The match against Manchester United was never going to be like the previous two games at the newly expanded Anfield, writes Jonathan Wilson.
However fallible Manchester United have looked over the past three seasons and however slowly they seem to be responding to Jose Mourinho’s management, it was always unlikely Liverpool were going to be able to rip into them as they ripped into Hull and Leicester, or even as they ripped in to Arsenal or Chelsea.
This was Mourinho doing what he does best. He arranged his team to spoil, to prevent Liverpool playing, to frustrate in every way possible even down to dawdling over goal-kicks, throw-ins and substitutions. Just as he had when he brought Chelsea to Anfield in 2014, he waited for mistakes.
The difference was that this time Liverpool didn’t make them. Or rather, didn’t make any big enough to cost a goal: particularly early on, there were plenty of needless losses of possession.
United ended up with 35% possession, their lowest ever figure for a game since Opta began collecting such data in 2004. Mourinho returned to the press-room after his press-conference had finished to claim that United’s analytics showed they’d had 42%, which is interesting more in what it says about how stats are collated than anything else.
It’s not uncommon for Opta’s possession stats to vary significantly from Uefa’s in Champions League games, for instance, largely because their method is based on a proportion of touches. Other methods, such as pressing a button every time possession changes hands, are available. What’s important is that Opta have always collated the data in the same way: whatever figure you want to place on it, this was United pushing new territory in terms of reactivity.
There may be some concern that Liverpool failed to break United down, that they struggled to create chances against a defence that ended up sitting very deep. There was, in that regard, some reflection of the Burnley game. Then again, David De Gea was called into two excellent saves and it required an exceptional tacked from Antonio Valencia to deny Robert Firmino. It wouldn’t have taken too much to go differently for Liverpool to have won 2-0.
And it’s only natural that a side that is so quick should find itself slightly stymied by a side that leaves no space in behind it. That was clearly something United were determined to protect against. Not a single ball was played by De Gea to either central defender to guard against the possibility of Liverpool’s press winning the ball back off them. Instead the United back four held their shape and De Gea played every kick long, looking to use the aerial presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There is some grim satisfaction, perhaps, to be gleaned by Liverpool fans from making United play in such a way, in a manner so contrary to their traditions and self-image.
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) October 17, 2016
At least as concerning is what happened in the opening half hour when United, as Swansea had – and as Burnley did up to a point – troubled Liverpool with their own pressing. They were unable to sustain it for a full game – the lack of yards run by United this season is something of a mystery and hints at issues of fitness; it can’t entirely be explained by the immobility of a couple of key players or by their preference for sitting off – but in those early stages they prevented Liverpool, as Jordan Henderson acknowledged, from finding any consistent rhythm.
Of course it may have been partly that Adam Lallana and Georgino Wijnaldum weren’t there. Jurgen Klopp acknowledged their absence as a problem, while stressing it wasn’t just a matter of personnel but also of disruption to a system that had been working extremely effectively. But other opponents will note that if you disrupt the passing lines out from the back, and pin the full-backs in, Liverpool can be frustrated.
A knock-on effect of Lallana and Wijnaldum’s absence was Daniel Sturridge playing at centre-forward. It would be wrong to be too critical because on Monday that was a thankless task, surrounded as he was by two central defenders and two holding midfielders.
He didn’t have a shot, make a tackle, win an interception or an aerial ball or make a key pass and there’s no doubt Liverpool looked sharper once Firmino had returned to the centre-forward role. Perhaps Sturridge coming off the bench would have prospered against a tiring defence but, while he shouldn’t be written off for this performance, nor was there anything to suggest he can be effective in Klopp’s system.
It was in some senses a frustrating night for Liverpool but Klopp said after the game that with every passing minute he was becoming happier with the point. It’s certainly a major shift of the dynamic with United to make them play in such a reactive way.
And the fact is that after eight games, Liverpool are two points off the top having had a much tougher fixture list than any of the sides above them.