Manchester United remain on top of the Premier League table, with a three‑point advantage over Liverpool, as the season approaches halfway. It is a state of affairs that would have felt ludicrous as recently as early October, when they were losing 6-1 at home against Tottenham, and even now will cause a few eyebrows to travel skywards.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the manager, had admitted during the week that his team had “not really set the world alight too many times”. They continued the trend at Anfield, wanting primarily to be difficult to beat, and yet they will reflect on having fashioned not one but two glorious opportunities to secure a smash-and-grab victory.
The chances came late on, after United had absorbed what Liverpool could throw at them with an increasing measure of comfort, and the champions could be indebted to Alisson, who saved them both. Not for the first time it was impossible to overstate the goalkeeper’s value.
Alisson’s first intervention came on 75 minutes after Bruno Fernandes had opened up his body to sidefoot Luke Shaw’s cut-back at goal from the edge of the six-yard box. He would have wanted to summon greater power but Alisson still needed to be sharp to stick out his leg and clear.
The second was an even bigger opportunity and there was an element of fortune for United when Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s cross deflected to fall perfectly for Paul Pogba. He had more time than Fernandes and went for power only to strike the ball too close to the Brazilian goalkeeper, who beat it away.
Liverpool dominated the ball and, in Thiago Alcântara, they had the most eye-catching manipulator of it. The midfielder’s ability to turn away from opponents in tight spaces, to drive his team with crisp passes, was an enjoyable detail. The hosts had plenty of possession inside the United half and they bossed the shot count. Yet it was quantity over quality in terms of their chances and their mini-wobble goes on.
Liverpool have taken 14 points from nine games and it is now three draws and a defeat from their last four. They have failed to score in the last three and the cut and thrust that swept them to last season’s title has temporarily deserted them. The front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino looked flat. Their best chances fell to Firmino but his finishing lacked conviction.
This time last year, Liverpool were beating United 2-0 to open up a 30-point lead over them and they would finish the season 33 points clear of them. But it remains the last time that United lost an away fixture in the league and although some of their results this season have been streaky, to say the least, they have grown steadily in assurance.
They have still not beaten a rival from the so-called big six or even scored in open play against one of them – their only goal in five attempts now was Fernandes’s penalty in the thrashing against Spurs. But the statistics show that they have 10 wins and four draws from 15 matches, which provides the hard evidence that Solskjær is getting something together.
It was the biggest match of the season and the first time in at least 10 years that English’s football classic fixture was of relevance to the title race. United had gone top last Tuesday with the win at Burnley and Solskjær claimed pre-match that he wanted to go for it, to exploit Liverpool’s lack of established centre-backs.
It did not appear that way during the first half, even if his selection of two rather than three central defenders hinted at a desire to do more than contain and counter. United lacked rhythm on the ball and even though they wanted to rush men forward when Liverpool moves broke down, the final pass or dribble was too often poor.
A snapshot of the first half came midway through it when Pogba tried to ignite a United break only to underhit a long diagonal which allowed Trent Alexander-Arnold to intercept and hit one of his own for Mané, who played it inside to Firmino. When the centre‑forward cut inside, he opened up the chance of a curler into the far corner only for Victor Lindelöf to stay tight and block.
Liverpool had the bulk of the chances before the interval, without creating a truly big one. Firmino sliced when reasonably placed after Xherdan Shaqiri had found Mané while, on 34 minutes, after Salah had been stopped inside the area, Firmino could not get hold of his shot on the breaking ball.
Jürgen Klopp simmered with frustration and he blew up when the referee, Paul Tierney, whistled for half‑time just as Mané was running on to a ball over the top. There were still five seconds of the additional minute to go and Klopp directed theatrical applause at the official.
Liverpool flickered at the start of the second half but nothing more than that. Harry Maguire crowded out Firmino at the far post while a gaggle of United defenders would do likewise to Salah. He got his shot off belatedly only for it to deflect wide. Liverpool could also point to Thiago extending David de Gea on 78 minutes.
United had offered little, save for a Fernandes free-kick that fizzed wide on 33 minutes. But they reasoned that they might need only one clear chance. As it was, they created two. Alisson would be the Liverpool hero.