Another Manchester United game against a top side, another 0–0 draw. A point away at Anfield, where Liverpool has not lost in 68 games, is never to be scorned, and it leaves United top of the table, two points clear of Manchester City and Leicester City with Liverpool a further point back. But that’s three stalemates now for United against Big Six sides this season. It still hasn’t beaten any of them (or Leicester), and it’s that fact more than any other than casts doubt on United’s title credentials.
But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be happy enough with the performance and the result. Certainly Jurgen Klopp would be the more concerned one. Even with all the defensive injuries, there has been a sense that Liverpool remained the most likely champion and that at some point it would rediscover the fluency that had characterized it in the late autumn and early winter last season. When it beat Crystal Palace 7–0 a week before Christmas, it seemed it was there. But four games since have yielded just one goal and two points.
Klopp selected Jordan Henderson and Fabinho at the heart of the back four, as they had been at Southampton. While both were perfectly effective defensively, and the Brazilian made one vital interception to deny Marcus Rashford late on, their absence in the midfield was clear. The three of Thiago Alcantara, Georgino Wijnaldum and Xherdan Shaqiri were tidy in possession, and Thiago effectively ran the first quarter of the game, but looked suspect defensively.
That might not have been a concern had Roberto Firmino converted any of the four decent chances that fell his way before halftime. But Liverpool’s front three has not been anywhere near its best recently. Firmino has managed just five goals this season, and was disappointing enough to be withdrawn for Divock Origi with six minutes remaining, while Sadio Mane has scored just two goals in his last 12 Premier League games. A unit that has had an almost telepathic understanding has somehow lost its collective radar. The slickness of movement, the sharpness of mind, isn’t there at the moment. That may be an issue of fatigue, it may be that opponents have begun to work out how the trio interact, but the loss of Diogo Jota, who might have added a freshness, has been vital.
As usual against a top side, United set up to defend and strike on the break—something that has not been as effective this season as it was last. That meant Fred and Scott McTominay operating as a screen in front of the back four, with a slightly surprising shape higher up the pitch, with Anthony Martial on the left and Paul Pogba on the right. Neither looked entirely comfortable, while Rashford was repeatedly caught offside in a first half that was dominated for the most part by Liverpool. Although Bruno Fernandes went close with a free kick, United failed to have a shot on target in the first half for the first time since the defeat at Watford in December 2019.
It was a different story in the second half, though. As Thiago’s influence waned, so United almost visibly grew in confidence. The two best chances of the second half both fell to United, one to Bruno Fernandes, who looks distinctly weary, and one to Pogba. Both were saved by Alisson, although Pogba may feel that he made it easy for the goalkeeper, striking the ball straight at him.
The biggest beneficiary, though, was probably Manchester City, whose form has improved dramatically in the past month. But this has been a season to defy analysis: Every time a pattern begins to emerge, it has been dashed. United was always an unlikely challenger, and remains an outsider. The likeliest outcome is still that Liverpool or City will put a run of results together to claim the title.
But it’s a sign of how odd this season has been that one game before the halfway point, United can top the table with a points total that, extrapolated over a full season would only be 78—20 fewer than has been needed to win the league in the past three seasons. Fatigue, the absence of a preseason, the compressed calendar and a not-unrelated spate of injuries have added an increased element of randomness, and there are still six teams within five points of the top. It’s probably best not to dwell too much on the reasons why, but this could be the least predictable and tightest title race in years.