So what did we all think about the match that Sky billed as “the biggest game of the season so far”: the clash between Liverpool and Manchester United last Sunday? Titanic struggle full of drama, excitement and entertainment, or damp squib through which even self-confessed football obsessives found it difficult to keep our focus on the action(sic) being played out before our eyes? In fairness, top of the table clashes have often played out as stalemates in the past with both teams cancelling each other out and the result becoming more about not losing rather than trying to win. What is amazing is that the game drew an average of 4.5 million viewers (peaking at 4.8 million) throughout the ninety minutes and was second only to Game of Thrones as the highest-rated programme in the history of Sky’s pay channels. As clear an indication as any of the impact of England’s third lockdown!
The first thing that struck me in watching the match was how cautious United were in their approach, especially for a team that sat top of the table going into the match and who, if the noises coming out of Old Trafford are to be believed, see this topsy-turvy season as an opportunity to mount a genuine title challenge for the first time since Sir Alex rode off into the sunset. This time they seemed to sit incredibly deep, almost on the edge of their own box, and invite Liverpool onto them. The seven times they were caught offside in the first half alone were testimony to their attempt to play on the counter.
I get that in trying to add greater defensive stability into his side, especially after the 6-1 pummelling at the hands of former manager José Mourinho’s Tottenham back in October, Solksjaer has tried to tighten up his side and make them more compact, but this felt like an overly timid approach. This was a feeling that was echoed by Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football in a heated exchange with Gary Neville in which the former United stalwart refuted Carragher’s suggestion that Liverpool were there for the taking as a result of injuries and a drop from their exalted standards of the last few years: “Manchester United are one of the biggest clubs in the world. They don’t have to be a championship team to smell something in the game.”
For their part Liverpool are clearly suffering from a dip in form, injuries to key players certainly haven’t helped, but it was almost inevitable that they wouldn’t be able to maintain the astronomically high standards of the previous two campaigns which saw them fail to win just 14 times out of their 76 matches. There simply had to be a drop-off in performances at some point, especially given the quick turnaround after the end of last season, the resultant truncated pre-season preparation period and the hectic condensed schedule this time out.
Ahead of Sunday’s match Jürgen Klopp’s charges had hit something of a roadblock, failing to score in their previous two matches away at Newcastle and Southampton and having picked up just 1 point from a possible 6. Ongoing defensive injuries meant that Jordan Henderson had to slot in at centre back next to fellow midfielder Fabinho, which according to the Liverpool Echo was the fifteenth different combination utilised in the heart of defence in Liverpool’s 28 matches so far this season.
Of course, Anfield not being packed to the rafters with expectant Liverpool fans and the smaller pocket of those who had travelled down the East Lancs Road (or indeed from the South East of England as the long-standing joke goes!) didn’t help the match as a spectacle but there was an inescapably flat feeling watching on TV. If the players are playing too much football, then maybe we are watching too much. The empty stands and lack of atmosphere make it virtually impossible to differentiate one match from another, almost as if we are involved in one of those marathon FIFA Playstation sessions from our youth in which we played out an entire season over a long sleepless weekend.
Rather bizarrely Liverpool’s failings on Sunday were not down to the makeshift nature of the defence, or the lack of fans to spur them on to a greater level of intensity, it was more simple than that, it was a failure by their much-vaunted front three to take the chances that came their way. A problem that is growing in weight with each match without a goal. Over the previous two seasons, Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané were scoring for fun, so far this season they have managed twenty-four league goals, and more pertinently none since Mané’s in the draw with West Brom on the 27th of December. With back-up striker Diogo Jota not expected to return from injury until at least the end of the month, Liverpool may need to find a way for reigniting their attacking threat or finding another source of goals.
On the face of it the goalless draw at Anfield probably didn’t damage either club’s title aspirations too much. Well at least not for United who followed it up with a hard-fought win at Fulham on Wednesday evening. Liverpool however, who rather surprisingly saw their home unbeaten run halted at a highly impressive 68 games with defeat by Burnley, may start to fear that they are starting to fall ever so slightly off the pace. In the aftermath of last night’s game Klopp described the defeat as a “massive, massive punch in the face” and went on to say: “We can’t imagine the title race at the moment.”
At the halfway stage last season, the champions were 13 points clear at the top of the table with a total of 55, after 19 games this time around they have 21 fewer points and sit in fourth place, 6 points behind leaders Manchester United, way too early to throw in the cards of course but grounds for some concern nonetheless.
This season by its very nature looks to be up for grabs to any team that can show a level of consistency over any sort of sustained period, just 8 points separate first and West Ham in seventh. In many ways the situation reminds me of 2015-16 when Leicester City took advantage of turmoil and change at the majority of the Big Six to sneak in to pinch the title. Interestingly enough Brendan Rodger’s Foxes sit just two points off the top; would it be completely unfeasible for history to repeat itself?
The smart money of course would suggest that Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are the one side showing any kind of consistency having won six league games in a row and having briefly topped the table for the first time this season on Wednesday before being usurped by United. However one thing this season has taught us is to expect the unexpected and the leading pack is so bunched up not because of their shared quality, but more because the impact of the pandemic continue to make this season so unpredictable.