Daniel Storey: Manchester City and Leicester City were the real winners on Sunday

Liverpool did at least attempt to play on the front foot in the opening 45 minutes, but were undone by disappointing final balls and sloppy touches
Daniel Storey: Manchester City and Leicester City were the real winners on Sunday

Roberto Firmino: The Brazilian has never been a natural finisher and Klopp will rue that both of Liverpool’s best chances on Sunday fell to him.
 

Both teams ultimately happy with a point earned

With the benefit of hindsight, this was an entirely predictable result. If the sluggish nature of the play, with both sides happy to sit on the point they had, was a little dispiriting, again it is easily explained. Had you offered both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Jurgen Klopp a point pre-kick off, we need not have watched what followed.

To stress the point, there’s no blame apportioned for that strategy; football managers are not paid solely to entertain a televisual audience. Manchester United got to keep their place atop the Premier League. Liverpool were able to maintain their unbeaten home record despite being forced to field a makeshift central defence.

Liverpool did at least attempt to play on the front foot in the opening 45 minutes, but were undone by disappointing final balls and sloppy touches 30 yards from goal. Manchester United’s counter-attacking plan was undone by them often choosing to go direct too quickly, trying the magic pass when two or three shorter ones may have produced more fruitful results. When they did get their passes right, Marcus Rashford was invariably caught offside.

As ever after games between supposed title challengers, the merit of the result can only be judged further down the line. But the obvious conclusion after a 0-0 draw between the teams in first and third is that Manchester City and Leicester City were the real winners.

But will Manchester United regret ceding territory?

You can understand why Solskjaer chose to operate a safety-first strategy, but many Manchester United supporters will wonder whether they showed Liverpool a little too much respect and played the reputation rather than the team they faced. They had their first-choice XI fit and starting; Liverpool had two midfielders in defence that inevitably weakened them in midfield too.

When Manchester United did attack (more in the last 20 minutes than the rest of the game put together) they finally had shots on target and forced Alisson into one excellent save. Liverpool had conceded 21 goals in 17 league games this season. Fortune may have favoured the brave.

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson greets Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the final whistle. Picture: Michael Regan

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson greets Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the final whistle. Picture: Michael Regan

That’s interesting, because it reflects the change in Manchester United’s big-game performance under Solskjaer. He was made permanent manager ostensibly because of his team’s results - and endeavour - against supposed peers: Manchester City, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain. But since the victory over Manchester City in March, United have changed. In eight games in all competitions against Big Six clubs, United have drawn four and lost four. They’ve also only scored three goals in those eight games.

For now, that’s not a problem; the nature of the Premier League season dictates that they are top of the league without notable scalps in those fixtures. But it’s hard to see how they will win the title this season without improving that record. Against that Liverpool centre-back pairing, this felt like a chance to do it.

Liverpool front three lacking again 

Jurgen Klopp has a problem, and we're not talking about a defensive injury crisis. Mohamed Salah is getting fewer chances in open play than before. Sadio Mane has already suffered one goal drought and hasn’t quite got back to full steam.

Worst of all is Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian has never been a natural finisher and Klopp will rue that both of Liverpool’s best chances on Sunday fell to him. For one he telegraphed his intentions and Victor Lindelof blocked the shot. Later, he should have played in Andrew Robertson but instead skewed the ball wide. Firmino’s chance creation has also declined alarmingly since last season.

Perhaps this is merely a question of fatigue; Mane and Salah have returned positive Covid-19 tests this season. Perhaps it’s a question of balance: Liverpool are less inclined to push players forward to protect the makeshift defence and the front three have to do more themselves to create chances.

Liverpool's Sadio Mane (left) and Manchester United's Aaron Wan-Bissaka battle for the ball. Picture: Paul Ellis

Liverpool's Sadio Mane (left) and Manchester United's Aaron Wan-Bissaka battle for the ball. Picture: Paul Ellis

Either way, Diogo Jota’s injury gives Klopp very little wiggle room. The gap between the starting front three and those on the bench (Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino) is so great that the only answer is to keep picking them and hope it clicks. The seven goals at Selhurst Park already feels like many months ago.

Bruno produces his worst Manchester United display 

I can see why a manager would be tempted to leave Bruno Fernandes on the pitch and not only because of his mini tantrum when eventually substituted. Bruno is a ‘moments’ player, one who can produce something sensational that punches through an otherwise mediocre performance.

But he was also arguably Manchester United’s most disappointing player against Liverpool. Bruno completed seven passes in the first half and barely found space after the break. While Paul Pogba was asked to track back on the right, Bruno was ostensibly given a free role and didn’t even sit on Thiago Alcantara to block his passing lanes. That luxury only works if you make a difference when you get the ball.

This isn’t really a criticism of Bruno, who has played a huge amount of football in the year since joining United. But I don’t understand the point of spending £40m on Donny van de Beek - a very capable attacking midfielder - if not to rotate him in when Bruno was so clearly tired. Van de Beek has played 251 of a possible 1,620 minutes in the league this season. At this rate he’s going to be rusty at exactly the time when Bruno uses up the final fumes of his energy supply.

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