Bit of a damp squib of a match…
Well, that did not live up to the hype and expectation.
Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United. The points are shared at Anfield, and the match that was billed as the match of the season did not end up being the best match of the weekend (thanks for picking up the slack, Spanish Super Cup).
So, what happened? Why did it happen? Who will be happier? And how did the reality of this match differ from my predictions?
United and Liverpool’s formations were not all massively different from what I predicted. United did end up starting Lindelöf and Martial instead of Bailly and Cavani, and, for the most part, it was the correct decision. Lindelöf played well, only slipping up a few times but to no punishment. Martial was not great, but the ability for United to bring on Cavani in the second half to attack a tired Liverpool defense did help them get the opportunities that could have led to the decisive goal, and that may not have been the case had Cavani started from the beginning. Their four man midfield did help frustrate the Liverpool team and give them more defensive solidity; using that diamond was the correct decision from Ole Gunnar Solskjær. For Liverpool, they did end up starting Henderson in defense instead of Rhys Williams, choosing to then play a midfield three of Thiago, Gini Wijnaldum, and Xherdan Shaqiri. It ended up not costing them, as Henderson did a sufficient job alongside Fabinho, who was fantastic, and the midfield did enough to limit Bruno Fernandes for most of the match despite neither Henderson nor Fabinho being in that defensive midfield role. Ultimately, I feel a bit proud having my predicted team be that close to the reality.
United’s strategy for the match was to defend first, hitting Liverpool on the counter when their midfield and fullbacks were committed up the pitch and leaving space behind them. United surrendered possession to Liverpool, only having the ball for 34% of the match and completing a little more than half of the total passes compared to their opponents. It would not be wrong to say that United were playing it safe, and given the circumstances, it was the right way to approach this game. Despite United being top of the league, the pressure was definitely on Liverpool. Having fallen off the top as the reigning champions and having struggled to score goals over the last few matches, Liverpool needed a statement result, especially since they were playing at home. United wanted to frustrate Liverpool, and they very clearly did.
United’s defensive shape worked so well not only because of the four man midfield, but also because the weakest part of their defense, the left side of the back four, shined. Before the match, I pointed out Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire as the weakest links of the United back four, being most susceptible to Liverpool attacks through Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold. In the actual match, Shaw and Maguire were fantastic. Shaw won his individual battle against Salah, and the Egyptian did not have any real impact on the game aside from a few half chances. Alexander-Arnold was also very limited on that right side, not putting in a successful cross for the whole 90 minutes. Maguire was phenomenal, United’s best player on the day, in my opinion. He could not put a foot wrong. He kept control over the defense, won the tackles he needed to, and not only did he not make a single noticeable error the whole match, he also made up for any mistakes made by Lindelöf. There are definitely issues with the Liverpool attack, but the United defense deserves all of the credit for limiting Liverpool’s usually potent front three. That back four, especially that left side, was the reason why United were able to get a point and had the chances to get all three points.
And in that point lies my sole criticism of Solskjær’s game plan. He set up United well to defend and not lose, and that deserves credit, but the game was also there to be won. United could have turned on the gas in the second half as Liverpool got more tired and more frustrated and gotten the goal they needed to win. To be fair, Ole did recognize this, and this is reflected in their substitutions, but I think Ole was too slow in making those changes to go for it. Cavani did not come on until the 61st minute, a move that was obvious and probably should have happened at least five to ten minutes sooner. Greenwood coming on was also a smart move to go for the win, but waiting until the 85th minute basically eliminated that chance. Had he come on with 15-20 minutes remaining, then I think he could have had a greater influence on the match while keeping United solid enough to maintain a scoreless draw at minimum. This is also a match where Donny van de Beek could have been an effective second half substitute, but he once again remained unused on the bench. Ole had the right idea, but I think he executed it too slowly. Had the substitutions come earlier, then United really could have found a way to win the game.
For Liverpool, this is undoubtedly a frustrating result, not just because of dropping points to a title rival, but you once again failed to score a goal. A three-match goalless run does not seem too crazy from an outsider view, but this is the longest Liverpool have gone without a goal in the Premier League since March 2005. With the downright insane amount of attacking talent in this team, even with injury to Diogo Jota, you would fancy them to score in basically every match they played. By the end of the match, the frustration was visible on the faces of Jürgen Klopp and the Liverpool players. The Reds do seem to be in a rough patch at the moment.
The team was not wildly crazy from the one I predicted, but the inclusion of Xherdan Shaqiri was a curious choice by Klopp. It was the Swiss dynamo’s first start for the Reds since December 2019, and while he had his moments, I am not sure it was the correct decision. In such a big match, I am not sure why he did not opt for a player like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Curtis Jones, who had both been closer to the starting XI throughout this season and were in better form compared to Shaqiri. With Klopp needing to use Thiago and Wijnaldum to protect the fullbacks when they ventured forward, being well aware of how deadly United can be on the counter, Shaqiri ended up being the sole true attacking player in the midfield at times, and this was a role he could not perform well in.
Thiago played well, and his passing ability was on full display when he got the opportunities to venture forward. Liverpool’s best attacking moves usually revolved around the Spaniard and his passing and movement. Thiago is a world-class talent who should have been on the ball more. The problem was that, as he was the most defensively positioned of the three midfielders, he did not often get the chances to venture forward. It would often be his responsibility to stay back when one of the fullbacks pushed up the pitch, and he would often have to stay back around Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba in order to limit how effective United could be on the counter. As a result, Liverpool seemed to lack any attacking cohesion and were not able to construct many quality goal-scoring chances. Liverpool had 66% possession and took 17 shots, but only three of them were on target and maybe one or two of those on-target shots were truly dangerous chances. Firmino and Salah especially were poor, and their fullbacks were seemingly playing in two minds the whole game, wanting to impact the attack while also being afraid of the United counter. This is why I originally said Liverpool should have played Henderson in midfield and Rhys Williams in defense. Henderson’s defensive ability allows him to cover for the fullbacks and defend potential Bruno/Pogba counters, and it allows Thiago, Liverpool’s most dangerous midfielder, to get on the ball more and have an influence on the attack.
This reflects poorly on Klopp, who, while starting with a very logical formation and game plan, did not seem able or willing to make the necessary changes when these issues became clear. The issues and limits in the Liverpool attack were clear by about the 55th-60th minute, if not earlier, and it was obvious Liverpool needed to make a change. Despite sending James Milner out to warm up at halftime, Klopp did not actually choose to make a substitution until the 76th minute, taking off Shaqiri for Curtis Jones. His final two substitutions, Divock Origi on for Firmino and Milner on for Wijnaldum, did not come until the 85th and 89th minutes, respectively, much too late to make a tangible difference on the match. It was clear Klopp needed to do something to free up Thiago, and bringing on Milner is a logical move in that regard, but not doing so until the end of the game is a bit baffling. Shaqiri and Firmino were both fairly ineffective in the match, and making substitutions for them would not have been crazy, but Klopp waited so long to do so for no real discernible reason.
Klopp handled his post-match press conference in the most Klopp way he could. Much like he did after their loss to Atlético Madrid in the Champions League, Klopp was frustrated by, or complained really, about United’s defensive set up. Complaining that the opponent did not make it easier for him is not anything new for Klopp, but this might be the most frustrating time to hear it because the necessary changes were so blatantly obvious. Of course United wanted to be more defensive and play on the counter. That is the most logical thing to do because several teams have shown in the past that it is the most effective way to beat any Jürgen Klopp team, but Klopp did nothing to be proactive and change his team’s fortunes even though he should frankly know what to expect from opposition by this point. Surely if he saw how many issues Thiago was causing the United defense, he would have made a move to push Henderson into midfield or bring on another midfielder for Shaqiri to allow Thiago to get forward. Surely a move to bring on a fourth midfielder, for either Firmino or Salah, would have helped Liverpool get control of the middle of the park, get Thiago forward, and allow the forwards to attack the space and the channels instead of continuously spamming crosses onto Harry Maguire’s forehead. This might be my Everton bias taking over, but the Klopp excuses are falling on deaf ears. Yes, the team has injury issues, and yes United were lined up very defensively, but the necessary changes were there to be made. This is still a match that Liverpool could have won. Liverpool dropped points in this match because the team and the manager were not good enough to earn all three points.
That is the inherent paradox of this game. Liverpool dominated possession, attempted and completed more passes, had more total shots, and had more attacking corners, but I at least felt that United were the better attacking side. Yes, a draw was a fair result on balance, but if there was to be a winner, United would have been the more just winner. Aside from less than a handful of genuine chances, Liverpool did not really look like they were going to score. United did not have much of the ball, but especially in the final 20-25 minutes, they looked much more likely to find a goal, and their chances were much better than Liverpool’s. The xG difference was 1.2-1.19 in favor of Liverpool, so the stats do back up a deserved draw. As a viewer, though, it just seemed more clear to me that United had the better goal-scoring chances, even if the stats do not back me up on that.
Regardless of chances or stats, the match ended in a draw. United remain top of the league, and Ole would have been the happier of the two managers leaving Anfield on Sunday evening. While United did not get a statement win, they did show that they do have the talent and pedigree needed to win the title this season, and Liverpool’s faults showed that there is clearly a title race. The happiest person with this result, however, was Pep Guardiola. Manchester City beat Crystal Palace 4-0 yesterday, which, combined with the Liverpool-United draw, took City up to second place, ahead of Liverpool and two points behind United with a game in hand. It was City’s fifth straight league win, with the team being unbeaten in all competitions dating back to late November. They look very good, in arguably the best form of any team in the league. If I was a betting man, I would fancy Man City as favorites to win the league right now. Leicester also leapfrogged Liverpool, being two points behind United and in third on goal difference. While I do not fancy their chances to win the league, they are very clearly in the race and could potentially do it. We knew we had a title race before this match, but this result has seemingly confirmed the scale of the race we are potentially looking at, and with only five points separating first and sixth, the race could potentially get even bigger.
Yes, it was a bit of a boring game. United did what they needed to do, and Liverpool were not able to react and change the game. While the game was boring, it did confirm that we are in for a very exciting title race this season. Buckle up, because it will likely be a bumpy and crazy ride to the finish line.
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