Football Features

“The streak is over, the title charge continues” – Five things learned as Liverpool rescue draw at Man Utd

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:58, 20 October 2019

In an exciting afternoon of football, Manchester United and Liverpool played out a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.

All the hype before the game led to a surprising display where the Red Devils were the better side and it was the visitors who stole the draw with a late equaliser. What did we learn?

1. Marvellous Marcus Rashford

What a difference an international break makes, eh? Two weeks ago Marcus Rashford looked absolutely exhausted both mentally and physically. He looked shot of confidence and unsure of himself. Then he went away and played in a stable system for England, scored a banger of a goal, and now he’s playing with a whole new energy.

Rashford was in sensational form against Liverpool. His movement was sharp, tearing into channels. His pressing was relentless, hounding the Liverpool defenders. Even his passing was on-point when he can be quite sloppy on occasion. And, of course, he continued his record of doing the business for Man United in big games.

Two years ago a Rashford brace buried Liverpool at Old Trafford, today it was just one goal but the movement on display to pull Joel Matip towards the ball then ghost behind the German to stab home Daniel James’ cross.

A masterpiece of a goal and one that should have been the winner. In fact, Man United were comfortably ahead whilst Rashford was on and it was only when he was replaced by Anthony Martial did their effort and energy-levels drop so much that Liverpool equalised.

Has Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally got Rashford back in the saddle? Man United fans will be praying so.

2. V-A-Blah

When VAR arrived in the Premier League it did so heralded as a new beginning in the world of the domestic top flight. We had seen its effect on both the Champions League and World Cup, so everyone was hoping it would be similarly dominant in the Premier League. But, no.

Instead what the Premier League has is a watered down VAR. The technology is the same, to be sure, but the way it is implemented is vastly different. Whereas referees all over the world use VAR to genuinely analyse and assess potential errors, complete with the dramatic moments when a referee jogs over to look at the monitor, in England VAR is basically just an extra replay. Sometimes there is a quick delay as a decision is checked, but the threshold for overturning the on-pitch referee is so laughably high that LeBron James would struggle to touch it.

Today at Old Trafford this led to a ridiculous decision where, in the build-up to Man United’s first goal, Victor Lindelof clearly fouled Divock Origi – it’s not much of a foul sure, but he definitely clips him – and yet when looking at the decision VAR allows the goal because… well, it’s not really clear. And that’s the absurdity.

Later in the half VAR was used to correctly disallow a Sadio Mané goal for handball, but the touch there was as subtle as the foul on Origi – so not only is VAR being applied in an annoying way but it’s not even being applied consistently in the same match.

VAR is a tool. And like any tool it’s only as good as those using it. And so far the Premier League referees are not using it well.

3. Lallana to the rescue

Adam Lallana’s last competitive goal for Liverpool was in May 2017 against Middlesbrough. He had been well and truly left in the dust as Liverpool became an elite side, although part of that was that he has had a litany of injury troubles keeping him down. Whatever the reason, he fell out of contention as even a first-choice back-up, to the point where Jordan Henderson was advising him to change position in order to get into the team.

However, at Old Trafford desperation forced Klopp to turn to the Englishman and guess what happened? Well, Lallana didn’t play well. He added little in terms of overall play, but when Liverpool needed someone to be Johnny-on-the-spot, he was more than ready to stand tall.

Much in the way that Lallana once rescued Klopp with an injury-time winner to seal a 4-5 win against Norwich, today he pulled out an 85th minute equaliser by superbly ghosting in at the back-post to poke home an equaliser.

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4. A Wild(er) Remix

Liverpool haven’t always been at their best this season but have always found a way to win, often comfortably. Amusingly enough, the side that has given them the most trouble on the domestic front has been Sheffield United. Chris Wilder’s promoted side thoroughly outplayed the Reds but ended up losing 1-0 after a defensive error from their goalkeeper Dean Henderson.

But what was most telling about that game was the way in which, with vastly inferior players, Sheffield United played on a level footing with the European Champions in part thanks to their 3-5-2 formation nullifying one of Liverpool’s great strengths: their full-backs.

With dedicated wing-backs, the Blades could essentially go man-for-man against Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, thus eliminating Liverpool’s chief method of creativity – and that was obviously a match that Solskjaer was watching.

Man United played 3-5-2 today and their wing-backs, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ashley Young were in essence tasked with going man-for-man on the Liverpool full-backs. Now this wasn’t exactly the same as Sheffield United’s system as Man United don’t move the ball with anything like the same level of composure and control (no, seriously), but it was a very potent remix.

By isolating the full-backs, Man United then made it possible to break into space behind them by splitting their strikers wide. That is exactly where their goal came from as James scorched down the Liverpool left and whipped in a beauty of a cross for Rashford, dead centre in the box, to finish superbly.

It was telling that things only broke down when Solskjaer changed the formation to more of a 5-4-1 late in the second half. Obviously the idea was probably to pull deeper and protect the goal but what happened was that by adding wide midfielders, Man United confused the matter of marking the Liverpool full-backs. And so when the ball broke to Robertson late on the left, neither Wan-Bissaka nor Andreas Pereira moved to close the Scot down and he whipped a supreme cross in for Lallana to score.

Had Solskjaer stuck to his Sheffield United-inspired guns then he would have likely walked away with a memorable and historic victory. As is, his pragmatism left him having to make do with a creditable draw.

That may be progress given how poor Man United have been this season, but it is a huge chance missed as Man United dropped yet more points from a winning position (only Southampton have dropped more since Solskjaer took charge). The Norwegian coach needs to have more courage in his convictions.

5. The streak is over, the title charge continues

Liverpool came to Man United looking to set some records, most notably drawing level with Manchester City on 18 consecutive league wins. They also wanted to draw level with Chelsea in terms of winning their first nine Premier League games in a season.

In the end the draw meant that they did neither, and the disappointing nature of their performance may give Klopp pause for thought – especially if others realise that 3-5-2 does wonders to nullify Liverpool’s full-backs.

But ultimately, when Klopp gets back to Melwood, he will realise that Liverpool are now six points clear atop the Premier League. They remain the favourites for the Premier League title, even though as things now stand Manchester City could win all of their remaining games and take the title as they have two games against the Reds to come.

That is highly unlikely, however, and so even though Liverpool will be disappointed that their winning streak is over, their impressive unbeaten run and title charge continues apace.