Liverpool somehow contrived to drop their first points of the season at Anfield against the worst team to visit, drawing 0-0 with Man United.
Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United
Anfield, Premier League
17 December 2023
Goals: None, somehow
Red card: Dalot 90+4′
Expectation vs reality
The recent form guide by results; the Premier League standings and last season’s 7-0 – all these factors had most Liverpool fans thinking this would be a game they could head into with supreme confidence and fully expectant of another big victory.
While the first few minutes of the game suggested that might be the case, with the Reds coming out strong and creating a few openings down the flanks, that early buzz – both metaphorical from the tempo and literal, from the crowd – soon wore off.
Add that lack of incision and cohesion to the wider fact that this, from a tactical perspective, was like facing Burnley or Nottingham Forest – 10 behind the ball, no intent to attack – and the frustration with a lack of clear-cut chances was apparent very quickly.
More was needed from Liverpool in terms of creativity, in movement and in decision-making of when to shoot, but there’d even so be an expectation we beat comfortably the worst Man United team in a decade.
Endo stands up – but bigger-name duo out of form
Szoboszlai, more than anybody else, hit the ground running this season to mark himself out as a standout signing of the summer.
However, more than a handful of performances of late have wavered between uneven and downright poor, with the latter on show again on Sunday.
The No.8 was too slow to pick his pass, didn’t really drive at his man through the middle when both opponents were on yellow cards and continued to spurn chances to find a teammate, right up until he was subbed on the hour mark.
Ryan Gravenberch also departed then, albeit through injury, but the Dutchman similarly flattered to deceive. A couple of driving runs aside, he was a non-event too much, too often.
And behind them both, was the player who wouldn’t have been on the pitch in normal circumstances: Wataru Endo.
He wasn’t a star performer by any means but solid and aggressive; reliable on the ball but without an ability to play defence-splitting passes into the final third.
The attack didn’t fire, but the midfield didn’t really set any kind of platform for service or support – which very much includes when Alexander-Arnold went there and proceeded to whack about half a dozen long crosses and passes overhit and out of play.
Change and change-about
After a fairly uneventful first half, it can be expected that the boss had a few words to say at half time – though in terms of performance impact, it didn’t seem to do too much.
Jurgen Klopp then eventually made his first double change to switch up the shape, moving from 4-3-3 to almost all-out-attack 4-2-4, Cody Gakpo and Luis Diaz wide at that point with an Endo-Trent double pivot.
Predictably, all shape was lost and control of the game departed. One shot wide from Alexander-Arnold aside, the attempt to overload in attack simply didn’t work at all, so another pair of subs came on to try and rectify that: last week’s match-winners, Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott.
The second shape change proved just as unfruitful, Jones not really able to get involved as a left-sided attacker and no great speed through the centre at that point.
Bad decisions, timing or technique?
The Reds completely dominated the vast majority of this match, no question. The pressing was for the most part good, while ball recoveries and stopping United getting out of their own half was also decent.
And while chance creation was down, it was not gone entirely – but the finishing was.
Salah sent a couple of soft ones goalward and then started shooting from ridiculous angles. Gakpo arguably only did that after coming on, then spooned a header over the bar in the last minute, unmarked in the middle.
Darwin Nunez didn’t really have much come his way, Diaz repeatedly tried the same trick to cut in and got nowhere and even the centre-backs, up for a lot of set pieces, had no joy whatsoever.
The patience didn’t last long enough in build-up play but the movement was never there in the first place – that’s what would have brought about a few more clear chances, one-on-one situations or just opened-up shooting opportunities.
Then again, judging by Szoboszlai and Trent failing to hit the target from the few we did make, maybe nothing was making a difference on the day.
Get up for the cup – and another Anfield run
After a midweek of youths and backups, this was the first of three straight matches of importance, all at Anfield, all within a week. Safe to say, we need to be better in the next two after failing to win or score for the first time at home this term in all competitions.
Following Man United come West Ham, with a place in the League Cup semi-finals at stake. Then it’s Arsenal and what will be a top-two-of-the-table clash before the weekend’s action starts – but neither club might actually be there by kick-off.
More to the point, Liverpool have spurned their chance to lead the Gunners going into that game as a result of this draw, and a series of poor performances have caught up with the Reds here.
It needs to be a wake-up call, a result which reasserts the need to find technical excellence to go with the positional work that has done a lot of good in recent weeks.
We’re still ahead of the curve for the season as a whole, but the challenge has always been to stay there – this type of performance and result won’t do that.