Of course it was nil-nil. Liverpool got here to Anfield for probably the most spiteful, razor-edged derby in elite-level English soccer having scored of their final 42 Premier League dwelling video games. They took to the sector with no single specialist central defender in opposition to a free-scoring Manchester United. The week had been shot via with hopeful speak of title fees, Judgment Days and the same old last countdown waffle.
At which level, welcome to the extra mannered world of Covid-era soccer, a stage present that’s required to generate its personal pulse and the place gamers are requested to alchemise from the empty air the form of warmth and hearth that tends to make the distinction in a sport like this.
So after all it was 0-0, similar to United versus Chelsea, United versus Metropolis and Chelsea versus Tottenham earlier than it. It seems these have been actual ghost-game casualties of this unusual season, collisions between top-of-the-table groups that appear just a bit extra cautious, a little bit extra managed with out the added derangement of voices and shared life from the stands.
There was additionally a little bit extra to this than simply warning. United will see a degree gained and one other little ratchet up in direction of no matter this crew’s final stage would possibly develop into. For Liverpool there can be satisfaction too as Jürgen Klopp fielded a defensive rump of midfielders stacked upon midfielders, with Jordan Henderson and Fabinho each having nice video games within the Virgil van Dijk-shaped area between the full-backs.
There’s, although, one thing off with Liverpool. The signs are clear sufficient. A 0-Zero draw right here made it three league video games with no objective. And this isn’t the identical Liverpool proper now, not the identical champion crew that was capable of dash via these video games, strangling its opponents in midfield, pulling aside the stitching on the flanks, each collision, each surge of passing a weakening of their opponents’ will.
It could, although, be mistaken to put the blame on a scarcity of edge in assault, even when Mohamed Salah particularly appeared a little bit cobwebbed, and Roberto Firmino was at his most frustratingly ponderous simply when one thing ruthless was required.
It has taken some time for the consequences of Liverpool’s defensive disaster to filter via this crew. However they had been current right here in a form of cascade from again to entrance. This was trigger and impact in a really apparent straight line. Take out the defence and substitute it with the midfield. Take out the midfield and substitute it with one other fashion of play altogether, a completely completely different set of rhythms.
The oblique sufferer of all this flux is the entrance line. Klopp has typically spoken about the best way his hard-pressing midfield is in impact a artistic pressure, with its skill to steal the ball, to suffocate an opponent in harmful areas.
With out that strain the ahead line is required to play a distinct method, introduced with opponents in additional settled positions, not gasping for breath. By the identical course of the full-backs, the crew’s most artistic pressure, have much less area, much less cowl, much less licence to maintain on surging into harmful areas.
A lot has been made from Van Dijk’s affect, the best way one comparatively orthodox however vastly assured centre-back could make the remainder of this crew work. Nicely, right here it was, written in fidgety, brittle passages of attacking play, in possibilities virtually made, in a match the place issues saved on virtually occurring.
For the opening half-hour Thiago Alcântara gave the impression to be operating this sport. His begin in English soccer has been so bitty it’s straightforward to overlook fairly how good he’s. Which is, to be clear, excellent. That is, lest we overlook, Pep Guardiola’s one-man buying checklist at Bayern, an aristo of the fashionable possession sport for whom a house debut at Anfield is just one other episode in his deep, loving and really private relationship with the ball.
For some time in that first half Thiago was so good that United’s personal free man, Bruno Fernandes, went and stood subsequent to him to close down his area. And Fernandes was disappointing at first, finishing simply three passes within the opening 22 minutes.
Alongside him Paul Pogba was put in in one other new and thrilling position as a meandering right-winger. He did his finest on the market, however more often than not Pogba-as-right-winger appeared like a throwback to a kind of pre-substitute video games the place some sport however dazed centre-half finally ends up wandering about on the flank, head swathed in brown paper and Vaseline, simply attempting to make a nuisance of himself.
For some time within the second half Fernandes started to return into the sport on the left. Lastly United had been urgent their thumb into these tender spots within the centre of this makeshift Liverpool crew, weaknesses Thiago’s mastery of possession had disguised.
They had been let down by Marcus Rashford’s poor displaying as a centre-forward. Within the first half Rashford touched the ball eight instances and solely ever actually gave the impression to be concerned in that bizarre lifeless time spent ready for the elevating of the offside flag.
Liverpool did press with some conviction at instances. Possibilities had been missed. Firmino repeatedly clogged the ultimate level of assault with a heavy contact or a poor go. However this felt like what it was, a Liverpool crew studying to play one other method on the hoof, and configured into completely different shapes. The targets will return for the league’s prime scorers. However the supply of that present mini-drought is, almost certainly, one thing deeper.