Liverpool extended their lead at the top of the Premier League with a scruffy point at Old Trafford against relegation-threatened Manchester United.
The point means Liverpool fall one game short of equalling Manchester City’s record of 18 consecutive top-flight wins but Klopp will feel more relieved than disappointed to draw the game after Liverpool’s now traditionally poor performance at Old Trafford.
But with Manchester United a pale imitation of an elite rival, Klopp will view this as two dropped points in the title race.
The game was high on tension and narrative but low on quality and the only real edge came from United’s robust approach rather than any technical quality.
Liverpool were slow out of the blocks and their Champions League-winning midfield three of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Fabinho struggled to cope with the hustle and bustle of Fred, Pereira and McTominay and with Mo Salah missing, Liverpool struggled to impose themselves.
The hosts went ahead in the 36th minute as England’s biggest rivalry got its first introduction to VAR. A challenge by Victor Lindelof on Divock Origi led to a rapid counter-attack that saw Daniel James whip in for Marcus Rashford who guided home from close range to send a raucous Old Trafford into raptures.
The VAR check on Lindelof’s challenge viewed his kick on Origi as not a clear and obvious error and laughably the goal stood.
On the stroke of half time, Mane looked to have equalised but VAR correctly spotted a handball in the build-up.
From there Solskjaer’s side huffed and puffed and harried and wasted a few half chances on the counter-attack but one-nil looked the most likely result. However with five minutes to go a scuffed Andy Robertson cross evaded everyone allowing substitute Adam Lallana to equalise.
The draw sees Liverpool maintain an unbeaten start to the season and move six points clear at the top, ahead of Manchester City who visit Anfield in three weeks time.
United move up to thirteenth and two points clear of the relegation zone and travel to Norwich next Sunday.
Small-time Solskjaer prolongs his exit
The Manchester United manager deserves immense credit for his tactics on Sunday. His five at the back and three midfielders worked tirelessly and smothered what little attacks Liverpool mustered.
His tactic of splitting Rashford and James as wide forwards worked well and resulted in the opening goal when Van Dijk was left in no man’s land and Rashford slammed in with Matip and Allison helpless.
But what is of concern is the nature of Solskjaer’s tactics when he gets it right. His best tactical days have been on days when his team are the underdog and he can play on the counter-attack and imbue some mythical atmosphere in the way that only legendary players can.
However, these tactics are often worthless against “smaller” teams and when his team goes in the lead. Sunday was the fifth time this season they have scored the first goal and on four of those occasions, they have conceded an equaliser and drawn 1-1. They have now lost the joint-most points from winning positions this season and the second-most since Solskjaer took charge.
The Norwegian will always have the crowd on his side after his playing exploits but then so would Roy Keane and Clive Tyldsley reciting his commentary and it can only be a matter of time before Solskjaer’s small-time, reactive nostalgia act comes to an end.
VAR – what’s the point?
What does VAR stand for? Vaguely Agreeable Refereeing? Verify Already made Refereeing? What are we actually doing with it in our game? Once again this season VAR provided more questions than answers. Rashford’s opener saw a clear foul in the build-up go unpunished as the VAR refused to overrule its onfield colleague.
Mane then saw a goal rightly disallowed for handball. Why is VAR happy to call handballs and 1mm offsides a clear and obvious error but not a Lindelof kick to the back of a striker’s leg?
It’s not enough to just complain about VAR so here are some options to improve it:
A) give the onfield referee access to a screen so they can overturn their own decision.
B) make VAR referees a level above the onfield ones and not peers or inferiors.
C) introduce an equivalent of “umpires call” in cricket or “ruling on the field stands as called” in NFL to allow marginal decisions i.e. Sterling offside against West Ham, Laporte handball against Spurs to stand.
D) lower the bar of clear and obvious and let the VAR referee a decision as it appears regardless of what the onfield referee gives.
Otherwise, VAR is a pointless addition to the Premier League, reminiscent of a Conservative backbencher blindly agreeing with Boris Johnson despite knowing he’s wrong. What has that led to? Chaos, stasis, and a lack of improvement.
Rashford at nine will have to do
Solskjaer and Woodward appear to have backed themselves into an awkward corner with United’s central striker. With Lukaku and Sanchez being allowed to leave Rashford is struggling under the weight of pressure of being a number 9.
Rashford’s goal record is hard to judge given his spells as a wide forward and his age but he still looks short of the skill set to play at the top level in the striker position.
Sunday was no different despite his fine goal with most of his best work coming in wide areas. The fitness of Anthony Martial may mean Rashford plays wide left in a fluid attack but otherwise United look short.
It seems disingenuous of Solskjaer to claim there was no one out there United could buy in the summer given the relatively cheap transfers of Felix and Jovic. Even more bizarre is supposed links to Mandzukic or Callum Wilson. Solskjaer and Woodward seem to be in a position where they’ll only buy Kane or Neymar or leave the attacking options as they are.
Given the lack of clarity on the clubs finances we could be in a position where Solskjaer is repeating Ferguson’s “no value in the market” lie (at a time when Ozil, Benzema, David Silva, Aguero all moved for about £30 million whilst the Glazers bought Bebe, Valencia and Obertan) to cover the clubs hierarchy.
Either way, a supposedly elite club is only as good as its strikers and Martial and Rashford have a combined 67 goals in 237 league games. Top 4 quality? You do the maths.
Lallana a welcome return
It seems churlish to criticise a team who have lost once in 48 league games and are Champions of Europe but given the standards they and Manchester City set, a small evaluation of their weaknesses is required after Sunday.
The summer saw no major transfers and with a first team that is so settled and strong that any tweak to it seems a downgrade, Liverpool’s squad players often seem a weak link especially compared to Manchester City.
With that in mind, the goalscoring return of Adam Lallana could be vital to Klopp. Origi aside, Liverpool appear to have no forward options to call on – unless Shaqiri is found safe and well – and Lallana and Oxlade Chamberlain could help in two ways.
One they could replace any of the front six in lesser games and more importantly provide Klopp an option in midfield and attack off the bench. Both Lallana and Chamberlain have a spark and a drop of flair that the superb but mundane midfield three of Wijnaldum, Henderson and Fabinho lack.
Klopp’s saltiness shows as Liverpool freeze
It would be unfair to call Liverpool’s performance a bottle job but Klopp must have been bemused at just how poor Liverpool played. Passes went astray, tackles were lost and some of the crossing was from so deep they may as well have been from the bottom of Salford Quays.
Much like in famous wins in 2004 to end Arsenal’s 49-match unbeaten run and in 2005 to end Chelsea’s 40 match unbeaten run, Old Trafford was a bear pit and United dragged the game into the gutter. Liverpool will take some consolation they stole a point, but otherwise, Klopp’s men were poor.
That translated as it often does into peak Klopp saltiness whose larger than life charisma and erudite opinions on none football matters masks one part of his character; he’s as bad a loser as Mourinho. Klopp spent most of the match berating the fourth official and his post-match comments deriding the defensive tactics and aggressive nature of United’s play could have been said by Arsenal Wenger at his peak.
Liverpool have had a lightning start in terms of results but performances have been average at best and one wonders if Klopp has a niggling suspicion that Liverpool’s lead over City has already been at its peak for the 2019/20 campaign.