Of course it was nil-nil. Liverpool got here to Anfield for essentially the most spiteful, razor-edged derby in elite-level English soccer having scored of their final 42 Premier League house video games. They took to the sector with out a single specialist central defender in opposition to a free-scoring Manchester United. The week had been shot by way of with hopeful speak of title fees, Judgment Days and the standard ultimate countdown waffle.
At which level, welcome to the extra mannered world of Covid-era soccer, a stage present that’s required to generate its personal pulse and the place gamers are requested to alchemise from the empty air the form of warmth and fireplace that tends to make the distinction in a sport like this.
So after all it was 0-0, similar to United versus Chelsea, United versus City and Chelsea versus Tottenham earlier than it. It seems these have been actual ghost-game casualties of this unusual season, collisions between top-of-the-table groups that appear just a bit extra cautious, a bit extra managed with out the added derangement of voices and shared life from the stands.
There was additionally a bit extra to this than simply warning. United will see some extent gained and one other little ratchet up in the direction of no matter this group’s final stage may turn into. For Liverpool there will likely be satisfaction too as Jürgen Klopp fielded a defensive rump of midfielders stacked upon midfielders, with Jordan Henderson and Fabinho each having high-quality video games within the Virgil van Dijk-shaped house between the full-backs.
There’s, although, one thing off with Liverpool. The signs are clear sufficient. A 0-0 draw right here made it three league video games with out a aim. And this isn’t the identical Liverpool proper now, not the identical champion group that was capable of dash by way of these video games, strangling its opponents in midfield, pulling aside the stitching on the flanks, each collision, each surge of passing a weakening of their opponents’ will.
It might, although, be mistaken to put the blame on a scarcity of edge in assault, even when Mohamed Salah particularly regarded a bit cobwebbed, and Roberto Firmino was at his most frustratingly ponderous simply when one thing ruthless was required.
It has taken some time for the consequences of Liverpool’s defensive disaster to filter by way of this group. However they have been current right here in a form of cascade from again to entrance. This was trigger and impact in a really apparent straight line. Take out the defence and substitute it with the midfield. Take out the midfield and substitute it with one other model of play altogether, a wholly completely different set of rhythms.
The oblique sufferer of all this flux is the entrance line. Klopp has typically spoken about the best way his hard-pressing midfield is in impact a inventive power, with its means to steal the ball, to suffocate an opponent in harmful areas.
With out that strain the ahead line is required to play a distinct means, introduced with opponents in additional settled positions, now not gasping for breath. By the identical course of the full-backs, the group’s most inventive power, have much less house, much less cowl, much less licence to maintain on surging into harmful areas.
A lot has been made from Van Dijk’s affect, the best way one comparatively orthodox however massively assured centre-back could make the remainder of this group work. Effectively, right here it was, written in fidgety, brittle passages of attacking play, in possibilities virtually made, in a match the place issues saved on virtually occurring.
For the opening half-hour Thiago Alcântara gave the impression to be working this sport. His begin in English soccer has been so bitty it’s simple to neglect fairly how good he’s. Which is, to be clear, superb. That is, lest we neglect, Pep Guardiola’s one-man purchasing record at Bayern, an aristo of the trendy possession sport for whom a house debut at Anfield is just one other episode in his deep, loving and really private relationship with the ball.
For some time in that first half Thiago was so good that United’s personal free man, Bruno Fernandes, went and stood subsequent to him to close down his house. And Fernandes was disappointing at first, finishing simply three passes within the opening 22 minutes.
Alongside him Paul Pogba was put in in one other new and thrilling function as a meandering right-winger. He did his greatest on the market, however more often than not Pogba-as-right-winger regarded like a throwback to a type of pre-substitute video games the place some sport however dazed centre-half finally ends up wandering about on the flank, head swathed in brown paper and Vaseline, simply making an attempt to make a nuisance of himself.
For some time within the second half Fernandes started to return into the sport on the left. Lastly United have been urgent their thumb into these tender spots within the centre of this makeshift Liverpool group, weaknesses Thiago’s mastery of possession had disguised.
They have been let down by Marcus Rashford’s poor displaying as a centre-forward. Within the first half Rashford touched the ball eight occasions and solely ever actually gave the impression to be concerned in that bizarre useless time spent ready for the elevating of the offside flag.
Liverpool did press with some conviction at occasions. Possibilities have been missed. Firmino repeatedly clogged the ultimate level of assault with a heavy contact or a poor move. However this felt like what it was, a Liverpool group studying to play one other means on the hoof, and configured into completely different shapes. The objectives will return for the league’s prime scorers. However the supply of that present mini-drought is, probably, one thing deeper.