In the Red Corner is a weekly column on Manchester United.
It is rarely the most decisive Derby when determining the destination of the Premier League title, but the fans’ thirst for victory is at its most intense when Manchester United play Liverpool. Before kickoff, few fans would have accepted a draw but after the dust settled, most would take it as a fair result as Liverpudlian industry cancelled out Mancunian intent.
1. Liverpool good value for draw
Manchester United’s recent run of victories have come against teams content to sit deep, forcing United to unlock a packed defence. While undoubtedly a challenge for a team still working out the kinks in its hugely talented attack, they’ve proven themselves up to the task in recent matches. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, on the other hand, don’t know how to sit back. They hassle, working in packs to put pressure on defenders and win the ball back in dangerous areas. Phil Jones’ ball-playing limitations were repeatedly exposed by an aggressive press, and a lesser goalkeeper than David De Gea would have struggled with the footwork required to deal with the frequent forced backpasses.
From the start, Liverpool refused to roll over in the face of a full-strength United and a raucous Old Trafford crowd. Indeed, it was through their trademark gegenpressing that Liverpool won the corner that would lead to Pogba’s handball, Milner’s penalty and a 1-0 lead for the away side. Throughout the match, the Merseyside outfit frequently won the ball in dangerous areas and attempted neat, quick passing triangles to gain an edge on a United defence for whom Marcos Rojo again shone. The draw was well-earned as Liverpool played out Klopp’s tactics to near perfection, but ultimately failed to measure up to United in terms of individual quality, a problem compounded by beginning the match shorn of arguably their 3 most important players – Sadio Mane, Joel Matip and Philippe Coutinho.
There are, however, three worries for Liverpool going forward. The first comes down to fitness. Jurgen Klopp’s “heavy metal football” places physical demands on players that are unrivalled in the league. Will Liverpool have enough in the tank to reach the finishing line firing on all cylinders? Without European distractions, perhaps, but I reckon they’re still a season away from having the stamina to see a title challenge to its brutal, bloody end. Liverpool were my pre-season pick as dark horse for top-4, and I think that’s where they’ll end the season.
How Liverpool cope without Sadio Mane is the second worry. Coutinho and Mane add stardust and incision to Liverpool’s attack, transforming it from merely industrious to truly devastating. With both players fit and firing, Liverpool are one of the most exciting teams in Europe but they have not won since losing Mane to the African Cup of Nations. Klopp is not known for his tactical versatility so it remains to be seen whether Liverpool can play the Klopp way without their the mercurial Senegalese winger. The return of Coutinho will go some way to mitigating the loss but the maverick Brazilian lacks Mane’s consistency.
The final worry for Liverpool is a subtle one, but I feel it may prove to be a glass ceiling in the long-run. Liverpool aren’t ruthless. They’re exciting and are at their best when their backs are against the wall, channeling the emotion of their fans into an electrifying performance. But they aren’t ruthless and it’s a reflection of their emotional manager. Jurgen Klopp is a manager for the fans, as he runs the gamut of emotions more visibly than most supporters. Bear hugs, touchline sprints and frantic gesticulations are par for the Klopp. This dovetails nicely for a club with some of the most emotionally charged fans in the world.
But think back to the Europa League final, when they led at halftime against Sevilla, but capitulated in the second half. And think about this match, where Liverpool led at halftime but couldn’t hang on when faced with sustained pressure. There are arguments against this view, such as the 1-0 victory against Manchester City, but I think Klopp lacks the ruthlessness that managers such as Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte have shown at various times with various clubs. The bundle of emotional energy that is Jurgen Klopp lacks the cold, clinical ruthlessness to see out 1-0 wins; instead he mirrors the nervousness of fans, and that bleeds into his players. Perhaps there is less energy to channel when trying to close out a 1-0, but to consistently conquer the summit, you must be ruthless and Klopp does not have a track record of strangling the life out of a 1-0. Until he masters that art, Liverpool will be exciting without being a consistently dominant force.
2. United disappoint but preserve unbeaten streak
United and Liverpool ended the match as they began it – with the two longest unbeaten runs in the league. The satisfaction of a late equaliser will overshadow the sentiment many United fans had going into this match: that Liverpool were there for the taking. Liverpool were winless since the turn of the year and without their 3 best players, while United were in a rich vein of form and with a chance to truly announce their top-4 credentials. Instead, the Red Devils were treated to a performance rich in purpose but lacking in product.
Too often, Ander Herrera’s passes were askew. Paul Pogba turned in a performance of the lowest quality, his concession of the penalty compounded by his being frequently outmuscled while in possession. Attacking moves broke down and killer passes were either a fraction too heavy or slightly underhit. Chance were created, and duly passed up, by most of the cast of United’s attacking unit before Ibrahimovic’s late equaliser. The big Swede reminded United fans why he is never substituted by being utterly anonymous for 83 minutes, then immediately decisive. The draw means United lose the chance to pull level on points with bitter rivals Manchester City and throw serious weight behind their top-4 aspirations. On the whole, it was a disappointing performance from United, in light of recent form.
But there are positives to take from the result. It would have been a far different draw if United had been the ones giving up the 84th minute equaliser. That would have been morale sapping, and would resurrect questions about United’s fortitude and focus. Instead, snatching a draw from the jaws of defeat produces a mildly galvanising effect. The unbeaten run is intact, while the ageless Ibrahimovic makes it 13 goals in 13 appearances.
Given their style of play, Liverpool will always be a tough test and United showed themselves capable of answering the question without really playing well. United pariah Marouane Fellaini also answered critics. Fans were bemused when the big Belgian was signed to a contract extension but an important goal against Hull in the EFL Cup was followed by this encouraging cameo, where he was preferred to Marcus Rashford as final substitute. Mourinho likely triggered Fellaini’s contract extension as show of faith in the midfielder, one that was meant to be seen by the United faithful. It has put an end to the boos that Fellaini has had to endure from pockets of Old Trafford, and the midfielder has responded with better football. He will never be Old Trafford’s favourite son but has a role at the club, and at least he is no longer subject to confidence-crippling boos now fans recognise he is here to stay.
Another benefit from United’s failure to win is that it means premature questions of title ambitions are postponed. United need to focus on seizing a place in the top-4, and chatter about the title will lead to more hysteria should should their form stumble. It is becoming a more attainable goal.
3. A glance ahead
United now have a run of winnable fixtures (Stoke (A), Hull (H), Leicester (A), Watford (H)) until they travel to Pep Guardiola’s City on February 26. City were on the receiving end of an immensely satisfying Merseyside walloping early in the day, and if United rack up the victories between now and their meeting, the Manchester Derby will be a tantalising fixture. Looking at the fixtures between now and Gameweek 26, lots of United’s top 4 rivals play each other. Liverpool play both Tottenham and Chelsea, while Spurs also face City and Chelsea host Arsenal. There are lots of points to be dropped and if United return to winning ways at Stoke, they could capitalise in a huge way. Looking at the fixtures list on a meta level though, can any league hold a candle to the Premier League any more? Not in my book.
David Menon is a Premier League contributor with a weekly column on Manchester United.