Prior to Manchester United’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday, most involved with the visitors would’ve bitten your hand off upon the offer of a point.
That’s what they’ve got. A share of the spoils has preserved United’s position at the top of the table, means they’ve now gone an entire year without losing away from home in the Premier League, and has kept the confidence high ahead of matches with Fulham and Sheffield United – two of the division’s biggest strugglers. It is, in the big picture, a good result.
But for United fans watching and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, it’s difficult to shake a feeling of disappointment. It could, and perhaps should have been more.
United managed to keep a relatively toothless reigning champion at bay without as much as a scare, and could see that their plan worked given the post-match barbs that came their way from the opposing manager. How dare Manchester United come to Anfield and stifle their opponents’ strengths? How dare they not make it easy for Liverpool to score?
Jurgen Klopp outbursts aside, it was clear that Solskjaer’s team came with intent to win this game – even if the plan was to approach the possibility later in the match. United successfully negotiated the opening 60 minutes or so, but we perhaps saw exactly why this team will not go on to win the Premier League title this season in the closing stages – even as they sit top after 18 games.
Manchester United have not yet built up the belief in themselves to deliver when it matters most. It’s that key quality that sets champions apart from contenders, that makes good players world class.
Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba each spurned decisive opportunities yards away from goal. They were wasteful in key moments and lacked composure when they needed it, and not only in those missed chances either.
Time and again there were opportunities for that game-breaking pass in behind to come off in the middle third of the pitch or higher up. But United rushed themselves at crucial points and went for the kill too quickly or too slowly, rarely at the perfect moment. There were more chances to create outside of the obvious ones that came and went.
Liverpool deserve credit of their own for spotting the danger and stopping United in their tracks, especially when you consider captain Jordan Henderson was chosen at centre back. Alongside him Fabinho – easily forgotten as the nominated replacement for Dejan Lovren at centre half following his sale at the start of the season – particularly shone. It’s perhaps a better point for the hosts in the circumstances.
United, though, have been growing throughout the season, learning along the way, and this game will give them belief that they’re firmly in the midst of a title race with plenty of potential to realise yet.
Their plan all along was being there to capitalise on Liverpool and Manchester City ceasing grip on first and second place after the standards they’ve set in recent seasons, but United are thereabouts perhaps even earlier than they’ve expected.
The current campaign may come too early for them given the recent acceleration of local rivals City in recent weeks, but United are keeping pace and as it stands are in the conversation. The next step is to seize the biggest moments, to not let them pass by.
That’s what happened at Anfield.