Finally, Manchester United find a result no one saw coming

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United: After the 7-0 at Anfield last season, there was some pride for Erik ten Hag’s side where most expected another capitulation

Richard Jolly
at Anfield
Sunday 17 December 2023 19:02 GMT
United battled to a goalless draw at Liverpool
United battled to a goalless draw at Liverpool (Getty Images)

By the end of the siege of Anfield, Liverpool had amassed 34 shots. And Manchester United – browbeaten, beleaguered, butt-of-the-jokes Manchester United – had become the first team to deny them victory on Merseyside this season. It was the rearguard action that no one saw coming, the day when United, who have spent the season confounding expectations, did so by discovering a spine and some spirit.

They did so with a team that could form the basis of a quiz question in years to come, with the rookies and the randoms, the understudies and the underwhelming, the overpriced and the over the hill. United being United, they still cost over £300m but if it may be hard to name this side in a decade, Erik ten Hag scarcely envisaged selecting it in the summer, when he was willing to sell Scott McTominay, who instead captained United at Anfield.

Or, indeed, a couple of weeks ago, when Raphael Varane languished in inexplicable exile. The World Cup winner brought in from the cold departed Anfield with 15 clearances to show for his afternoon. The goalkeeper who has been a byword for mishaps, Andre Onana, could note that Liverpool had as many shots against United at Anfield this season as last: David de Gea conceded seven times to the eight he faced, his successor none.

A side with Casemiro, Lisandro Martinez, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford suffered United’s heaviest ever defeat to Liverpool. One without each at the start – Rashford had a 20-minute cameo – and with a makeshift midfield of McTominay, Kobbie Mainoo and Sofyan Amrabat held on for a point that first felt utterly improbable and yet gradually became plausible.

They shielded Ten Hag’s ninth centre-back partnership of the season; one who played for the watching Sir Alex Ferguson, the other who the Scot hoped to sign. Jonny Evans and Varane might have been the successors to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, not the men drafted in because Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof were injured. When Evans first faced Liverpool, Peter Crouch scored against him. Some 16 years later, Mohamed Salah did not.

And after the 7-0 and the 4-0 and the 5-0, there was respectability where most expected a rout, a close game instead of the anticipated capitulation. Where there promised to be a record scoreline, there was instead a stalemate.

(Getty Images)

Liverpool had won every match at Anfield this season. They had scored in 34 consecutive games, a joint club record. The team to stop them were a United side who had conceded a record number of goals for an English club in a Champions League group stage. It was scarcely logical but United delivered the illogical in finally taking a point against a top-nine team this season. Theirs was a grim exercise in hanging on.

Yet hang on they did. There were times when it appeared United were waiting for the inevitable more than actually delaying it, points where their strategy seemed to be an exercise in hoping. They were spared, at times, by Liverpool, with a series of poor passes in the final third, with wayward finishing. But there was a redemptive sense for a side who have often been wretched.

They have experienced embarrassment this season, against Brighton and Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Copenhagen. They showed limited ambition against Bayern Munich, still less against Liverpool. Many another may disagree but Ten Hag has described United’s recent football as brave, proactive and dynamic. This was nothing of the kind, but there was an obduracy. There was concentration and doggedness. And, just as importantly, given some of the errors that have cost United this season have been ridiculous, there was no stupidity until stoppage time, when Diogo Dalot collected two cautions for dissent in a matter of seconds.

(Getty Images)

It was so late it was irrelevant, a strange coda to a day when limited players somehow contrived to combine to some effect. Man for man, it may have been the weakest team United have named at Anfield for decades.

Five of them are Ten Hag signings. The anniversary fell last week of the time Amrabat caught up with Kylian Mbappe; it is an ever greater mystery how. He may forever retain the distinction of being the slowest man to win a race with Mbappe.

If United have been no strangers to immobile midfielders in recent years, at least Bastian Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney, Casemiro and Christian Eriksen had the excuse they were in their thirties. Amrabat is 27, supposedly at his peak. And yet, as he laboured unconvincingly, he helped his team stop the rot.

United still have not scored at Anfield since Jose Mourinho was their manager. Rasmus Hojlund still has not scored a Premier League goal. He had a chance to change both of those facts and instead shot at Alisson. And yet it felt a minor setback. If United looked set on a damage-limitation exercise at Anfield, they departed having suffered little damage and gained both a point and some pride.

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