Manchester United travelled to Anfield to take on a red-hot Liverpool and left with a point.
On the surface, not a terrible result, but could United have been more daring?
That seems to be the big question after the game. No one could dare criticise the tactical discipline and execution of United’s players. Almost everyone did their job to perfection and with Liverpool having piled on the goals this season, this was a big result for United’s at-times leaky defence.
Here are our five big lessons from the 0-0 draw.
ELEMENTS OF THE COMPLETE TEAM
Jose Mourinho’s iteration of Manchester United is still coming together, but already we have seen elements across different games to suggest how good this squad and team can be.
Mourinho – somewhat predictably – opted for a bigger midfield trio of Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera with the Frenchman the furthest forward to link with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It was the midfield fit for the purpose, but it suffered in an offensive sense without the smart movement and creativity of Juan Mata.
So while big wins against Bournemouth and Leicester City – as well as the gluttony of spurned chances created at home to Stoke City – have shown the attacking talents in this team, the 0-0 draw at Anfield was the first big triumph for defence and sheer tactical organisation under Mourinho.
It was not always pretty to watch, but it got the job done for the most part. With the exception of the forwards, everyone did their jobs.
The next step is to bring it all together in 90 minutes against strong opposition.
NIGHT TO FORGET FOR IBRA AND POGBA
I have already copped some slack on Twitter for daring to suggest United’s record signing was not up to scratch at Anfield.
His more advanced position was exactly what so many United fans have been crying out for, but ultimately he came up short. A long-distance strike that never looked like hitting the target and an admittedly brilliant ball to the ineffective Ibrahimovic were the only real fruits of his labour over the 90 minutes.
Pogba pressed well – and played well – for the majority of the first half, but was near non-existent in the second, but for his sublime pass to Ibrahimovic, which the Swede should have buried.
In general, Ibrahimovic was poor. He failed to link particularly well with Pogba, was caught offside on a number of occasions and failed to offer much in terms of pressure. All that would have been forgiven had he taken his chance when Pogba produced maybe the best pass of the match, but for the second game running he failed to take his chances.
By most other players’ standards, perhaps neither would be judged so harshly. But these are world class players playing in one of United’s biggest game of the season. Everyone else did their job on the night. Ibrahimovic and – admittedly to a lesser extent – Pogba did not.
Herrera has come into his own under Mourinho and is surely an absolute lock to start every game he is fit to play.
The Spaniard has long been a fan-favourite at Old Trafford and I always scratched my head as to why he was not more favoured under Louis van Gaal.
Herrera is a special combination of good feet, excellent vision and a near-complete passing range mixed with fierce drive and game smarts. He knows how to beat a man, he knows how to draw a foul and when the going gets tough, he loves to get a boot in. One play in the second half encapsulated all of that when he won the ball, drove forward and rode a number of tackles before playing an inspired looped ball over the defence that only came undone through Ibrahimovic’s flat-footedness.
He was far and away United’s best outfielder over the course of the game.
DAVE SAVES, AGAIN
Frankly, I do not watch enough goalkeepers to make a judgement on who is the best in the world, but what I do know is that whenever I watch United it is almost always going to take something exceptional for the other team to score because United has David De Gea in goals.
Even if they can muster up the exceptional, it might not be enough.
Monday night’s effort was a monumental one by the defence, but it would have all counted for nothing had De Gea not pulled off two absolute top-draw saves.
The first, to deny Liverpool’s Emre Can through a forest of legs at close range, was pure reactionary brilliance and the second, to tip away Philippe Coutinho’s long-range curler, was a first-class example of extraordinary athleticism.
The man is an absolute superstar.
CONSERVATIVE OR REALISTIC?
Much of the post-match discussion predictably centred on Mourinho’s tactics.
The consensus at large is that United played for the draw, but that seems a stretch given how well United started the game and pushed numbers forward in search of a goal.
When Liverpool applied pressure and enjoyed dominance, United reacted accordingly and played to their defensive structures exceptionally well against a team who has on more than one occasion in the Premier League scored four or more goals already this season.
What is wrong with that? Mourinho was obviously satisfied with a point, as most visiting managers to Anfield would be given Liverpool’s recent form, but is that exclusively what he set out to achieve? Hardly.
United has a right to defend their goal. It is not “defensive” or “conservative” to defend when you are under pressure. The discussion surrounding the game almost makes it sound like a crime, as if Mourinho should have told his players, “Lads, Liverpool have played pretty well, they’ve had a lot of the ball but they’ve struggled to break you down, let’s do the right thing and let them score a goal”.
As Mourinho correctly points out, if Liverpool could only muster two shots on target with all their possession and supposedly superior football, then the finger cannot only be pointed at United.
What’s more, had United themselves proven clinical, Liverpool would have been left empty-handed. Imagine the whinging that would have happened then!