By any objective measure, this had felt like an away banker during what was a high-octane build-up. Manchester United, mired in their worst start to a season since 1989-90, had been goal-shy; their confidence seemingly in pieces. Liverpool were supposed to roll up to Old Trafford and extend their 100 per cent Premier League to a record-equalling 18th game.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the eternally optimistic United manager, had claimed that “this is the perfect game for us‚“ but, to put it bluntly, nobody believed him. Perhaps they should have done.
It was a wild turn-around from a United point-of-view, a thumbing of the form-book and it said everything that Solskjær’s team, having taken a first-half lead through Marcus Rashford, could finish a little disappointed at having failed to inflict upon Liverpool a first league defeat since January.
With only five minutes to play, Liverpool had looked out of ideas. The story looked set to be coloured by United’s bodies-on-the-line defensive defiance. But then Andrew Robertson crossed low from the left, Roberto Firmino’s presence in the centre was a distraction and there was the substitute, Adam Lallana, to tap home from point-blank range.
It was the prompt for Liverpool to turn the screw and the five minutes of stoppage time would feel like an eternity for United. Another Liverpool substitute, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, fizzed inches wide but Solskjær’s team had not only done more than imagined, they had done enough.
Liverpool remain undefeated and clear at the top of the table. Having trailed until so late, they could be happy with the draw, particularly as they struggled to prise United apart. The point spoke of their resilience. United and Solskjær will hope it can herald a new dawn.
United had started the day in 14th place – one point above the relegation zone – and it felt as if every number, every statistic, was insulting them. Several bookmakers had them as long as 7-2 to beat opponents who Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager, described as looking “unstoppable”. Liverpool had last dropped league points in the 0-0 draw at Everton on 3 March.
Desperate times called for radical measures and, for the first time this season, Solskjær started with a three-man defence, although even that plan needed a late fine-tune after Axel Tuanzebe was ruled out with an injury in the warm-up. In came Marcos Rojo on the left of the back three.
United’s new-look contrasted sharply with Liverpool’s tried and trusted 4-3-3, although Jürgen Klopp missed Mohamed Salah because of an ankle injury. Solskjær’s idea was for his quick forwards, Daniel James and Rashford, to lead from the front in terms of their work rate and everybody behind them to follow. From the whistle, United brought a commitment that galvanised the home crowd.
For both teams, it was all about winning the ball and transitioning as quickly as possible and this is how the United goal was created. The big question concerned whether Victor Lindelof had fouled Divock Origi when he got United moving midway inside their half. VAR would say no but it was mightily tight. Lindelof did nibble through Origi and it looked like a foul but was it clear and obvious enough to merit an over-rule of the on-pitch referee, Martin Atkinson?
United were still some distance from goal yet when Scott McTominay released James, there was pace and possibility. James crossed low and, after deceiving Joël Matip with a clever piece of movement inside the area, Rashford prodded past Alisson, who had returned after a calf injury. Inside his technical area, Klopp raged at the fourth official, Jon Moss.
The Liverpool manager’s mood would darken before the interval when his team had an equaliser chalked off by VAR. On viewing the replays, it was plain that Sadio Mané had used his hand to control a high ball before wriggling away from Lindelof to beat David de Gea, who had been the surprise inclusion in the United line-up after a muscular problem. The problem with VAR is that it does not warn the supporters of the team that has just scored. The Liverpool fans had erupted in delight. Their journey back down to earth came with a bump.
United’s intensity was a feature of their performance; they were determined to disrupt Liverpool’s rhythm and restrict them. They succeeded in the first-half because only once, when Mané cut back for Firmino on the counter, did the visitors truly threaten. Firmino picked out De Gea when he had Origi free to his left. Not that United had exactly pulled Liverpool apart. Their one first-half flicker before scoring saw McTominay drive forward and shoot weakly at Alisson.
Klopp shuffled his pack in the second-half. At first, he moved Origi up front and then, when he replaced him with Oxlade-Chamberlain, he effectively went with a 4-2-4 formation. Firmino and Mané played centrally, with the latter sometimes dropping off, while Jordan Henderson and Oxlade-Chamberlain worked off the flanks. Klopp would send on Lallana for Henderson – another attacking move.
The battle lines were drawn. United were happy to preserve what they had and possibly nick something on the break while Liverpool put everything into a front-foot search for the equaliser. The visitors’ frustration bubbled. Atkinson was a target for their fans, who felt that every 50-50 decision went against them, and even a United ball boy managed to anger Henderson by holding on to one stray ball for too long.
United came to look like the likelier scorers of the next goal because for all of their possession, Liverpool could not create anything of clear-cut note. Rashford fizzed, James flickered and Fred went close. Liverpool, though, refused to lose.