There has been a pattern of ‘Big Six’ match-ups in the Premier League not living up to expectations this season, and Manchester United’s visit to Anfield to take on Liverpool continued that disappointing trend.
Billed as the biggest clash in the title race to date, neither side displayed anything like the cutting edge required to break the deadlock, leaving Manchester City as perhaps the only winners from the 0-0 draw on Merseyside.
That said, with United having retained their three-point gap over their rivals from down the M62 following this stalemate, there should still be a feeling at Old Trafford that winning their 21st league title is not beyond them this term.
Though the visitors’ overall performance will hardly have left the likes of City quaking in their boots, they came as close as anyone to finally ending Liverpool’s almost four-year unbeaten league run in front of the Kop.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insisted pre-match that a win for United would still have been a “shock” despite the form of the respective sides, and after weathering an early storm they almost came away celebrating what would have been the perfect away performance.
That they were not came down to poor finishing from two players who have been key in establishing United as the team to catch at the top of the table in recent weeks.
Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba were both denied by Alisson Becker in the Liverpool goal in the second half, and though the Brazil ‘keeper did well to keep out both efforts, there is no question that the United midfield duo should have done better
Fernandes’ close-range miss capped one of the Portugal international’s worst displays in a United shirt, as he at first struggled to get into the game before being wasteful in possession once he and United managed to get a foothold.
He cut a frustrated figure long before he was seen remonstrating with the sideline as he was substituted late on, but in truth United’s perennial match-winner over the past 12 months could have had few complaints over being withdrawn.
Pogba, meanwhile, started on the right-hand side of United’s front three, but only really looked comfortable once Solskjaer moved him back into the centre after around half-an-hour.
Having scored the winner against Burnley in midweek, the France international almost made it a few days to remember when latching onto Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s pass inside the final 10 minutes, only to shoot straight at Alisson when an angled drive would have likely sufficed.
Though Fernandes and Pogba missed the crucial chances, they were not alone in putting in under-par performances, with Marcus Rashford finding himself almost permanently offside during the first half while Anthony Martial was largely anonymous before being replaced by Edinson Cavani after an hour.
With Fabinho and Jordan Henderson again making up a makeshift central defence for Jurgen Klopp’s side and with no Anfield crowd to roar them on, this was a Liverpool team that was there for the taking by the end as the defensive performances of Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and particularly Luke Shaw ensured the hosts’ own struggles in the final third continued.
“It just shows at least we’ve come quite a bit from when we were here last time,” Solskjaer said post-match of his side’s display. “We’re a bit disappointed with the performance as well not just the result, because you have to really turn up.”
That United leave here feeling as if they did enough to move six points clear of their old rivals is testament to the progress they are making under Solskjaer, but that will not limit the disappointment, particularly if the title race remains as tight as it is right now.
They remain winless against ‘Big Six’ sides this season, and if United are really going to prove that they have what it takes to be champions they will likely need to win all of those reverse fixtures.
That will be no easy ask, and will start with their trip to Arsenal at the end of January following league games against two of the current bottom three and their FA Cup reunion with Liverpool in seven days’ time.
Those watching on at home will hope that what is produced this coming Sunday is an improvement on what they saw here.
Certainly if United’s attacking stars can step up, a domestic double would suddenly be a realistic ambition for Solskjaer and his team.