How does Liverpool’s title challenge look after United showdown?
Liverpool travelled to Old Trafford to play their greatest rivals on Sunday, a hotly-anticipated prospect in any season’s fixture list. They are in the midst of a title race, under growing pressure from various quarters for recently “dropping” points against inferior Premier League opposition and suffering a run of supposedly bad form, having just drawn with the six-times back-to-back German champions Bayern Munich. Some perspective is needed.
Ultimately, Liverpool came away from Old Trafford with a point – a result that surely the majority of their supporters would have taken before kickoff – and went back to the top of the Premier League table, a point clear of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City with just 11 games left to play. Liverpool’s solid defence is now the foundation of their success, as opposed to their electric attack from last season, and the roles have reversed.
Last season, this game would likely have descended into chaos and guaranteed goals, with Jurgen Klopp’s top-heavy side at risk of conceding more than they managed to score. Yet, Liverpool must take positives from the fact that they completely stifled a United side who had recently been full of positivity and attacking verve, limiting them to very few big chances in a strong defensive performance.
However, this game had the potential to be a major turning point in the title race, providing the Reds with a chance to make a statement of their ongoing intent. Their performance did not match this intent and the circumstances of Sunday’s game must raise concerns for Liverpool going forward, as they attempt to win an illustrious first top-flight title in 29 years.
Having started well, Liverpool dominated possession and territory in the first quarter of the game. As the first half progressed further, they maintained a level of superiority with ball retention, as their hosts were weakened by an onslaught of injuries. What’s more, by the 43rd minute, substitute Jesse Lingard was himself substituted due to injury, suffering the same fate as Spanish midfield duo Ander Herrera and Juan Mata earlier in the half.
United went into the break having made all three possible subs and with man-in-form Marcus Rashford limping off the pitch in noticeable discomfort. This gave Liverpool a chance to seize a brilliant opportunity; to press home their advantage and turn the screw in the second half. They did suffer a key injury of their own as Roberto Firmino went down holding his ankle, a setback manager Klopp would later call a “catastrophe.” Nevertheless, this was Liverpool’s for the taking.
An hour and zero shots on target later, Liverpool had provided little to no goal threat, as the game fizzled out into a frustrating, confused mess. It was a woeful second half performance from the Reds – specifically in attack. In the second 45 minutes, the closest they got to threatening David De Gea’s goal was from hopeful crosses and wayward headers from corners, summing up a lack of productivity from Liverpool’s front three in recent weeks, which has been a growing cause for concern.
Despite the substitution of Firmino, which perhaps negatively impacted the game of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, the lack of threat from Liverpool’s goal getters was worrying from a Liverpool perspective. In four Premier League games against Manchester United for the Reds, Salah has failed to register a goal or an assist and, in this edition, he looked delicate and frankly bereft of ideas.
On the other hand, this was possibly Mane’s poorest showing in a Liverpool shirt. The combination of raw pace, skill and clinical edge synonymous with last season’s Champions League run was non-existent in this game, and whether or not this can be solely attributed to the loss of Firmino, Klopp will be preoccupied by this before they return to action at Anfield against Watford on Wednesday night.
Ultimately, this felt like a game that a title-winning side would capitalise in, taking the three points home with them. Would Manchester City have won this game? That is a question which cannot be answered, and the circumstances will be markedly different when City travel across Manchester to the Theatre of Dreams for Gameweek 35 – on Wednesday April 24th.
Upon reflection, it is possible and extremely reasonable, to say that this was both two points lost and one point gained for Liverpool, given the way the game panned out. However, it is possible that the former may be proven true in the coming weeks. Klopp summed up the matter post-game, calling it “a point gained because we have one more than before, but it doesn’t feel like that.”
Only time will tell, but this week will now be as much of a test of Klopp’s credentials as his team’s. The German must find a way to galvanise his team, rebooting their attacking fluidity and disproving the points-dropped theory. If he doesn’t, Wednesday night’s visit of the Hornets may provide a sting in the tail for the Reds and a further blow to their chances of pipping Guardiola’s side to the post come May.