* November 8, 2014 might seem like an insignificant date, but it bears remembering in the aftermath of Saturday lunchtime’s game. A 2-1 victory over Liverpool for Chelsea at Anfield almost three years ago remains the last time Jose Mourinho managed a Premier League away win against any of the big six.
A 0-0 draw with Liverpool means Mourinho has now gone ten straight games without a win at Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham or Saturday’s opponents. His sides have drawn five and lost five of those games, conceding 15 goals and scoring just four times. Just one of those away goals has come since he was appointed at Old Trafford.
Mourinho is a brilliant manager, one of the finest in the world, but his instinctive reaction to a big game is infuriating. This was a chance to make a statement, an opportunity for United’s free-scoring attack to stretch their legs against a defence that had conceded more than all but two sides this season. Liverpool were low on confidence heading into this fixture, but were the only team who looked eager and willing to make something happen. Mourinho sought only to avoid losing this game instead of aiming to win it. Manchester United, a team with title ambitions, arrived at Anfield as a team with little to no ambition on Saturday.
* The Portuguese’s approach would have been rather easier to stomach had United started defensively before growing into the game, but this was the opposite. The visitors did not have a single shot in the second half as they sought to set up camp behind the halfway line. In their last 180 minutes of football at Anfield, they have now had just two shots on target.
Mourinho is often described more as a pragmatic coach than a defensive one, but it is difficult to argue his case in the glare of Saturday’s serving. Liverpool looked tense, wary of a game plan that never came, and that Mourinho never intended to use. He did not strangle the game with the intention of resuscitating it late on with a flurry of attacks against a weak defence. He simply took the second-top goalscorers in England this season and requested that they play like a lower-league side in a cup game. Watford, Burnley, Leicester, Newcastle, Hoffenheim, Sevilla and Spartak Moscow all aimed to expose Liverpool’s soft centre at times when they faced them, but one of the most expensively assembled squads in the world never did.
Manchester City’s approach is not perfect, and before Sadio Mane’s sending-off when they faced Liverpool last month they looked far weaker defensively than United did here. But they showed much more attacking intent both before and after that red card, and it paid dividends. Pep Guardiola will have no cause for concern from either of these sides on this evidence.
* Liverpool were better, but not markedly so. They did at least show attacking intent and a willingness to commit players forward, but after a 0-0 draw, that can easily be seen as rather damning.
United were outwardly nervous, making sloppy mistakes as they struggled to adapt to the sort of defensive game they have not had to rely on this season. But Liverpool seemed anxious and apprehensive, not as expressive in attack as they have been previously. Of their 19 shots, just five were on target. A clean sheet is ostensibly a positive, but Simon Mignolet made one save.
The 0-0 draw between these two sides last October was due to one team carrying out their objective perfectly: United came for a point and left with one. Twelve months later and the same result was down more to the failings of both rather than the success of either. One side didn’t want to win, and the other weren’t good enough to.
* What makes United’s apparent refusal to cross the halfway line even more bizarre was Mourinho’s team selection. Ashley Young was clearly used as much for his defensive tendencies as for his attacking contributions, but it seemed as though the manager had at least partially shown his hand by starting the 32-year-old.
“It’s his role,” Mourinho said before the game. “When he plays right or left-back, he plays because we have needs and we have to try to find solutions. But it isn’t his normal position.” A reminder that this was only Young’s sixth start on the wing in the Premier League since August 2015.
Mourinho moved the erstwhile England international forward for one reason: his crossing ability. The desire to capitalise on Lukaku’s aerial threat against a struggling defence was obvious – Young completed the most crosses of any United player (5). Yet all too often he disrupted rare attacks by conceding unnecessary fouls – four, more than any other player.
The strength behind United’s forward line this season has been the threat it poses from all angles: Martial and Rashford’s dribbling, Mkhitaryan and Mata’s passing, Lukaku’s finishing. Young is too one-dimensional, his only weapon too obvious and easy to counter. Mourinho surely knew that before kick-off?
* Not for the first time, the narrative would be rather more different were it not for David de Gea. The Spaniard is a quite wonderful keeper, the kind who was crowned Man of the Match even when United beat Liverpool 3-0 in December 2014. His first-half save from Joel Matip was incredible.
That he is just 26 and might not yet have reached his prime is astounding. He has kept 10 clean sheets in his last 13 games for club and country, has saved the last 12 shots he has faced in the Premier League, and has at least three more clean sheets than any other player. Dave does indeed save.
The longlist for the Ballon d’Or means painfully little in practice, the award itself being a two-horse race between two of the best players the world has ever seen, but it is telling that De Gea was United’s only nominee for 2017. Even with the millions spent by numerous managers over the years, a gangly boy signed by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2011 remains the club’s most important player.
* This same fixture last season saw a young English right-back slot seamlessly into the Liverpool side and put in a professional performance belying his years. Trent Alexander-Arnold made his first-ever Premier League start at Anfield against United 12 months ago, but was once again on the bench on Saturday. While Joe Gomez is slightly longer in the tooth, the wisdom of his continual selection has been questioned.
The 20-year-old provided as emphatic a response as possible, and was the best player on the pitch. Anthony Martial had no joy down his side as Gomez made more interceptions (2) than any Liverpool player. But it was his attacking contribution that stood out. The right-back’s delivery was sumptuous, creating two scoring chances from deep, most notably for Emre Can in the second half.
Having shackled Martial, Gomez then took great delight in keeping Marcus Rashford quiet when the forward was introduced just after the hour. Martial and Rashford completed two dribbles between them. Gomez is by no means the finished article, but Nathaniel Clyne should not expect to return straight to the starting line-up upon his return.
* As tends to be the case with games involving Liverpool, Mohamed Salah was the most exciting player early on. The winger, fresh from guiding Egypt to World Cup qualification, was the direct dribbler while Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino both dropped deep in search of an opening. It caused a lopsided three-man attack, but Salah was unflustered.
The same cannot be said for Matteo Darmian, tasked with countering the raw pace and electric skill of the Liverpool forward. The Italian looked more nervous than a teenager on his first date, and just as clumsy.
Salah had the joint-most shots (4), created two chances and, surprisingly for an attacking player, recorded the third-best passing accuracy (90%). This would likely not even rank in his three best games for the club since joining, but he played the role of spearhead well in the absence of Sadio Mane. Only Harry Kane (44) and Lukaku (32) have had more shots than his 28 in the Premier League. Even on a quiet afternoon, he poses a considerable threat.
* United created just one real opening in 90 minutes, and it is of great credit to Mignolet that he retained enough concentration to stay alert and prevent Lukaku from scoring his eighth goal in eight games. The striker will be disappointed to have missed his only chance but, predictably, the criticism has been over-blown.
Much of the build-up centered around Lukaku and his record against the elite, with the usual flat-track bully accusations coming to the fore. This is a player who had scored 11 goals in nine games for club and five in five for country this season, but constantly finds himself scrutinised for what he cannot do rather than praised for what he can. Lukaku did not score against Liverpool, but nor did Harry Kane against Chelsea in August. One bad game should not negate ten good to excellent ones.
* Having said that, there were rare examples of petulance and frustration seeping into the Belgian’s game. He was fortunate not to be booked after hacking at Gomez in the first half, then found himself in a tangle with Dejan Lovren. Those demanding for Lukaku to be sent off after accidentally kicking the centre-half in the face were worryingly quick to pass judgement.
The incidents came after Lukaku was completely isolated in the first half. United’s approach was to defend then play the ball long to the Belgian, who was tasked with holding up play and waiting for reinforcements to arrive. Even then, a record of one touch in the opening 23 minutes was abysmal. He ended the game with 22 touches; Mignolet had 27.
There is a degree of sympathy for the 24-year-old, who joined United to become the main striker for an elite side, not a nominal outlet for a defensive one. Things have only gone his way for two months since moving to Old Trafford; at the first sign of difficulty, toys were forcibly removed from pram.
* Gary Neville was one of the aforementioned few questioning Lukaku’s role in the incident with Lovren. The Liverpool centre-half was left rolling around on the floor clutching his face as Lukaku moved away, unaware of the situation.
“It doesn’t look great,” said the Sky Sports co-commentator upon seeing the replay, with Lukaku having accidentally connected with Lovren as he tried to keep his footing. Yet this is the same Neville who defended Mane for his high boot on City goalkeeper Ederson last month, claiming that referee Jon Moss had “ruined the game” by sending the Liverpool forward off. To chastise one while justifying the actions of the other seemed a little perverse.
* Liverpool had been the better side in the first half, but their reluctance to play with the same attacking verve and pace was obvious. Klopp has failed to strike the right balance between defence and attack all season, and so settled for something in between at Anfield.
The home side’s top five passers in the first half all completed the majority of their passes in their own half. Jordan Henderson, Matip, Lovren, Alberto Moreno and Can saw most of the ball, but often looked to play a sideways or backwards pass instead of a forward one. Desperate not to get caught out on the counter-attack against a side with no willingness to attack, they were too cautious.
The game ended with Henderson and Can having completed more of their passes in the opposition half, and it is no coincidence that Liverpool looked more threatening in the second period. Had that change been enacted sooner and they had been braver in possession, one point could well have become three.
* It took until the 74th minute for Klopp to decide a change was needed in the last game against Newcastle; the German held out for a full four extra minutes in the search for a winner against United. Liverpool had been in the ascendancy for the entire second half but failed to find a breakthrough, and so fresh impetus and new ideas were needed sooner.
The manager gave Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Daniel Sturridge little over ten minutes to find the keys to a bus that had been parked for the previous half an hour. The desire to avoid disrupting the rhythm of attacks is understandable, but those who started had proved incapable of breaching a staunch defence. Dominic Solanke then came on with five minutes remaining; the most he has played in a single league game this season has been 23 minutes.
Liverpool have considerably more pressing issues in defence and in their profligacy going forward, but it still does feel as though Klopp needs a substitute teacher. Eight games in, and only one player has scored a Premier League goal coming off the bench for the Reds this season – and that was Sturridge in August’s 4-0 win over Arsenal.
* Even more telling was the identity of Klopp’s substitutions. Salah, Coutinho and Firmino were all removed while the three-man central midfield of Can, Henderson and Wijnaldum remained. For all the talk of Mourinho playing conservatively, the Liverpool manager was not innocent in that regard.
The hosts barely needed such numbers in midfield, with Can and Wijnaldum performing well. The latter was particularly impressive after some lacklustre displays of late, providing drive from midfield and linking up well with the front three.
Two months into the new season, and it is still difficult to see what Liverpool’s midfield really offers. Henderson is a neat passer, and Can and Wijnaldum seem to do the same job. The latter was the better of the pair on Saturday, but Klopp will persist with playing all three.
* Ander Herrera was once the cream of the midfield crop for United, a future club captain and the one player who embodied Mourinho’s attitude and style more than any other. His performance at Anfield not only exposed his weaknesses, but highlighted how poor United look without Marouane Fellaini. Which sounds so weird.
Herrera covered more ground (10.97km) and completed more tackles (9) than any other player, but that simply uncovers how unreliable statistics can be when used in isolation. United’s water carrier was a liability, often caught in possession and offering very little in either attack or defence. The sight of him chasing Coutinho having been left bamboozled on the ground after a quick turn or dip of the shoulder was the enduring image of this game.
Nemanja Matic was poor, underwhelming in his first true test since joining the club. But the Serb was handcuffed by his own teammate, who did absolutely nothing to suggest he should be trusted again when everyone is fit. United have only failed to win twice in the Premier League this season; they are the only two games Herrera has started.
* “Ox just needs a little bit more time to adapt,” said Klopp before the game, explaining his decision to leave his £35million summer signing on the bench once again. “He was always interrupted by two-week international breaks; always when he starts taking the next step then international break.”
Klopp will undoubtedly be delighted to learn that the next international break is on the horizon. Liverpool have five more games before Oxlade-Chamberlain is once again whisked away with England. Will fans have to wait until December for a first proper glimpse of the 24-year-old?
Ahead of the game, Daniel Storey wondered whether it was a case of ‘if not now, then when?’ for Oxlade-Chamberlain on Saturday, with Mane injured. It felt like he could be a natural fit, a direct replacement for the Senegalese instead of moving Coutinho further forward. But he was once again named on the bench; his five substitute appearances in the Premier League this season have not yet comprised a full game (85 minutes).
In 12 minutes at Anfield, Oxlade-Chamberlain attempted more crosses (7) than passes (5). His style just feels so at odds with the rest of his teammates. A month and a half has passed since his arrival, and there are still more questions than answers.
* No Mane. No Fellaini. Little Rashford. No Eric Bailly. Big Weekend described it as ‘a potentially firecracker Premier League clash’, but this threatened to fizzle out even before kick-off.
“It’s a massive game,” Klopp said on Friday. “I would love to ask the Premier League to give both teams more time to prepare for a game like this.”
It is easy to sympathise, with players returning in midweek ahead of a crucial Saturday lunchtime game, giving little room for preparation. Coutinho and Firmino were both late arriving back from duty with Brazil, while many on either side featured heavily for their countries over the past fortnight.
There were myriad reasons for this game failing to live up to expectations, not least one manager refusing to play for a win, and one team not being good enough to earn one. But the international break disrupts rhythm and starves clubs and managers of important time to prepare, particularly for such a huge game. Mind you, Red Monday was hardly a classic…