independent– Jurgen Klopp is never scared of being bold. Only a brave manager would go into a showdown against his team’s biggest rivals with two midfielders operating as centre backs. Yet Liverpool showed a timidity that was perplexing in Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Manchester United at Anfield.
They were not alone. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side lacked the gumption to take advantage of the home side’s injury problems. For the first half hour, United were given a chasing. They lacked energy and exuded caution, when a more vibrant, direct approach may have exposed Liverpool’s weaknesses. More might have been expected of a team at the top of the Premier League.
This was the fourth goalless draw between the clubs since Klopp arrived on Merseyside six years ago. Last season Liverpool went to Old Trafford eight games into the season having won the previous seven matches. They were lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw after a late Adam Lallana goal rescued a meek performance. United’s mystique faded quickly after Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Perhaps it lingers longer around Anfield than elsewhere because of the depth of the rivalry.
Liverpool’s problems yesterday all went back to the same issue: injuries to central defenders. Klopp’s success has been built on Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson storming forward to create space and opportunity for the front three. Without a reliable, solid centre-back pairing, the wide men have been naturally more wary. Alexander-Arnold and Robertson’s crossfield passes terrorised opponents and switched the point of Liverpool’s attack in the title-winning campaign. The flank-to-flank passing has become less of a factor recently and did not threaten United yesterday.
Two of Klopp’s favoured midfield were co-opted into the back four. The wholesale restructure of the middle of the park affects the side’s coherence. Thiago Alcantara may be the next creative hub of the team but even someone of the 29-year-old’s experience needs to adjust to the pace of the Premier League. For all the gushing over his passing, the former Bayern Munich midfielder rarely hurt United. No wonder. With Xherdan Shaqiri trying to adjust his game and Georginio Wijnaldum attempting to cover too much ground, it was not easy for Thiago to thrive.
The front three’s scoring drought is a symptom of this overall dysfunction. The ball is slower to reach them and defenders have more time to get set. Liverpool are at their best when the opposition are ragged. At their best, the full-backs tore open swathes of space on the pitch, and Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane relished the subsequent panic. United were mostly allowed to keep their shape yesterday.
Klopp’s men were incoherent. So what was Solskjaer’s excuse?
This was a perfect opportunity for United to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League and send a message to the rest of the division. They had the chance to take the game to Liverpool. The pace of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial should have been one of the keys to the match. Rashford rarely threatened, blundered offside too often and was inexplicably eased away from danger by Fabinho during a late counter-attack.
Paul Pogba continues to look like a prototype Premier League player – minus the appetite required to dominate the top flight. Bruno Fernandes was disappointingly ordinary. United’s passing lacked snap. They are still a work in progress. Despite this, Solskjaer may feel aggrieved. It took two very good saves from Alisson Becker to give Liverpool a share of the points.
The most obvious conclusion is that the only winners at Anfield were Manchester City. It is correct that Pep Guardiola’s team are the biggest obstacle to Liverpool retaining the title and their 4-0 victory over Crystal Palace is another indication that City are reaching a peak. The rest of January promises to be good for the residents of the Etihad, with home games against Aston Villa and Sheffield United sandwiching a trip to West Bromwich Albion.
In reality the Premier League only reaches the mid-point of this strange season this week. The rhythms of the campaign have already proved themselves very different to normal years. The trajectory of the title race is unpredictable.
Liverpool’s fate is more straightforward. Until Klopp finds a way to solve his centre-half problem – one that does not involve mixing, matching and hoping – the champions will splutter. Joel Matip should be back soon but the 29-year-old is fragile.
Being bold is not enough. Klopp’s calculated risk has consequences all over the pitch and not just at centre-half.