There are already plenty of people out there lauding Jose Mourinho for a “tactical masterclass” as he set up one of the most expensively assembled sides of all time to grind out a goalless draw against a vulnerable Liverpool team hugely low on confidence after a torrid September.
While Mourinho has effectively nullified teams countless times in the past, that wasn’t what happened today. Liverpool completely and utterly dominated Man United in every department and came away by far the better side having carved out enough decent openings to feel they ought to have taken all three points.
A moment of sheer individual brilliance from David De Gea in the first half to deny Joel Matip from point-blank range, followed by Mo Salah curling the rebound narrowly wide was enough to scrape a point for the visitors, but in truth, it was more down to Liverpool’s habitual lack of composure with the final ball and finishing than any kind of tactical genius on Mourinho’s part.
Although the scoreline might suggest United limited Liverpool’s opportunities by defending well, they were sliced through quite easily on numerous occasions but the crucial pass was repeatedly slightly overhit or misplaced such that their defensive flaws were not punished and converted into goals.
In many respects, this was arguably Liverpool’s most accomplished performance of the season with the exception of beating Arsenal 4-0, with United (on paper, at least) probably the strongest opponents faced so far, other than Man City. To dominate and control the game in such a comprehensive and assured manner gives plenty of reason to be encouraged, even if it’s frustrating that it didn’t yield what could have been a watershed victory to kick-start the season.
Romelu Lukaku has started his United career in scintillating form, but was kept completely anonymous by both Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren whose physicality and communication were much improved on recent shaky performances. The entire back four, in fact, were virtually flawless throughout as Alberto Moreno showed the kind of defensive assurance and maturity he has long been criticised for lacking.
Joe Gomez, named as Sky Sports’ Man of the Match, was outstanding at right-back, both with his defensive diligence but also with his quality in the final third, delivering several superb crosses including a ball which ought to have assisted the winning goal as Emre Can fired over from close range.
In midfield, Jordan Henderson helped control the tempo, always available for the ball, snapping into tackles and driving forward more than he has done for much of this season. Gini Wijnaldum, meanwhile, much maligned for his recent performances and lack of impact, was back to his best from the very off, putting in the kind of all-action box-to-box display which earned him so many plaudits last season.
All across the team, the intensity and pressing was far more evident than it has been for much of this season, with United constantly harried and forced into surrendering possession. It’s something Liverpool’s performances have lacked for a while now, but made a very real and significant difference here.
While it didn’t quite click in the final third, despite several flashes of brilliance from Salah and Phil Coutinho, there was a credible claim for a penalty in the second half as Ander Herrera appeared to trip the Brazilian inside the box without getting any contact on the ball. It went unpunished, as did a couple of dubious incidents involving Lukaku- the kind of fine margins which can so easily define this kind of game.
There’s no doubt that a point suits United far better than Liverpool given the current context of the league table, but defeat would have been disastrous for Liverpool with the current mood around the club and the fact that a 10 point gap would have been opened between the two clubs so early in the season.
The performance, on balance, was worthy of the victory but until Liverpool find a ruthless streak in front of goal you sense there will be plenty more frustration of this ilk. That said, Liverpool showed plenty of qualities they’ve been accused of lacking this season- maturity, solidity, composure, control- and showed they can comprehensively outplay a side widely deemed to be one of the main favourites for the title this season.
This level of performance must now be replicated against Maribor in midweek and then taken to Wembley to face Spurs next weekend. There’s not much Jurgen Klopp could have done differently here, especially given the absence of Sadio Mane- and the decision to remove Salah and Coutinho was a wise one after their international exploits. Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, meanwhile, delivered a promising cameo performance off the bench and will surely get more opportunities in the coming weeks with Mane sidelined until late November at least.
Ultimately, it’s a frustrating result in the context of how well Liverpool played and the desperate need for a victory to lift the atmosphere around the club, but there was more than enough here to give reason to feel optimistic that a turn in fortunes is not too far away.