Not for the first time, Jose Mourinho emerged from Anfield having seen his tactical blueprint work to the letter, but on this occasion he had to thank goalkeeper David de Gea for administering another dose of frustration for Liverpool.
It was cagey, rarely exciting, and wholly lacking in controversy – much to the relief of referee Anthony Taylor – but a point at Anfield is always a valuable currency for any visiting team and with Chelsea to come at the weekend and a League Cup tie against Manchester City next midweek, Manchester United will regard this as a point gained.
Liverpool, so adventurous so this season, failed to turn up at the party, but two second-half saves by De Gea from Emre Can and Philippe Coutinho, plus a crucial goal-saving tackle by Antonio Valencia on Roberto Firmino, ultimately denied them a victory they would barely have deserved.
Facing the prospect of falling five points adrift of the top four with a defeat against United’s greatest rivals, the stakes seemed so much higher for Mourinho than Jurgen Klopp ahead of the game.
Liverpool’s more eye-catching start to the season, their impressive victories at Arsenal and Chelsea, and Klopp’s record of having lost just once in five previous encounters with Mourinho suggested that Anfield was the last place United would be kick-starting their season.
They may have won their last four league encounters with the old enemy from the other end of the M62, but the timid surrender on this ground in the Europa League last season was the performance that had set alarm bells ringing in the ears of the United supporters.
Even Gary Neville, the former United captain, had admitted to being ‘frightened’ of what lay ahead at Anfield prior to the game.
So with Mourinho starting without Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney, at the same time as handing Ashley Young his first league start since United’s 1-0 win here on January 17, United’s game-plan appeared to be one of containment.
But the former Chelsea manager went the other way, setting out his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with £89m world record signing Paul Pogba in an attacking role behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
United were anything but set up to contain, with the visitors taking the game to Liverpool from the kick-off.
Anfield was screaming for the home team to take the game to United, but Mourinho’s blue shirts were first to every ball and Daniel Sturridge, making his 100th appearance for Liverpool, cut an isolated figure as he watched in frustration from his lone forward role at the other end.
Mourinho, dressed all in black like the pantomime villain, applauded and encouraged from the technical area, but his players were unable to make their early dominance count.
Liverpool vs Manchester United player ratings
Liverpool vs Manchester United player ratings
1/22 Loris Karius – 4 out of 10
Didn’t have too much to do but looked nervous when the crosses did come in and his loose pass nearly gave United the lead.
2/22 Nathaniel Clyne – 5 out of 10
Couldn’t attack anywhere near as much as he normally likes to and was restricted in what he could contribute.
3/22 Joel Matip – 7 out of 10
Had a good battle with Ibrahimovic throughout and probably got the better of the big Swede.
4/22 Dejan Lovren – 7 out of 10
Like Matip, did well to keep Ibrahimovic quiet and read the play well.
5/22 James Milner – 7 out of 10
Could have had a tough night against Rashford but continued his impressive run at left back.
6/22 Jordan Henderson – 5 out of 10
Struggled to get his foot on the ball as he lost the midfield battle to United’s pairing.
7/22 Emre Can – 5 out of 10
Much of the play passed him by as it seems he is still lacking match fitness on his first Premier League start of the season.
8/22 Sadio Mane – 6 out of 10
Continued to drop deep in hope of making something happen and was probably the liveliest of Liverpool’s attacking players.
9/22 Philippe Coutinho – 5 out of 10Philippe Coutinho – 5 out of 10
Looked out of sorts and made uncharacteristic errors with his forward passing and crossing.
10/22 Roberto Firmino – 5 out of 10
Similar to Coutinho, he also struggled to find any space between the lines to work in.
11/22 Daniel Sturridge – 4 out of 10
Anonymous in the first half and replaced before the hour mark by Lallana. He has now gone 615 minutes without a Premier League goal.
12/22 David De Gea – 8 out of 10
Didn’t put a foot wrong and was needed to pull off two world-class saves from Can and Coutinho.
13/22 Antonio Valencia – 8 out of 10
Continued his fine start to the season and saved the game for United with a stunning last-ditch challenge.
14/22 Chris Smalling – 6 out of 10
Did well to keep Coutinho and co. out but United’s captain for the night was overshadowed by his new centre-back partner.
15/22 Eric Bailly – 7 out of 10
A strong and commanding performance by Bailly as he kept Liverpool’s attacking quartet quiet.
16/22 Daley Blind – 5 out of 10
Could have been found out with his lack of pace but held his own against the Reds’ pacey attacks.
17/22 Marouane Fellaini – 7 out of 10
Helped control the game from midfield and broke up play well alongside Herrera.
18/22 Ander Herrera – 8 out of 10
Was the best outfield player of the game. He was dynamic and won possession well on multiple occasions.
19/22 Paul Pogba – 5 out of 10
Played in a more advanced role but other than a few neat passes he looked frustrated as he struggled to make anything happen.
20/22 Marcus Rashford – 5 out of 10
Didn’t get past Milner as much as he’d have liked but the one time he did he fired in a dangerous cross that Liverpool struggled to deal with.
21/22 Ashley Young – 6 out of 10
Did exactly what he was put into the team for. Crossed well and worked back industriously to keep Clyne quiet.
22/22 Zlatan Ibrahimovic – 4 out of 10
Cut a frustrated figure up front as he struggled to link with his midfielders amid the pressure from Matip and Lovren.
Ibrahimovic had the first opportunity with a sixth minute free-kick, but the Swede only achieved cheers of derision from the Kop with his effort flying high into the stand behind Loris Karius’s goal.
Pogba then sent another long range effort over before the Frenchman, still finding his feet at Old Trafford, sent a Marouane Fellaini shot goalwards with a deflection off his back. Karius caught that one easily, as he did with a deflected Ibrahimovic shot moments later.
Klopp, meanwhile, was going frantic in his technical area – and out of it – with his players repeatedly coming second best.
Emre Can responded with a run upfield, but the German’s shot was as accurate as those from Ibrahimovic and Pogba, with the ball once again sailing high into the stand.
It was not until the 30th minute that David de Gea was forced into action, with the United ‘keeper making easy work of plucking Roberto Firmino’s header out of the air.
So much for the week-long hype on Sky Sports ahead of this game. Billed as Red Monday, it was dead Monday as far as the first-half was concerned.
United unquestionably went in happier at the interval. The game may have been edgy and lacking in quality, but Mourinho’s tactics came out on top.
Could Klopp engineer a swing in the opposite direction in the second-half and somehow ignite the high-intensity game that has proved so destructive this season?
At the outset, the answer was no, with the Liverpool manager sticking with the eleven players who had started the game and his lack of action enabled United to maintain their stranglehold on the game.
Pogna and Ibrahimovic continued to chase down Karius and the Liverpool defenders whenever they had the ball and the goalkeeper almost gifted United a goal on 49 minutes when his loose ball was picked up by Pogba, only for the United midfielder to wastefully pass the clearly offside Ibrahimovic.
Five minutes later, Pogba picked out Ibrahimovic with a perfect cross from the right, but on this occasion, it was the centre-forward who fell short, with his header bouncing across the face of the goal when he really should have hit the target.
Liverpool continued to look disjointed and Can summed up their evening when he stumbled into the box, created a scoring chance and scuffed the ball goalwards. De Gea, nonetheless, was forced to produce a crucial full-stretch save to keep it out.
Klopp, however, had seen enough and the hopelessly ineffective Sturridge was replaced with Adam Lallana.
With half an hour left to play, both teams appeared to become consumed by the fear of losing rather than driven on by the fruits of victory.
And it required a stunning save by De Gea from Coutinho to spark the game back into life on 71 minutes.
Nothing looked to be on when the Brazilian picked up the ball 35 yards from goal, but he unleashed a right-foot strike that appeared destined for the top corner until De Gea palmed the shot away with his upper hand.
It was a remarkable save, but Valencia produced an equally crucial intervention on 84 minutes with a perfectly-timed tackle inside the penalty area to take the ball off Firmino’s toes, just as the Liverpool midfielder was set to shoot from six yards.Reuse content