James Pearce watches Liverpool put in a frustrating performance against Man United – but believes there is plenty to be positive about
No sooner had Michael Oliver called time on a truly awful spectacle, the 3,000-strong travelling Kop broke into song.
‘Liverpool, top of the league,’ boomed around Old Trafford as the PA system was drowned out.
The party atmosphere in the away end continued long after Jurgen Klopp and his players had disappeared down the tunnel.
There was no negativity here. Their glasses were well and truly half full and rightly so.
The bottom line is that Liverpool are a point clear of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table.
With 11 games to go, their fate remains firmly in their own hands after emerging with a share of the spoils from the toughest assignment they had remaining.
That’s cause for excitement rather than angst as Klopp’s side look to end that painful 29-year wait for the top-flight crown.
Forget the doom and gloom merchants, this was a decent result for Liverpool. A point away to Manchester United should never be sniffed at, especially when they are a resurgent force under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
But neither should the performance be sugar-coated. Those hoping to witness a real statement of intent from the Reds in the title race were left disappointed.
For the second time in the space of a week, Liverpool fired blanks. There was a desperate lack of creativity as they dominated possession but did precious little with it. Having bossed the opening 45 minutes, they lost their way after the interval and it all got very ragged.
Klopp, whose wait for a first win at Old Trafford goes on, cut an increasingly agitated figure on the touchline as the errors kept on clocking up. His pleas for a greater show of composure fell on deaf ears.
The fact that Liverpool’s only attempt on target was a tame long-range effort from substitute Daniel Sturridge underlined the paucity of their work in the final third.
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane were both ineffective and strangely subdued, while there was the worrying sight of Roberto Firmino limping off before later leaving Old Trafford on crutches with an ankle injury.
The lack of top-quality back-up for Firmino was laid bare as first Sturridge and then Divock Origi came off the bench.
Sturridge hasn’t scored since September and Origi’s derby winner in December remains his only league goal this season – neither ever looked like adding to their account.
Considering that United were already without Nemanja Matic and then lost Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard to injuries before the break, this has to go down as a missed opportunity for Liverpool.
But for a big save from Alisson Becker to deny Lingard and a typically classy display from defensive colossus Virgil van Dijk, a frustrating stalemate could easily have been a damaging defeat.
Klopp had sprung a surprise before kick-off by starting James Milner at right-back in place of Trent Alexander-Arnold, who dropped to the bench.
Naby Keita also missed out as the Reds boss fielded a midfield three of Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Gini Wijnaldum for the first time. Klopp clearly wanted leaders and experience out there and early on it threatened to pay off.
The Reds were gifted a golden chance inside 20 seconds as David de Gea handled Ashley Young’s backpass. However, after being teed up by Henderson and Fabinho, Milner slammed the free-kick wastefully into the wall.
For all the talk of United showing more ambition under Solskjaer, it was Mourinho-esque how they were set up.
Rather than press Liverpool’s backline, they backed off and were content for the visitors to have the ball. The Norwegian was clearly petrified about over-committing players forward and getting caught out on the counter-attack.
Joel Matip, who impressed alongside Van Dijk, decided to add some impetus to a patient passing move as he burst between Juan Mata and Scott McTominay before being cynically taken out by Ander Herrera just outside the box. Salah took responsibility but curled high over the bar.
As Liverpool’s midfield snapped into tackles and bossed proceedings, the roars from the away end grew louder.
However, moments of real promise repeatedly came to nothing as the final ball was so poor.
The flow of the contest wasn’t helped by the fact there were more injuries than in an episode of Casualty.
United lost Herrera and Mata before Firmino went off after turning his ankle and was replaced by Sturridge.
Fabinho shone back in his usual midfield role but too often Liverpool were hampered by a lack of movement from their frontline. Twice, the chance to counter at pace and exploit space disappeared as Salah played his way into trouble.
Van Dijk was immense as he won a crucial aerial duel with Romelu Lukaku and then nodded behind Paul Pogba’s strike.
Five minutes before the break Alisson came to the rescue. Lukaku’s pass released Lingard, who opted to go around the Brazil No 1. Alisson was alert and stuck out his giant left hand to thwart him.
With 15 league clean sheets this season, Alisson has now kept more than any Liverpool keeper since Pepe Reina in 2009/10.
Alexis Sanchez came on for the injured Lingard before Lukaku nodded straight at Alisson.
The second half was a different story as United grew in confidence. They started to win more battles and Liverpool’s display got increasingly scrappy and disjointed.
The Reds defended bravely and you couldn’t fault the work rate, but further forward there was no spark or guile. Wijnaldum lashed high and wide from the edge of the box before the Dutchman’s header deflected behind off Scott McTominay.
With 19 minutes to go, Klopp brought on Xherdan Shaqiri for Henderson. The Swiss attacker had proved to be the match-winner when introduced at a similar stage of the clubs’ last meeting at Anfield in December. But this time his impact was minimal as Shaqiri’s lean spell continued.
Matip’s blushes were spared by the offside flag after he turned Chris Smalling’s cross into his own net.
Klopp’s final throw of the dice involved Origi replacing Salah but there was no grandstand finale. Hearts were in mouths at the death when Lukaku’s inviting centre just evaded Smalling.
“We didn’t do well to be honest,” admitted Klopp. “I was thinking ‘what is going on here today?’.”
Klopp wasn’t the only one. This was a day to forget. But, crucially, his Liverpool side remain masters of their own destiny.