with a diamond, as in the games at Tottenham and Arsenal; by the time half an hour had gone, Paul Pogba was the only member of the midfield four who Solskjaer had probably intended to play two days ago. Jesse Lingard, only just returning from a muscular injury of his own, took Mata’s place at the tip of the diamond, with Andreas Pereira to the right and Scott McTominay at the base (the continuing absence of Fred, bought for $68m in the summer, was conspicuous). But before the break, Lingard had gone down with what was widely assumed to be a recurrence of his thigh injury.
Liverpool also found its plans disrupted by a first-half injury, Roberto Firmino going off to be replaced by Daniel Sturridge. To an extent the raft of injuries explains the bittiness of the game. Nor should the tension of a derby of this nature be overlooked. But the fact is that this was a poor game, one that seemed to be drifting to an inevitably goalless conclusion long before the finish.
The result for Liverpool is acceptable, keeping it in the driving seat. The performance, though, should raise further concerns.