The second goal came only in injury-time, but the difference between the teams was far greater than 2-0 may suggest. Liverpool will reflect in a slightly odd performance in which, as at Tottenham, it wasted hatfuls of chances and at the same time ended up winning largely because its opponent squandered a couple of excellent opportunities. But such considerations seem vaguely futile these days: This was another staging post on the way to a league title that seems increasingly certain.
With Leicester losing and Manchester City drawing this weekend, Liverpool’s lead is now a barely credible 16 points with a game in hand. At this rate the title race may not even last until April. It may have taken a wild slash from Anthony Martial midway through the second half to maintain the clean sheet, but Liverpool hasn’t conceded a goal in the league since the 5-2 win over Everton at the beginning of December, seven games ago. This was not Liverpool at its imperious best, but United didn’t have the wherewithal to take advantage.
United somehow remains fifth in the table, just five points behind Chelsea in the race for Champions League qualification—and that despite seven defeats this season, despite the fact that, since getting the job permanently, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has the worst win percentage of any United manager since Herbert Bamlett, whose contract was not renewed after leading the club to relegation in 1931.
Solskjaer’s team selection highlighted United’s woes. With no Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay or Marcus Rashford, who could be out for three months with a reported stress fracture of the back, United went with a back three, Luke Shaw operating as a left-sided center back with Brandon Williams outside him at wing-back. Briefly Liverpool struggled to get going, although whether that was a result of United’s tactics or the sort of sloppy start that characterized Jürgen Klopp’s side at Tottenham is hard to say.
Just as last week, though, Liverpool found its rhythm as the first half went on and took the lead after 15 minutes, Virgil van Dijk, presumably grateful to find himself being marked by Williams, who is eight inches shorter, powering in a header from a right-wing corner. It was the eighth goal United had conceded this season from a corner, the joint-worst record in the division.
That is just one of a number of troubling signs for those who want to see Solskjaer given more time to succeed. Problems with defending set-plays tend to be a result of a lack of drilling on the training ground. Similarly United is conceding three times as many goals to fast breaks under Solskjaer as it did under Jose Mourinho, as good an indicator as any that its counter-pressing is ineffective. Perhaps those two issues are a result of the youth of the side but that in itself is concerning. There is plenty of promise in United’s squad, but with the turn to youth there is a question of who is leading, who are the young players learning from?
Having conceded, United endured a major wobble, its defense capitulating. Roberto Firmino seemed to have added a second, only for VAR, controversially, to rule his goal out for a foul by Van Dijk on David De Gea on the build-up. His challenge didn’t seem especially out of the ordinary and, while officials are often sympathetic to goalkeepers in such circumstances, once the referee Craig Pawson had decided there was nothing awry, it was difficult to understand how VAR deemed his decision a clear and obvious error. Certainly it was nothing like as clear an offense as De Gea was on the receiving end of against Everton when the goal was allowed to stand.
Although United had a decent end to the first half, that spell came in the midst of a welter of Liverpool pressure, and Mohamed Salah and Jordan Henderson both hit the woodwork in the opening minutes of the second half. But Liverpool couldn’t finish the game off and, while it wasn’t clinging on at the end, the final quarter of the game wasn’t as comfortable as it probably should have been.
For the final minutes, Liverpool was concerned enough to go to a 4-4-2, a bizarre situation given the control it had had at times. Eventually, Salah settled the game in injury-time, running into a long Alisson clearance as United pushed up.
In that sense, this was perhaps a slightly unsatisfactory afternoon for Liverpool, but that memory will have faded by the time the title is confirmed. And that any win, especially one in which Liverpool was so on top for periods, can seem frustrating, suggests just how vast the gulf between the clubs now is.