So close. So, so close. Manchester United came within five minutes of pulling off their best result since Paris in March. Had they done so, Ole Gunnar Solskjær would have been hailed for his tactical genius, for the boldness of the changes that forced Liverpool into their worst performance of the season, for the vision that found a plan from the most unpromising pieces. But results are the great validifiers, and the draw leaves United two points above the relegation zone. As Solskjær observed last week in what must have been for him a moment of devastating self-realisation, it’s not the 1990s any more.
Perhaps this will prove a springboard. Perhaps this was the performance that will remind United what they can be. Perhaps (and this may be more important to United fans in the short term) this will sow doubts at Liverpool and interrupt their title challenge. But the sense was that Adam Lalllana’s late equaliser changed everything. That it will persuade Liverpool that they can still pull out results when everything is going against them, and that it will confirm to United – board, fans and players – that stagnation is now their state.
Even the identity of the goalscorer seemed to be making a point: Lallana, a player who has been blighted by injury, scoring his first goal since May 2017. Sometime the fates really have it in for you: Mohamed Salah is injured; you’ve blunted Sadio Mané; you’ve kept Roberto Firmino quiet; you’ve seen off Divock Origi; and you end up being the patsy to a heartwarming comeback story. In the 90s it was United who played with the force of fairytale narrative behind them.
Solskjær got much right. The switch to a back three allowed the wing-backs, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ashley Young to push higher and engage Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson early. The Liverpool pair contributed 23 assists between them last season and had added a further two each this. But here they ended up hitting a string of crosses from deeper positions from where they are easier to defend, particularly when you have three central defenders in the box waiting for them. The result was that the cross accuracy of Liverpool’s full-backs was 17.6 %, having been at 27.6% over the first eight games of the season.
But the leveller, of course, for this really was not Solskjær’s day, stemmed from a mis-hit cross from Robertson on the left, on one of the few occasions he had got into a dangerous position high on that flank.
The back three also allowed Solskjær to sit two holding midfielders deep, in just the area where Firmino likes to drop. At the same time, that trapezium of five defensive players packed into a central block – the same structure that was so effective for Antonio Conte’s Chelsea – was hard for Liverpool’s midfield to penetrate, one of the reasons why their passing was so wayward. Again and again they seemed to choose the wrong option, at least in part because the usual option wasn’t available.
For the front three, Solskjær then turned to the disposition he had successfully employed at Tottenham last season with the two centre-forwards split and Andreas Pereira operating as Jesse Lingard had then as a false nine.
That Marcus Rashford and Daniel James are both used to operating wide helped, and Liverpool struggled to cope as the space behind those attacking full-backs was targeted. If they went forward as usual, there was a major risk of the two central defenders becoming stretched. That in turn placed huge pressure on Fabinho to sit deep and cover Pereira as he sought to exploit any gap that might appear between Virgil van Dijk and Joël Matip. On a handful of occasions in the first half he nearly did; overall Pereira had an excellent game but had his final ball been better on a couple of key occasions United might have been further ahead by the break.
Jürgen Klopp, to his credit, countered, first with a switch to 4-2-3-1 and then 4-4-2, which both meant Gini Wijnaldum dropping deeper to support Fabinho, and additional players wide to try to take the game to United’s wing-backs. The balance of the game tipped Liverpool’s way, without them creating hatfuls of chances, to which Solskjær responded by dropping Pereira deeper and trying to overman in central midfield. Doing so, though, pulled the two centre-forwards narrower, liberating the full-backs – which in the end, however fortuitously given Robertson scuffed his cross, brought the equaliser.
Solskjær, for all his innovation, was undone by the fact that, fundamentally, Liverpool have better players. It has perhaps been forgotten that in the early part of his reign, the win over Tottenham at Wembley and in Paris especially, he seemed to be living up to Alex Ferguson’s glowing assessment of his tactical abilities. Whether the Norwegian has the drive, the charisma and the organisational capacity to oversee the rebuilding of the club is another matter.
Perhaps the most telling detail was that, even if United had held on to win, they would have done so with the second lowest possession figure United had ever recorded at Old Trafford. It really isn’t the 90s any more.