In the wake of Manchester United’s 0-0 stalemate against Liverpool, Adam Walton unpacks the style of play that has seen the Red Devils blow nobody away with thrilling football, but slowly become contenders for the Premier League title.
The pre-match punditry for Sunday’s clash between Liverpool and Manchester United was littered with mentions of Shankly, Ferguson, Robson, Torres, Rooney, Gerrard and the like. For the first time in years, these two Northern rivals were meeting with both teams at the pointy end of the Premier League table.
The much maligned Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has brought the team from Manchester three points clear of Liverpool, leaving last season’s darling Jurgen Klopp often looking like a grumpy dad on the side-lines of his child’s under-12 game. Mouths were watering, pulses racing and fake crowd noise was pumping. Of course, it ended 0-0.
The gem wasn’t totally painful to watch, with Liverpool’s midfield retaining the ball nicely, and United forcing two crucial saves from Allison. However, a classic it certainly was not. Having not lived up to the considerable hype, what lessons can be learnt about both teams’ title prospects?
Firstly, Liverpool are struggling. The swashbuckling team that conquered all last season are gone. Surprisingly, for a team that started with no recognised centre-backs, their problems actually fall in the goal scoring department. With the previously electric Diogo Jota out injured in recent months, there seems to be a lack of killer instinct from Klopp’s team. Roberto Firmino has never been prolific, which is now a problem with fellow forwards Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah only managing one league goal between them in the last four league games.
The source of this collective goal drought can be traced to Liverpool’s style of play. Klopp’s tactics are famously energy sapping, with their forwards having to press the opposition defenders relentlessly, leading to chances being created when their opponents aren’t defensively set. However, the fixture congestion has meant less rest, and a noticeable decline in the effectiveness of Liverpool’s attacking play. With the Champions League starting again in February, and no sign of January reinforcements, retaining the league appears to be only getting harder for Liverpool.
In a case of cruel football irony, the reason Liverpool are struggling appears to be the reason Manchester United are exceeding expectations. United under Solsjkaer, have never pressed with any great conviction. Instead the Norwegian’s reign has been characterised by the opposite; sit deep, break down opposition play and counter with the speed of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. It’s no surprise this style is in vogue around Europe, with fellow title contenders Leicester and Spurs adopting similar principles. These tactics have seen Solsjkaer, who consistently seems to be one game away from being fired, repeatedly save his job with landmark results against direct rivals. Man City were on the end of it twice last season, and Liverpool nearly were on Sunday.
Top six opposition has never been the problem for Solskjaer. Instead, it’s when United are forced to breakdown weaker opposition that the Red Devils have appeared toothless. However, with the effervescent Bruno Fernandes, United have suffered this fate less regularly. They have also won ugly games this season, notably against Wolves and Burnley. Of course, it helps when United seem to get two penalties every half. It looks as though Solskjaer’s team has an answer to the majority of problems this unpredictable and hectic season is throwing up.
As it stands, Man City are favourites to win. They have the squad depth, Guardiola has taught John Stones how to defend again, and Kevin de Bruyne looks like the angriest red head since Ron Weasley thought Harry was making eyes at Hermione. However, with Liverpool flailing, United have their best chance to win the league since 2013, and Leicester have shown that if rivals aren’t at their best, an unexpected team can nab the title. The next Manchester derby now looks crucial. Saying that, it’ll probably end 0-0.