You would never choose a derby at Anfield as the ideal opening fixture after an international break. A difficult opener to a tough month for United. In recent years this game has been a rather drab affair, with only a few goals to separate the two sides. So it proved again, a fairly dull 0-0 draw playing out in front of a quiet crowd.
United named a solid, rather than expansive, starting eleven. Bailly and Fellaini who were injured on international duty were replaced by Smalling and Herrera. Young was chosen on the right wing ahead of Mata and Martial was preferred to Rashford on the left. Liverpool replaced Mane with Coutinho on the left, preferring a midfield three of Henderson, Can and Wijnaldum.
The game fell into the pattern that was predicted before kick-off. United allowed Liverpool to keep the ball, while the Reds themselves remained compact and looked to break. Liverpool had the early opportunities, Wijnaldum having a tame effort saved and Valencia halting Coutinho with a solid tackle.
United were sat rather deep, but this was not the same as last year’s fixture when they had a back six on the edge of the area. Matic and Herrera were attempting to press and Young and Martial attempted to stay forward as much as possible. But United couldn’t trigger any counter-attacks, they were generally sloppy on the ball and without Pogba, were limited in their vision from deep.
United’s first shot came from a Matic attempt outside the area, which curled harmlessly wide. In the first half, he and Herrera struggled to win the midfield battle. They were outnumbered and both Salah and Wijnaldum beat them easily when dribbling through the middle. When they did get hold of the ball and play it forward, Lukaku was a poor target man, often failing to hold the ball up and never going past anyone.
After half an hour of a pretty uneventful game, the crowd had gone quiet, to the point where you could hear individuals shouting from the crowd. However, United were unable to capitalise on this nervousness and had De Gea to thank after he made another wonder save. A Liverpool corner was cleared but then played back into Firmino on United’s right, kept onside by a lethargic Lukaku. The Brazilian stood up Matic before drilling the ball into the six-yard box. Matip diverted it at goal, only for De Gea to throw out a foot and block the ball. It was an amazing reaction save. The Spaniard must now be regarded as the best keeper on the planet.
Lukaku had a frustrating first half and he lost his temper just after half an hour. Failing to hold the ball up again on the left-hand side, he took out his frustration by chipping Gomez into the air. He was lucky to escape a booking, the ref hesitant to unleash the first yellow card.
On the eve of half-time, United had their best chance of the game. Martial played a one-two with Lukaku and released the striker a yard ahead of the Liverpool defence. The Belgian snapped at his shot, hitting it with power straight at Mignolet, rather than slipping it either side of his international compatriot. A cool head was needed to slot it home. In a game with so few chances, big ones need to be converted. This was Lukaku’s first and last chance of the game.
Right before the whistle, Lukaku may have attempted to kick Lovren in the head after he got his legs wrapped around the defender. He definitely looked down when swinging his foot away. Whether or not he tried to make contact or even if there was contact at all is unclear.
Liverpool started the second half with urgency, having a few half chances that didn’t cause De Gea any trouble. United started very slowly, unable to keep the ball at all and struggling to contain a lively Coutinho. Ten minutes in, Smalling and Herrera tackled each other, signifying how poorly the Reds had started the half. Seconds later, Gomez clipped the ball over the United defence onto the six-yard line, where Emre Can volleyed over. The German was completely unmarked but looked as if he was unable to decide whether to use his head or his foot.
The atmosphere was quiet again on the hour, but the crowd leapt up when Herrera might have given a penalty away with clumsy footwork. Coutinho got in front of him on the edge of the box where he was lightly clipped by the Spaniard. A penalty would have been a harsh decision, but try telling that to Jurgen Klopp.
It was starting to feel like a matter of time until a Liverpool goal. Mourinho tried to change the game by bringing Rashford and Lingard on for the anonymous Mkhitaryan and poor Martial. But the player he was missing the most was Paul Pogba. Neither Matic nor Herrera were able to get the ball forward with any purpose or carve open the Liverpool defence. United need the Frenchman back as soon as possible.
In the last twenty minutes, there were basically no real attempts on goal. Klopp took off Coutinho and Salah, both of Liverpool’s brightest players, bringing on Sturridge and Oxlaide-Chamberlain. Oxlaide-Chamberlain ran at Darmian a few times, who by this point of the game was out on his feet, but Liverpool were unable to create any meaningful attempts. In added time, Liverpool had two headers from a corner, one from Lovren and one from Matip. Neither were on target, on both occasions the United defenders did enough to put them off.
This Liverpool team have probably got to hope for 5th/6th/7th at best, based on this display. Despite United sitting back the whole game, they only created one proper chance. United really could have tried to push on in the second half but decided instead to play out for the draw. This was tactical, definitely, but the individual performances were also below par. None of the players looked like they were able to be match winners on the day. Maybe that was a hangover from the international break, maybe that’s because it’s hard to switch from compact defence to fluid attack? Some fans will be furious that in a game against a weak Liverpool side, United didn’t put them away. That’s not what you get with Mourinho, sadly. You get drab games away at rivals, as we have seen over the past two seasons.
The paucity of chances means that this 0-0 was arguably a fair result, although Liverpool might argue they deserved to sneak it with that Matip chance. Mourinho will be happy to avoid defeat, some fans will be upset United never really looked like winning it. But without Pogba and immediately after an international break, a 0-0 draw away at Liverpool is not that bad a result. Let’s just hope that statement is still true come May.