A summary of United’s drab performance at Anfield.
The missing pieces
Liverpool missing Mane, United missing Pogba and Fellaini, which missing piece would prove to be definitive? In the end, Mourinho was unable to establish the midfield control he likes in these games, enabling an average Liverpool midfield to assert their authority, but the home side were unable to penetrate in the way Mane offers. Who missed theirs the most? Given that United were so below par, but Liverpool couldn’t find that breakthrough, you would have to say the hosts.
Even if United had Pogba and Fellaini available it’s difficult to envisage that they would have had a tremendous impact on the result. United fans are no stranger to insipid performances at Anfield but it is still distressing to approach match day with the optimism and generally well-justified belief that their team has the ability and potential to dominate their opponent on their home game. Perhaps it is a cyclical phase, and at least it didn’t end in defeat, but it just doesn’t sit well to see United see out a draw when Liverpool were hardly exceptional and their dominance was in fact partly due to the visitor’s apparent contentment to allow it.
You’re only as strong as your foundation, as we tweeted. And in addition to those midfielders, Eric Bailly was also missing, meaning a return for Chris Smalling and a reunion with Smalling and Jones. Cue a sharp intake of breath. Optimists will look at that game and say it was a job well done, a clean sheet, and Phil Neville, commentating for NBC, even gave Jones the man of the match. Early in the second half Jones misjudged an interception on the half-way line which would, on another day, have given Liverpool the sort of freedom that they enjoyed against Arsenal. Seconds later he made another error which presented an opportunity which Liverpool squandered. It was an observation we made from this same fixture last year, where Smalling was given man of the match.
The commanding headers and clearances stand out but often they also invite pressure either by the instantaneous surrendering of possession or concession of a corner. In many ways, Smalling and Jones are the personification of this result, and the perception of the appreciation of their work will tell you a lot about those who consider this a good result compared against the harsh reality of where United need to be in order to be genuine title contenders. The defence was good enough to hold out but United’s ambition should be greater, even at Anfield, because this was a relatively average opponent – by their own standards – which could have been dominated. The grey intangible area between where Smalling and Jones are in ability, and a more assured defence which could have given Matic and Herrera the solidity to influence the game offensively instead of concentrating primarily on defensive duties, represents the grey intangible area where United need to improve from last season if they are to sustain a title push. On today’s evidence, they didn’t look like contenders.
Best in the world
And it should be noted that there were numerous times where Smalling and Jones were caught out. Not quite so numerous that we can describe their performances as poor, because that would be disingenuous. They were in fact very good, but just not that cutting edge of good that makes the difference. On another day Liverpool might have scored three due to lapses of concentration from the defence but David De Gea was absolutely faultless throughout. He won Player of the Year awards when he was regularly tested and so had plenty of opportunity to showcase his ability, but the measure of true brilliant goalkeepers is to maintain the level of concentration to stop chances in tight games like this. His first half save was an example of that but the timing of his collections were just as crucial.
Still, despite all of the criticisms of that dreadful performance, United provided the genuinely good footballing move, which led to Lukaku forcing a save from Mignolet. Might he have done better? Considering that he had to linger on the periphery of the game for so long then you might forgive his rustiness. Another person might suggest that the best strikers live for that chance. This writer will give Lukaku the benefit of the doubt today because he was, for the most part, the victim of United’s poor performance and not the cause of it.