It was a big game billed up to define the destination of the title with whichever way the result went. United not losing, like against Burnley, would mean that they stay top. For the first 30 minutes, it looked as if that was an inevitability as nerves swept the camp. Firmino had three good chances that he skewed wide when other options may have been better. The first real tester on Allison’s goal came from Fernandes free kick that went narrowly wide. All in all, United played poorly and barely laid a finger on a Liverpool that was severely patched up at the back. The second half had a more even feel. The chances for neither side were glaring until the dying minutes when Fernandes and then Pogba were thwarted by the efforts of the Liverpool goalkeeper as he stood up to two close range efforts. A draw was befitting of the game and typical of the damp squibs that always seem to come out of these big billings.
There has been a clear shift in the big games for Man Utd this season, compared to last. It is nothing to do with anything that the manager or the players have done. The difference is that the opponents now respect our attackers’ ability to hurt them in behind with their pace. So now, with the game tighter than ever in the middle of the pitch, it means that there has been increased technical security, awareness and a bit of swagger when you are approaching these games. So far, Fred and McTominay have been the go to pair in these games. Ferguson spoke about the carousel that Guardiola’s Barcelona used to put teams into. Anfield in the first 30 minutes of the game, Liverpool are able to put you on the same merry go round and has been the case in these games for the past 20 years. This was no different today. The midfield pair, worsened by Bruno Fernandes’ distinct lack of care in shutting off Thiago, were being pulled from pillar to post by the positioning of Wijnaldum and Shaqiri. It was difficult because that is their assignment in these games. Blocking off the central spaces so teams do not get to readily expose the CB pairing. So if teams are no longer allowing the time for our midfielders to get the punchy passes into space that the forwards thrive well off, is their presence needed in these types of games? Well, you saw more of what they could bring in the second half. The first half performance of Fred was dire by any standard but his second half, alike this fixture last season, is where he showed his better stuff. When the spaces grew as the legs tired, the ability of McTominay to stretch his legs and take the team up the pitch was there for all to see. But Man Utd can no longer go into these games as underdogs. They are no longer treated as such. They need to go toe to toe and there are personnel issues that hinder this ability but the manager has to find a way to emboldened the front line without taking away their supply line
The game plan of Solskjaer was clear from the minute the teams lined up. The debate of where Pogba played was answered with a new right winger berth. But Marcus Rashford played through the middle for the first time in the Premier League since the game against Chelsea. With Liverpool playing Henderson and Fabinho at centre back, Rashford’s pace and intent in behind was the clear avenue to the goal that was identified. The problem is that, in the centre forward role, Rashford offers little else. He is always willing to stretch the line, always willing to run the channels. But that is not all it takes to be a striker. Especially a striker for a top club. Being able to play with your back to goal and connect with your teammates is equally as important. He seldoms bullies the centre backs he is up against aerially or physically. Hardly does he take it into feet and allow the team to get up the pitch. When you are playing in the way in which we did today, those qualities are paramount. It was only heightened by the fact that when he did get the opportunity to run in behind, it was spoiled by his own over eagerness or a delayed pass from the person playing the ball. It is why Solskjaer went with Martial up top rather than Rashford at the beginning of 2019/20. Eventually, he would go back out to the left wing and he did a bit better. A pass into Fernandes and a run he had late on where the best of what he fashioned but it was a characteristic frustrating game for Marcus Rashford, both for himself and for the United viewers
No Cracks in the Ice Man
The big decision today was whether Bailly or Lindelof would partner Maguire. It was the latter who was given the go ahead. Much has been made of the Ivorian’s influence on United in all phases of play but it would remiss of us to forget that Lindelof has put together steady form since his disastrous start to the season against Palace. Today, he built on that with an excellent defensive performance. He and his partner showed a lack of incisiveness and composure on the ball but criticism of them in that regard when those ahead of them were barely able to put together a string of passes would be cruel. One moment in the dying embers of the game where Lindelof stretched all the sinews he had to deflect away a Trent Alexander Arnold cross was the epitome of his play today. Largely criticised for being too timid in duels, he went about his work excellent in that facet of the game.
Another game against Liverpool and another outstanding performance from Luke Shaw. It has now become a firmly fixed pattern in which he knows how to get the better of Mohamed Salah. What was more impressive was that Mane switched sides to aid his team mate but was no better at finding change out of the English LB. What’s more, his cross into Fernandes after an overlap was one of the many moments where he made powerful runs to help United get up the pitch. Since the game against Tottenham, where he should have really been sent off, he has added the ability to cross well into his repertoire. It might be time where the 25 year old is finally looking like a Man Utd LB
The changes from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer today looked more pre-planned than adjusting to the flow of the game. Being able to assess the flow of the play mid game and adapting is an adept skill that few possess. In the Norwegian’s case, it is one of his weak points. Martial was having one of his better games today and was one of the main sources of ball retention. His bringing off for Cavani had little to no effect to the game, as the Uruguayan essentially just ran around waiting to be found rather than give us something to hit in the final third. The fear of opening up too much may have played a part in it but a braver approach may well have given us all the spoils rather than sharing it with our bitter rivals yet again