After all the build-up and all the hype, Liverpool and Manchester United played out a goalless draw that will no doubt please Jose Mourinho and leave Jurgen Klopp frustrated.
Tonight’s result has been hailed in some quarters as another Jose Mourinho masterclass. Tactically United were spot on. As you would expect from one of his sides, they were very organised defensively, compact in their shape in order to combat and deny any space in attacking areas and restricted Liverpool to very few opportunities to score. Mourinho himself described the defensive side of their game as ‘perfect’, but they left a lot to be desired offensively. Manchester United were virtually non-existent and offered very little intensity on the counter-attack.
The game started well for United. They pressed Liverpool high up the pitch in the first period of the game and restricted Liverpool to just one shot on target in that time. The home side were unable to find a passing rhythm and as a result, the majority of the game was played in Liverpool’s defensive half in that first 30 minutes. In the same period, United managed three more shots on goal, but only one was on target.
Given Manchester United’s willingness to defend so diligently, the onus really was on Liverpool to find a way through their compact defensive lines. By starting Daniel Sturridge and playing his three most creative players behind the lone forward, Jurgen Klopp invited his players to take the game to United. Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho were all given the licence to roam and interchange passes in an attempt to break the opposition down. Unfortunately, despite the plethora of attacking options available to this Liverpool side, they were unable to penetrate the United penalty area too often during the 90 minutes. Each of Liverpool’s most creative players struggled on the big stage to take the game by the scruff of the neck and provide the decisive moment.
Their failure to create enough going forward was in part due to the quality of Manchester United’s defending. The defensive screen of Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera in front of the back four was pivotal in denying space to the creative instincts of Liverpool’s forwards and this unlikely midfield duo nullified Liverpool’s biggest threats superbly. Between the two of them, they won plenty of aerial duels, a lot of tackles (although they gave away a few free-kicks too) and a lot of interceptions.
Herrera and Fellaini made 13 interceptions this evening, winning the ball back in crucial areas and making a vital contribution to the defensive effort. They were the reason why Coutinho et al struggled to penetrate the United penalty area.
Conversely, while United’s defensive performance was brilliant, their offensive efforts were poor. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was left isolated and starved of opportunities on an underwhelming evening and the support just was not there for him. Mourinho set his team up in a typical counter-attacking style; a target man up front, two wide men with pace and three midfield players that were expected to supply the ammunition for quick counter-attacking moments. The only problem being that those three players rarely made those moments count.
While Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini did well to maintain possession in their own half of the field and resist the intensity of Liverpool’s gegenpressing, they did very little else with the ball at their feet. Herrera and Fellaini were particularly neat and tidy on the ball, but rarely expanisve. Every time they did look to go forward with it, or play a more adventurous pass, it was unsuccessful. Admittedly, watching the game did reveal a lack of interest in committing too much to attacking situations, United still should have made more of the ball when they had it. The result of their endeavours both offensively and defensively was a drab 0-0 draw. Not entirely unexpected.
Ultimately though, Manchester United have earned a very good point and remain in touch with the leaders despite a less than ideal start to the Premier League season. In Ander Herrera, they have found a mainstay of this United team, especially in this defensive midfield role. His infectious enthusiasm, boundless energy and bite in the tackle made him the perfect midfield player for a game like this. He was one of the best players on the pitch and made United so difficult to beat.
Looking at his performance in terms of the raw statistics, he was everywhere. His passing was not perfect, nor was it game-changing, but it was relatively efficient. His defensive contribution was where he shone though. He won the ball back regularly, made key interceptions and was constantly breaking up play and doing his sides dirty work. It is the kind of performance that often goes unnoticed but is so vital on a night like this.
Manchester United started a difficult week with a well-earned point. With two more fixtures in the next five days, the squad will be tested to the limit. It is too early to describe any match as season-defining, but United will need positive results in the next two matches if they want to create any sort of momentum going into the rest of the campaign.