Manchester United retain their three-point lead over the champions and will be the happier with this point. But could they have pushed a bit earlier for a bit more?
1) Liverpool unbeaten at home since the dawn of time. Manchester United unbeaten away from home since Covid. A summit meeting between, well, first and third thanks to Leicester ruining this the same way they’ve ruined the neat and tidy Big Six classification over the last five years, the big ruiners. Anyway, a third goalless draw in five between these two at Anfield and fourth in nine overall was probably always a reasonable prediction given all that history and the fact it doesn’t hurt either side too much during a sustained period of footballing daftness around the land.
2) But, at the risk of being very obvious (look, this is the third United 0-0 we’ve had to get 16 Conclusions out of this season; you’re going to have to allow us some obvious) this was a far better result for United than Liverpool. Clearly the team that would have most readily have taken a point if offered beforehand (it not, perhaps, after 80 minutes) they maintain both their three-point lead over the champions, their unbeaten away record and fine run of recent form. For Liverpool, the only consolation is the extension of that long old unbeaten home record. Everything else is just looking a little bit worrying right now. Four Premier League games without a win. Three Premier League games without a goal for the first time in 15 years. Most damningly, never really looking like that goal ‘drought’ would end here.
Liverpool were once again desperately ponderous going forward. They had plenty of chances in the first half, but none of them clear-cut and too many of them falling to Roberto Firmino. Nine attempts on goal but only one on target was every bit as revealing a statistical summary of their first-half performance as one attempt (none on target) and seven offsides was of United’s. And unlike United, Liverpool only got worse after the break.
Everything is just happening slightly slower than it once did for that fabled front three. The full-backs are not quite as effective as they were last season. Fatigue is undoubtedly a part of it – there is a high percentage of vaguely weary and markedly low-quality football knocking about at all levels of the Premier League right now. But this does also feel like something slightly more than that. John Stones has scored more Premier League goals than Liverpool since Christmas, and that’s just plain nutty.
3) Sacrilegious as it is to even say it, is there any chance at all that Thiago Alcantara is part of the problem? No, shut up, listen. He’s magnificent. We all know he’s magnificent. But he gets on the ball an awful lot – no player on either side had more touches of the ball and it wasn’t even close – and does lots of wonderfully pretty things and then, so far, doesn’t provide much final product. Liverpool won the title last season – and came within a whisker the year before – by basically ignoring their midfield as an attacking tool and focusing everything through the full-backs.
There was a moment in the first half that summed up Thiago’s afternoon, with dazzling footwork taking him through two United challenges before a simple 10-yard pass went astray. Liverpool had scored in every Premier League game this season until Thiago’s return from injury. They haven’t scored since. It’s not the sole reason, obviously, it might not even be a reason. But it’s worth considering, no matter how dirty it makes us all feel.
4) What might be the main reason for Liverpool’s attacking struggles is a ripple effect that comes from defensive shortages leading to midfield shortages. And who knew Diogo Jota could become so very important so very quickly.
5) With hindsight fully deployed, will United – content as they will rightly be with their point – just slightly rue not being a tiny bit more proactive a tiny bit earlier against such an off-colour Liverpool? Easy to say, but if United had treated the performance being produced against them purely on its merits, they surely wouldn’t have waited until the last half-hour to offer anything more than a vague occasional counter-attacking threat. Liverpool were so poor going forward – we were going to say uncharacteristically but that’s not quite true right now – that United could surely have ventured out of their bunker and mustered a shot on target earlier than the 64th minute.
Especially as Liverpool were once again forced to field a pair of very fine central midfielders in the heart of their defence. Funnily enough, given what we’ve just said about treating a performance on its merits rather than the identity of the protagonists, Fabinho (again) and Jordan Henderson were absolutely superb. We can be disappointed by Liverpool as an attacking side right now but should not lose track of how crazy it is to see their defence hold up so well after the losses of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez.
But still, United might think they should have done more and done it sooner. They are not quite a clinical enough side to win enough games playing this way, staying in the contest for an hour and then seeing what happens in the last 30 minutes. On another day they could very easily have taken the three points. It would be a stretch to say it would have been a win they deserved, but not so much of one to suggest they ultimately did more to do so than the home side, especially given the three-point cushion United already enjoyed.
And there are plenty of other sides who wouldn’t have turned it up in that last half-hour as United undoubtedly did. They finished the game much the stronger and that’s to their huge credit. Fernandes and especially Pogba had late chances to win the game that were better than anything Liverpool produced with their greater share of possession and territory across the 90 minutes. For much of the second half, Liverpool’s best chance ironically appeared to be on the counter-attack.
Pogba’s furious slapping of the ground after his late chance told you he knew just how good an opportunity it was. Anywhere than straight into the ample frame of Alisson and we would surely be talking about Pogba the Matchwinner for a second game in a row.
6) About those two Alisson saves. On the face of it, both good saves but very much in the category of Saves He Would Expect To Make. Sticking out a foot to keep Fernandes’ close-range effort was probably actually a better save than the Pogba one from a clearer chance, but with both came further evidence of Alisson’s ability to make his job as easy as it can possibly be with his positioning. So many shots seem to be straight at him or within comfortable reach. It’s the Iker Casillas Method, and it’s no coincidence.
7) In a league full of weary, weary footballers, Bruno Fernandes might be the weariest. His influence on this United side is waning right now and he was barely involved here. United saw as many offside flags in the first half as they did completed passes from Fernandes. He improved slightly after the break, but United’s overall improvement in the second half greatly exceeded Bruno’s.
8) And without any wish to go full Daily Telegraph, this was not a good afternoon for Marcus Rashford either. After a day spent fighting to feed hungry children, Rashford was always offside in the first half and in the second selfishly held on to the ball and butchered a late counter-attack when even Boris Johnson could see he should have looked up and played in Edinson Cavani.
9) There was another definite reason for Liverpool’s attack malfunctioning so utterly, and that was the performance of Luke Shaw at left-back for United. He can rarely have played better for United than he did here in so thoroughly shackling Mo Salah. Can’t think of many defenders who have successfully reduced him to such a peripheral figure over 90 minutes of such a big game. Especially as Shaw also had plenty of Trent Alexander-Arnold to deal with, which he did with similar fuss-free alacrity until the very last minute when he got a frustrated kick for his troubles.
10) We need to talk about ‘late flags’. VAR has been around long enough now. Hate it or loathe it, it is there. And therefore we know why offside flags go up late. It’s far less problematic to go back and rule out a goal initially given than to go back and award one after a flag has gone up. It is, at worst, about 89th on the list of VAR grievances (GrieVARnces?) and should be treated as such. “Someone’s going to get injured” is not a valid reason – taken to extremes that logic would preclude the playing of all football and indeed almost all physical activity – when really the thing you don’t like about it is that moment of panic when you briefly forget that VAR is the reason the flag has stayed down and you think your team is in the plop. Another reason we like it is that we like the mandatory way in which goalkeepers receive praise for a save instantly revealed to be superfluous by the Late Flag. Say it with us: “Wouldn’t have counted… but of course, he wasn’t to know that.”
11) Xherdan Shaqiri was a big call for Liverpool. His first start of the season and almost doubling his total minutes for the season in the biggest game of that season. It didn’t pay off. There are caveats, of course. Liverpool’s struggles in midfield today are directly linked to the fact that two of their best midfielders are playing in defence. But it was still a disappointing game for the Swiss when handed a rare chance on such a stage. Two shots, both well off target, and one dribble were all he had to show for his afternoon and he had faded from those already mediocre standards long before eventually being replaced for the final quarter-hour.
12) A sign of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s growing ease with all that surrounds him was his level-headed assessment of the game afterwards. It’s easy to see how a manager under pressure, or Jose Mourinho, would have insisted those late chances were proof positive that his team had fully deserved to win the game and had been cruelly denied by the fates. Solskjaer was having none of that. “No, I don’t think so,” was his obviously and straightforwardly correct assessment of whether his team deserved all three points rather than just one. Equally correct was his assertion that this is only a good result if they win their next game. Parachuted into a dream job he may have been, but there’s no doubt he’s growing into it. These are small things, but his ability to view a game like that with a clear head straight after it is a promising one.
13) And speaking of that next game. Solskjaer has some interesting decisions coming up. All the following things are true: a) he has a handful of extremely tired yet extremely crucial players right now. Especially Harry Maguire, but especially Bruno Fernandes. b) United’s next two league games are against Fulham and Sheffield United, and they probably need (and would definitely expect) to win them both. c) There’s an FA Cup in between against, er, Liverpool. So where do certain players get their rest in that lot? Risk dropping some daft league points when the title really is right there for someone to win? Risk going out of a very winnable FA Cup and thus raising the possibility of what right now is a season full of huge promise fizzling out to nothing? Luckily, we don’t have to make those decisions. But Solskjaer does, and they may yet define United’s whole season far more than this one hard-earned point at their bitterest rivals.
14) For Liverpool, a slightly different but no less important period. They will be absolutely desperate to relocate their goalscoring touch against Burnley. Because after that it’s United again, who held them so comfortably at arm’s length, and then another big league game at Tottenham. For Jurgen Klopp, at least all those injury problems mean fewer tricky selection decisions. Swings and roundabouts.
15) The half-time whistle. We almost didn’t include this – and have buried right down at 15 for a reason – because complaining about when the whistle is blown can and often does make you sound like a bit of a crank. But it was weird, wasn’t it? With one minute added, Paul Tierney blew up at 45:57 just as Liverpool appeared to be launching an unusually promising attack based on the 45 minutes (and 57 seconds) that had gone before. Look, it’s one of the least significant things that happened, but it’s still pretty wild that in a sport that has become so anal about offsides that goals are disallowed because of a toenail – or indeed anus – being a millimetre the wrong side of the Stockley Park line is still happy to let refs control the fundamental timings of the game so arbitrarily. How many times have you seen a substitution in injury time and no extra time added on? In the Spurs-Fulham game last week, a Fulham player was literally booked for timewasting in injury time and no more time was played. The fact Spurs were demonstrably not going to do anything with that time is neither here nor there. Liverpool might have done something with those three seconds.
16) While United will be happy enough with their point and Liverpool can celebrate another clean sheet with a defence built out of midfielders, the real winners today were everyone else. Spurs who won earlier in the day. City who won later. Leicester who won the day before to ruin the build-up. Everton who didn’t even play at all. Nothing anyone saw at Anfield would make you think either of these sides are about to romp away with the league. Those of us who thought things would calm down at the summit as the season wore on have been proved thoroughly wrong. Things are getting more messy and complicated at the top of the table, not less, as this wild season unravels. We’re approaching halfway with just five points now separating the top six with the flurry of postponements making things potentially more interesting still. Villa are 10th but if they were to play all their games in hand tomorrow – and that’s a situation that can’t be entirely ruled out at some point this year – and win them all they would be second. There is still a long way (hopefully, theoretically) to go and at this stage of a Premier League season an unprecedented number of clubs still firmly involved.