This match between two of the game’s biggest rivals possessed more frenzy than finesse as Zlatan Ibrahimovic equalised with less than 10-minutes remaining to deny Liverpool an impressive win.
Jose Mourinho’s side headed into this match on the back of a nine-game winning streak across all competitions while Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool had been stuttering of late compared to their early season/autumn form which saw them sit second before the latest round of fixtures.
For United, Marcos Rojo returned from injury to continue his unexpectedly successful partnership with Phil Jones at the heart of the defence.
Liverpool, meanwhile, had captain Jordan Henderson back in the side following an injury lay-off since the victory at home to Man City on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately for The Reds, Nathaniel Clyne, had to pull out with an abdominal problem which provided 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold with the daunting task of making his first start in the Premier League at arguably the toughest venue for a Liverpool player. The full-back had a couple of nervous moments in an otherwise solid performance.
Liverpool’s initial formation seemed more of a diamond behind Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino. The pressing and industrious efforts of both players was probably what tipped Klopp to choose them ahead of the undeniably talented Daniel Sturridge.
The aim of the diamond was to prevent time and space on the ball for Michael Carrick who has despite being 35-years-old, proven to be a key figure in providing balance and penetration from midfield thanks to his often-immaculate passing.
Adam Lallana – who was regularly at the top of the diamond – along with Firmino would press and harry Carrick as well as his teammates when looking to play the ball from their defensive and middle third.
This led to Carrick completing far fewer passes than during his previous league appearance at Old Trafford during the 3-1 victory over Sunderland. Liverpool’s plan stifled Carrick’s impact so much so that Mourinho replaced the deep-lying playmaker with Scouser Wayne Rooney who needed just one more goal to eclipse Sir Bobby Charlton’s record for Man Utd…not that anyone had mentioned it.
The same combination of Lallana and Firmino almost dispossessed Jones on the edge of his area but fortunately for the former Blackburn defender, his teammate Rojo was on hand to put the ball out for a corner.
That subsequent corner led to Paul Pogba – who had his attempted takeover of Twitter frequently plasted on the advertising hoardings around the pitch – giving away a penalty. The big summer signing was regularly obstructed from marking Dejan Lovren during the first several set-pieces and this one saw his desperate attempt at compensating some lost ground result in a clear handball.
The nerveless James Milner converted for his sixth goal (penalty) of the season to give Liverpool the lead on 27-minutes.
Whilst Man Utd created a couple of good chances for Pogba and Henrik Mkhitaryan either side of the goal, Liverpool were always looking to exploit their opponents on the break.
Origi – who did the dirty work but failed to provide a big enough threat in attack or retain possession well enough – was often drifting to the left hoping to capitalise on the space vacated by the marauding Antonio Valencia.
It nearly paid off when the Belgian forward got goal side of Rojo but was unable to create a clear shooting opportunity as the home side’s defence tracked back. A more experienced player may have gone down under the challenge from Rojo, potentially earning the Argentinian a red card as he tangled with Origi.
The half-time change of Rooney for Carrick saw Mourinho adopt more of a 4-2-3-1 formation and this led to further opportunities on the break for Liverpool. But those only truly began to materialise when Coutinho replaced Origi on the hour-mark as the Brazilian provided a composure on the ball that his teammates had been lacking during the opening period of the second-half.
Keen to maintain his side’s unbeaten run and avoid falling further behind Liverpool, Mourinho introduced Marouane Fellaini which naturally saw an additional target to Ibrahimovic for the long, direct balls.
Prior to Fellaini’s introduction, the Red Devils averaged 0.7 attempted long passes per minute. But from the 76th minute onwards, that increased to 1.07 with a lower percentage success rate.
In terms of crosses, pre-Fellaini saw 0.24 attempts (1/18) compared to 0.71 (the graphic doesn’t include Valencia’s assist for Ibrahimovic’s equaliser) post-Fellaini. They were also far more successful with those crosses at a 40% rate compared to 5.6% during the first 76-minutes. Three of those crosses were in build up to the goal as Fellaini’s header clipped the post before Valencia crossed the loose ball for Ibrahimovic’s improvised header.
It’s frowned upon by the purists but it’s clearly an asset and option for Mourinho to utilise should his team need to put further pressure on their opponents during the latter periods of a game. In this case, the pragmatism often associated with the confident Portuguese manager once again paid off.
While it wouldn’t have been hard, this fixture provided more entertainment than the corresponding tie as the graphics show. Six more attempts on goal, three more on target and three times as many corners.
What’s particularly noticeable is the change in approach from Man Utd which would have been expected given their run of form and the fact they were the home side. At Anfield, they only managed 259 passes and 35% possession but at the Theatre of Dreams, that rose to 374 and 55%.
The dour encounter earlier in the season saw 768 passes as United defended deeply in numbers. On Sunday, there were fewer passes (658) as the game was played at a higher pace with more direct approaches from both sides.
Given Liverpool’s form heading into this much-hyped game and the selection issues which included Joel Matip’s unavailability due to ongoing issues with Cameroon and FIFA; this point would have been accepted by most Liverpool fans prior to kick-off. But despite the absentees, they’ll be disappointed not to have come away with a win having led for so long and conceding a late equaliser.
They can at least take solace from the fact they now have 17 games remaining, 10 of which are at home – more than any other top six rival. They’ll be hoping to make the most of that advantage as they look to maintain a title challenge despite Chelsea’s run of 14 wins from their last 15 games, which puts the Blues seven-points clear of Liverpool and 12 ahead of Man Utd.
That will probably see Mourinho’s focus turn more to a top four finish than a title challenge even though they’ve extended their unbeaten run to 16
For both sides this draw will provide positives as Man Utd can compare to the state they were before the previous game against Liverpool while Klopp’s men showed a slightly different side through a dogged and organised performance in defence, led by man of the match Lovren.
In spite of the positives, it’s Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal who would have enjoyed the “Tower of Power’s” (to quote Martin Tyler) equaliser the most.
EPL Results (Gameweek 21):
Tottenham 4-0 West Brom
Burnley 1-0 Southampton
Hull 3-1 Bournemouth
Sunderland 1-3 Stoke
Swansea 0-4 Arsenal
Watford 0-0 Middlesbrough
West Ham 3-0 Crystal Palace
Leicester 0-3 Chelsea
Everton 4-0 Man City
Man Utd 1-1 Liverpool