A funny old game, right down to how the two teams will feel about this curious 1-1 draw. Manchester United got the kind of performance and the result that has been beyond them lately, but it will feel that bit more like a defeat. Liverpool lost their 100 per cent record, and had their lead cut to six points in a mostly underwhelming display, but the manner of it will feel more like a win.
Jurgen Klopp’s side couldn’t ensure 17 wins became a joint-record 18, but belief remains that 18 titles will finally become 19. That the German secured the point through the inspired late substitution of Adam Lallana will only add to that, despite the winning run ending.
United should have their belief bolstered, mind, by some numbers and inspiration of their own: not least Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 3-5-2 formation. It worked well for a lot of the game, and this was one way it was all so funny.
At a time when absolutely everything has been going wrong for United, this was a game were most went right, down to the majority of the decisions – especially those involving VAR for two key moments.
They can take solace, even if they didn’t take the three points that looked likely for so long. Liverpool meanwhile take what could be a key point.
For all that, it wasn’t the most satisfying match for anyone else.
It was yet another tense and scrappy game between these two sides, in a way that really did influence the final result, although there was logic to Liverpool’s more conservative approach. Repeated performances have proved that the way to beat this more reactive United is to cede the initiative, but you still need physical application to make it work.
This was what was so curious about Liverpool’s initial display, and what makes this sport so unpredictable.
They were just so meek in the first half, against a United that had been so limping. There was a tepidity. It could be seen in Roberto Firmino’s soft finish when put through by Sadio Mane, or a tame effort from Georginio Wijnaldum. Worse, it was actually when they finally started to pick it up that they got picked off for the opening goal.
This wasn’t all down to Liverpool of course. United did a fine job at pegging them back, particularly at full-back. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say Solskjaer has become the first coach to really offer a workable solution to the problem posed by Klopp’s wide defenders.
Greatly enhancing that, of course, was the increasingly rare defensive quality of Aaron Wan-Bissaka. He is a rock in a challenge, and didn’t let Andy Robertson move too much.
It remains to be seen whether this 3-5-2 is a long-term viability – a little like Antonio Conte during the 2016-17 season at Chelsea – but it worked for this situation. Solskjaer just adapted the team to what he had, and the manner of the opening goal was so fitting in so many ways.
It first of all stemmed from a scrappy challenge, of the type that characterised the contest. VAR eventually judged that Victor Lindelof’s tackle on Divock Origi was not a foul, and instead another moment in the game when United bested Liverpool in a physical challenge, as it instantly produced a goal. Just as fittingly, that came down the right-hand side, and involved those two forwards in the 3-5-2. Dan James scorched Robertson’s flank before crossing brilliantly for Rashford to finish with some improvisation.
Liverpool and Klopp, for their part, were getting increasingly irritated with the number of decisions going against, before the biggest of all went against them.
Mane put the ball past David De Gea but was judged to have taken the ball down with his hand.
It was again tight, but this time undeniably correct.
It was also ironic, as Liverpool weren’t really seizing the occasion with both hands. Old Trafford again seemed to have cowed them. They haven’t really had a good performance here since the 3-0 in 2013-14.
So, Klopp decided to take matters into his own hands, and in a way that was both intuitive and inspired. Where many might have felt Liverpool needed more heavy-artillery physicality, he offered lighter finesse. Lallana was introduced for Jordan Henderson, and made his way into the box for the equaliser.
That in itself was aided by another of the game’s funny little ways. Marcos Rojo was the player introduced for the injured Axel Tuanzebe, and he was the defender who lost Lallana.
It was supplied by another substitute in Naby Keita.
Klopp had made his impact to just about maintain Liverpool’s unbeaten run. Solskjaer had made a bit of a statement.
Neither was entirely happy, but both could see the positive side.