Liverpool 0-0 Man United
Premier League (18), Anfield
January 17, 2020
In comes Shaq and Hendo at the back
An hour before kickoff we found out the big calls: Matip not fit, Henderson at the back, Shaqiri brought into midfield.
The second centre-back, and the knock-on effect of who went into the middle, was always going to be a defining decision on the day for Jurgen Klopp – but there was also a notable switch.
The two possible reasons were either the speed of United’s Martial-Rashford combo down their left, Liverpool’s right, and thus needing Fabinho to combat it – or the below-par form of Trent Alexander-Arnold recently, which also needed Fabinho to oversee it.
Either way, the Reds dealt well with everything defensively in the first half, limiting United to just one shot from a free-kick.
Shaqiri in midfield had a very good first half, finding space between the lines and linking play neatly, though he tired after the break as might be expected.
In the presence of an elite
Thiago Alcantara strode onto the Anfield pitch for the first time and, within about 10 minutes, had metaphorically claimed the territory as his own.
His world-class passing is so frequently referred to as to almost make it overstated at this point, but still there are many who ignore the rest of his superb traits.
Here, he gave them another chance to recognise them: a quick and thunderous slide-tackle to win the ball, and a free-kick, in the opening minutes; two individual moments of skilful footwork to open space, and the defence, with nimble dribbling.
And plenty of times thereafter with his positional play, game-reading and winning back of possession after loose balls, clearances and aerials bounced his way.
Finally he almost, almost showed the finishing ability which was a trait in his younger years, powering one toward the top corner late on.
The No. 6 is simply a top-tier performer and the longer he’s in the team, the more we’ll benefit…particularly once those playing higher upfield than him are back to their top level.
Speaking of which…
The half-time whistle came after a good 45 minutes in terms of buildup, but a poor one in terms of end product. The best chances fell Firmino’s way, each spurned or with the wrong decision at the end of them.
Liverpool scored 12 minutes in against West Brom, the last 78 minutes of that game passed without a goal, then both 90s against Newcastle and Saints the same – by half-time on Sunday it was 303 minutes without a league celebration, socially distanced or otherwise.
Firmino missed the best chances. He also took on another shot which should have been played left for Robertson, then spurned a chance in the second half after a cross from the Scot.
At least he had attempts. Salah’s performance was peripheral at best, while Mane’s best moments came outside the box, rarely looking a goal threat.
The Reds, as a team, are nowhere near firing on all cylinders – a third goalless league 90 in succession leaves us at 348 minutes without a Premier League goal.
The other Brazilian pair
Their compatriot might have had a bit of a stinker, but this duo was exceptional.
Fabinho we’ve come to expect it of, even out of position, but here he was another step up from most natural centre-back performances you’ll see in the Premier League: great positional play, aerial domination, cool playing out and some must-make tackles, both those he won and those he lost.
Alisson saved us a point.
The save from Fernandes was good, the stop from Pogba more vital.
An old cliche for when times are tough in attack suggests that you simply must keep a clean sheet, and this duo made sure that happened here.
The Reds came into the game not just below United, but third in the table after Leicester’s win earlier in the weekend.
With Man City likely to beat Palace later on Sunday, we’ll be fourth, one game shy of the halfway mark.
There is no need for over-dramatisation, but equally, it’s obvious that matters aren’t going to plan.
The best form will return, so too the clinical edge and even the players out injured – but the question of the title will depend on whether the gap has become too big at that stage to play catchup.
It remains Man City who are the big contenders to wrest away the Reds’ crown, just as it has been from the very start. They’ve had their bad run. They’re now on a great one.
Jurgen Klopp has to very quickly find the route back to Liverpool’s own top form, lest our long-awaited title be given up with a bit of a whimper.