So, is your Manchester United glass half full or half empty? A draw against the champions at Anfield has underlined that Ole Gunnar Solskajaer’s side are serious title contenders and validated their recent progress; but at the same time it left nagging doubts over whether they truly believe they can win it – yet.
Solid defensive displays from the likes of Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Scott McTominay and especially Luke Shaw secured a result which, given Liverpool’s dominance in recent years, would leave any team happy heading home from Merseyside.
But this Liverpool team is nowhere near the level of the side which marched away with the title last year and, with Jordan Henderson used as a makeshift centre-back and the front three misfiring, will there ever be a better chance to end their record of 67 games unbeaten at Anfield? Or a better chance for United to make a real statement about their title intent?
So, although Paul Pogba almost grabbed a late winner and although a point is perfectly satisfactory, there may well be underlying regret at a missed opportunity at a time when Jurgen Klopp’s side were certainly there for the taking had the visitors showed just a little more ambition.
Let’s be clear, there is so much to encourage United supporters at the moment after seven barren Premier League years since Alex Ferguson retired and you have to put this performance in context of an era under Solskjaer in which there have been so many ups and downs – and regular calls over a two-year period for the manager to be sacked.
Nobody is saying that now, so perhaps it is churlish to suggest they could have done more; but Liverpool, who have failed to score for three games in a row, were wobbling and United, on a rare day when Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford failed to deliver, didn’t quite have the belief to take full advantage.
Maybe there is more to that than meets the eye. United’s goal, for the outside world anyway, was to go six points clear at the top of the table and, in the process, announce their intention to once again knock Liverpool off their perch, not just for this season for the long term. But inwardly the focus was perhaps less expansive and more realistic. Less focused on defending their historic 20-19 lead in league titles won and more concentrated on building year three in a five-year plan.
So, what Solskjaer wanted was to see was evidence that his team had closed the gap on the champions, had made progress, and had the inner strength to cope with a big match at the very top of the table – and he certainly got that.
His pre-match assessment of his team’s season was refreshing, honest and under-hyped. United, he insisted, hadn’t set the Premier League alight just yet, they were moving forward but had a long way to go – and would need a ‘perfect game’ to have any chance of winning at Anfield.
So, although there were squeals of frustration on social media, and from pundits in television studios, when United sat back in the first half, it’s a result which takes them one step forward and which could have been a perfect away performance had Pogba finished late on as the visitors finally found their teeth.
Pre-match, United legend Roy Keane insisted fans and players would be happy to come away with a draw, and his view at the end was no different, even if he felt Pogba should have snatched victory.
“I think it's still a step forward,” he said. “Look at the progress they have made over six months – for us even to be talking about Manchester United at the top of the table is incredible. The next part is the hard part, of course. If you want to win the title you have to win these games. They aren't doing that yet but there are plenty of positives. I think they should be encouraged by it."
That in itself is a team talk for United’s squad as they prepare to face Fulham away in midweek and then Liverpool again in the FA Cup at the weekend.
In particular, they can be happy that the Old Trafford defence did a better job on Mo Salah than almost any other team in recent memory, that Sadio Mane found Wan-Bissaka a very tough opponent, and that the chances Liverpool created were rarely clear cut.
The only let-down was that two chances after the break were not taken and that the ambition arrived too late. Maybe there is a lack of belief that this team is good enough to lift the trophy, but don’t rule out that glass filling up in the coming weeks. The title is there for the taking for somebody, that’s for sure – and it’s no longer a certainty Liverpool will defend it.