Manchester United may have been on a downward road since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 having won their last Premier League title to date, and Liverpool may have been going through a 29-year-long drought spell when it comes to that particular trophy, with Manchester City and Chelsea properly overshadowing the two in the last several years.
But make no mistake – this is the big one. This is a clash of two teams with 38 league titles and eight European Cups between them, and the fact that City and Chelsea are playing the Carabao Cup final against each other on the same day and Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford still gets more attention is very telling.
But putting that aside now, it’s time to take a look at this particular game. Apart from the huge rivalry, it was very important for both sides to try and get points from it. Liverpool arrived to Manchester level with City with this game in hand and a chance to get clear at the top of the table. United were sitting fourth and are fighting to make the Champions League next season, and with Arsenal hosting Southampton at the Emirates at the same time, they were in danger of dropping out of the top four.
Jurgen Klopp had no fresh absentees. The old ones included Dejan Lovren (hamstring), Joe Gomez (recovering from surgery), Rhian Brewster and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (both en route to fitness but not quite there yet). Xherdan Shaqiri was back in contention after missing the Champions League clash with Bayern Munich with an abdominal strain, as well as Virgil van Dijk who was suspended for that game. James Milner started at right-back with Trent Alexander-Arnold rested on the bench, and Fabinho stepped into the midfield alongside captain Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum.
— Emma Sanders (@em_sandy) February 24, 2019
United boss and legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sweated over the availability of forwards Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial who were forced off in their Champions League defeat at home to Paris Saint-Germain with a hamstring and a groin issue, respectively. Lingard made the bench with Juan Mata starting in his place; Martial was out. Midfielder Nemanja Matić was absent from their pre-match base on Saturday night despite training regularly on Friday, and Evening Standard have reported that the Serbian could be out for a month having picked up a “nasty knock” in training. Young Scott McTominay was named in the starting XI instead of him. Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling got the nod ahead of Eric Bailly at the back.
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) February 24, 2019
The First Half
Within a minute Liverpool had a chance as Young made his backpass to De Gea short and Firmino almost intercepted it, but De Gea was out quickly and after he collided with Firmino, Liverpool got an indirect free-kick which they took short before Milner slammed a shot into the wall.
Robertson tried a few passes down the left for Mane early on which United defended well, and Rashford optimistically tried to go past van Dijk only to be expertly stopped in his track. A minute later the young striker tried to shoot from 20 yards but slipped. Salah had his battles with Shaw and got past him in the seventh minute, but his squared ball was intercepted.
Mata seemed to be playing in a “false nine” role with Lukaku on the left and Rashford on the right, and he was tasked with leading a high press off the ball. The home team seemed more keen on pressing up the pitch and keeping the ball for longer spells, while Liverpool happily dropped deeper to defend and looked to play more directly when in possession. Klopp’s men did, however, suddenly change that approach on a few occassions and won the ball in the opposition half, but the devils were always quick to get back.
In the 15th minute, Matip surprised everyone with a startling run forward and he got past three opponents before Herrera took him down on the edge of the box, picking up a yellow card for it. Salah took the free-kick and sent it over the bar.
From that moment on, Liverpool established proper domination, easily playing through United’s midfield and entering their box, but there was were always enough red shirts in there to nullify the threat.
A big worry for Solskjaer was Rashford who started limping early on, and in the 19th minute Herrera sat down on his own accord. The Spaniard left the pitch and was replaced by Andreas Pereira.
After 21 minutes, United defended a corner well and De Gea released Rashford immediately. Rashford was cornered by Liverpool defenders and had to involve Pogba whose cross towards the far post almost found the head of Lukaku, but van Dijk was there again. Liverpool went forward through Salah on the right but Mata had backtracked and stopped him. He launched Pogba on the counterattack and Milner took the Frenchman out, getting himself into the book of referee Michael Oliver.
Surprisingly enough, Mata was the second player that had to leave the pitch due to injury, and Jesse Lingard came on. There was a scare for Klopp as well with Firmino also needing treatment and limping slightly afterwards. With half an hour gone, the boss decided not to take chances and Daniel Sturridge replaced the Brazilian, and a slow-motion video revealed a moment when Firmino stepped awkwardly and twisted his ankle as passed the ball to a teammate.
Two minutes later, Sturridge made his presence felt with an optimistic shot from over 35 yards which gave De Gea no problems.
Henderson made a good run down the right in the 35th minute and his cross just missed the head of Sturridge on the edge of six yards, before Fabinho did brilliantly to dispossess Lingard who tried to start a counterattack. United eventually did get forward and Pogba tried his luck from range, but van Dijk put his head in the way of the shot.
Liverpool didn’t seem to have trouble in getting close to De Gea’s goal, but their decision making in the final third often left a lot to be desired, and Klopp’s frustration with that segment became clear.
In the 40th minute, Rashford broke down the left and gave it to Lukaku in the middle. The Belgian feinted a shot and slipped the ball in behind for the incoming Lingard, and as Lingard made a move to go around Alisson, the Liverpool ‘keeper bravely and brilliantly stuck his hand in and plucked the ball away.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) February 24, 2019
Lingard lost his balance for a split-second, before going down injured having spent only 18 minutes on the pitch. It was a nightmare scenario for Solskjaer who had to make his last substitution of the game in the first half. Alexis Sanchez entered the fray.
In the final minute of the half, Sanchez cleverly intercepted a Milner pass and started an attack in which he eventually tried to find Lukaku against Robertson on six yards, Lukaku overpowered Robertson but his header was easily saved by Alisson. Robertson required medical assistance on his shoulder but he played on. It remains a mystery how Oliver missed the foul.
There were four minutes of stoppage time in the first half. United pressed high and forced several mistakes from their opponents, but they couldn’t capitalize on that.
HT: United 0 #LFC 0: Liverpool the better side at Old Trafford but real lack of quality in the final third. Big save from Alisson to deny Lingard. 60% possession for Klopp's side but done precious little with it.
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) February 24, 2019
The Second Half
Liverpool almost caused United serious trouble only 15 seconds into the second period as a skilful combination between Salah and Mane nearly put the Egyptian through, but United’s defenders were awake. Two minutes later, Mane tried to flick a long Matip pass towards the run of Sturridge, but De Gea came out and collected.
It should be said that Luke Shaw was doing well against Salah. There were no characteristic forrays into attack from the former Southampton left-back. He was very responsible at the back and stuck to his task.
In the 51st minute, Young whipped in a free-kick from deep right into the box and Pogba got to the end of it, heading straight at Alisson from an offside position. Young had another go less than a minute later and this time he aimed for Sanchez on the far post, but the flag was up again as Liverpool’s high line worked. Then Liverpool hit back, and Henderson broke down the right and tried to square it, but the cross was blocked.
Several attempts at long passes in behind from both sides followed, but none of them bore fruit.
In the 57th minute, a charge forward by Young and a cross by Lukaku caused a scramble in Liverpool’s box, but it ended with Rashford under pressure scuffing a shot from close range wide of the target.
Then Liverpool went forward again and kept the ball in United’s half for a long time, but the home team had no problems with dropping deep and defending in numbers. It seems having Jose Mourinho at the helm for two and a half years left at least one positive thing for them. Even Lukaku and Pogba were heavily involved in stopping Liverpool from taking the lead.
In the 66th minute, Wijnaldum tried to take matters in his own hands and danced around an opponent on the left before letting one fly high far from the target.
The shape Liverpool were now playing in was a kind of 4-2-3-1, with Mane playing as the number ten and Wijnaldum going to the left, while Henderson and Fabinho sat deep and helped their defenders thwart several attempts at a counterattack.
In the 70th minute, Wijnaldum tried to head a Milner corner into the net and was pulled from behind by McTominay. Oliver gave another corner and Mc Tominay did the same on Matip this time. The referee stood very close on both occasions, but he simply wouldn’t point to the spot.
Klopp decided to act at that point, and Henderson made way for Xherdan Shaqiri.
In the 74th minute, Pogba forced a foul from Fabinho some 40 yards out and gave Young another opportunity for a dangerous cross. Young whipped it towards Smalling on the far post and the centre-back squared it across, before Matip put in his own net. However, United players’ celebration was cut short by the view of the linesman’s flag raised high against Smalling.
However, the devils were now charged up, sensing Liverpool’s vulnerability and feeling their chances rise, as well as reacting on the support from the stands.
With 11 minutes to go, Salah made way for Divock Origi.
Liverpool fought back and pushed United back at that point, and Young was forced to take Milner out to stop him escaping down the flank, earning a yellow card. Three minutes later, Shaqiri returned the favor by taking out Rashford.
Both teams were going for a win late on and the battle was becoming more fierce by the second, and Wijnaldum was another name in Oliver’s book as he stopped Young’s surge with a foul. On the stroke of 90, Lukaku sent in a fabulous cross behind the backs of Liverpool defenders and towards the run of Smalling on the far post, but Smalling was a tad too late. It was a chance of nicking a late win as good as it gets for United, but the defender wasted it, and as Shaqiri lobbed the ball towards the edge of the box and Lindelof got to it over Origi, Oliver marked the end of the game.
It was an intense game, as intense as you’d expect it to be between these two teams, and even though United fans sang their hearts out at the end and saluted Solskjear, it’s Liverpool who go home top of the table.
Both sides had their chances, and even though Liverpool looked the better one for most of it, a share of the spoils isn’t an unfair result.
Speaking after the game, Milner said he was happy with the clean sheet at a place where it’s not easy to play, and put his finger on final-third decision making and final-pass accuracy, as well as United’s level of confidence and organization at the back as the reasons for not winning the game.
And that about wraps it up nicely.
Next up – Watford at Anfield on Wednesday evening.
Alisson – 8
It would have been higher than that but for a few risky passes and one ending up out of bounds. He was mostly very composed and dealt with everything that came his way nicely, and as for that touch that stopped Lingard, it was pure brilliance.
Van Dijk – 8.5
The big Dutchman is a sublime defender. It’s not exactly a secret what his presence in the back four brings. United attackers, usually very fast and tricky, were made to look like kids as they tried to go around him a few times. Liverpool need to find a way to increase his value in offensive set-pieces though.
Matip – 8
The Cameroonian was once more very composed and partnered van Dijk well. He continues to show extreme levels of confidence when taking the ball forward, and it’s safe to say Herrera knew exactly what he was doing when he fouled him on the edge of the box in the first half. The only questionable moment was the disallowed own-goal, but no harm came of it.
Milner – 7.5
Milner was, well, what you’d expect from James the Reliable. He defended well and marauded up the pitch constantly, not giving United players a moment’s piece out wide. Industrious as ever.
Robertson – 7
Robertson seems a bit off form lately. His defending is as good as ever and he did extremely well in that situation with Lukaku in the air, but his contribution in attack seems slightly off. He tried to take on opponents a few times and lost the ball far too easily, and there weren’t many of his usually very efficient crosses from the flank.
Fabinho – 7.5
The Brazilian was excellent and his rating here would have been higher, but for a few misplaced passes in the middle of the pitch.
Henderson – 7.5
Another good performance from the captain in his 300th career Premier League appearance following a man-of-the-match display against Bayern. He was everywhere. He couldn’t be fooled or gone past. He fought hard and won a lot of balls in the middle, and he made a few good runs down flanks and whipped in a few promising crosses.
Wijnaldum – 8
He was indomitable in the middle of the park. No pressure seems to great for him to deal with when on the ball, and he adapted very well to being moved on the left wing in the second half. A few more incisive passes and the score would have been higher.
Mane – 7
It’s becoming very hard to rate Sadio’s performances. Sometimes he seems off the boil for a long spell – before producing a game-changing goal. There wasn’t one in this game though, but like Wijnaldum, he adapted well to the positional change.
Salah – 6.5
It simply wasn’t Mo’s day. It seems United players are always specially motivated when they go up against him at Old Trafford, and this time Shaw did an impeccable job. It was a “live to fight another day” moment for the Premier League record holder.
Firmino – 6.5
It would be unfair to rate Bobby lower than this, simply due to the fact that he was unable to do more because of the injury which eventually forced him off. Apart from a few trademark steals in the opposition half, there wasn’t a lot to be seen from the Brazilian during his half an hour on the pitch.
It is to be hoped his injury isn’t serious, but James Pearce of Liverpool Echo provided a worrying piece of news after the game:
Roberto Firmino leaving Old Trafford on crutches #LFC
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceEcho) February 24, 2019
Sturridge – 6
He unexpectedly got a chance to make his mark; he didn’t exactly take it. Very little went right for the once incredible striker, and his chances of earning a new contract before the current one expires in the summer certainly haven’t improved.
Shaqiri – 6.5
The Swiss international didn’t have the same impact as in the reversed fixture earlier in the season when his two goals clinched the win for the Reds. Not that he didn’t try, but his passes and set-pieces were not very good on the day.
Origi – N/A
There simply wasn’t time for the Belgian to make his mark late on, especially given the lack of proper service for a striker of that type.
We Walk On.