So the fog of the season persists, and quite understandably so too. After a goalless draw between Liverpool and Manchester United, all is still as it was before kick-off; which is a title race that is developing quite nicely.
United couldn’t, and didn’t particularly appear all that willing to, open up a six point gap between them and the reigning Premier League champions. Liverpool’s attack, meanwhile, continued to appear somewhat out of sorts and lacking a ruthlessness.
However, the fact that this encounter finished goalless should come as no surprise. So was United versus Chelsea, United versus City and Chelsea versus Tottenham while City versus Liverpool was a tepid draw of little note.
In fact this game exacerbated the theme of the season - that of defensive resolve overpowering fluid chance and goal creation. Given the nature of the season and the compact schedule teams simply want to jockey for position so that they are still in the mix come the latter stages of the campaign.
No team with ambitions of claiming the title are racing ahead, neither are any falling away. It’s tight, somewhat nervy and both featureless and intriguing all at the same time. Four points separate the top five teams while it’s eight points between 1st and 9th. It’s all to play for as clubs make do with what they have in this lockdown showdown.
Liverpool’s attack lacking ruthlessness
Liverpool are a case in point. The long-term absence of centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez has led to Fabinho, and for the match with United Jordan Henderson too, taking up the position. Both central midfielders by trade, they played well against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side with Fabinho in particular showcasing his diligent tackling.
However, by shifting two key midfielders back into defence, Jurgen Klopp has to rethink his midfield. Here it was Thiago Alcantara, who started well on his Anfield debut but tailed off in the second half, and Xherdan Shaqiri who came into the fray. Yet the bite Henderson and Fabinho might have offered in other circumstances in midfield, winning the ball high up the pitch and unnerving opponents closer to their own goal, was missing.
This also impacted Liverpool’s attack. It is now three successive games that Liverpool have failed to score, the last time that happened was in March 2005, and there are signs that Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are feeling the effects of a congested season. Or possibly does this all fall into the category of defences being on top against lacklustre attacks?
Klopp’s side have scored the most amount of goals so far in this season’s league (37) but it doesn’t feel like it. Since Diogo Jota damaged knee ligaments on December 9, Liverpool have played seven times in the league and won only twice, taking ten points from a possible 21. The goals have dried up - although they did score seven against Crystal Palace prior to Christmas.
Lowering of standards allows United in
A consequence of Liverpool and City being below the ultra high standards they have set in previous seasons is United are top. There is more than an element of surprise towards their leap to the summit but the United manager has himself said that his side have been aided by a lowering of standards at the top this season.
At Anfield, Marcus Rashford was caught offside more times than he created chances, Anthony Martial drifted in and out while Bruno Fernandes grew into the game. The visitors finished the game strong and had it not been for Alisson denying late chances from Paul Pogba and Fernandes then they could have won it. But the visitors didn’t resemble a confident top-of-the-table team.
Some United fans may level that their side should have gone for it more, especially in the second half; with Liverpool not really at it they had the chance to make a statement victory. But again this ties into the season theme of not overly committing and biding time.
This “occasion” match also desperately missed the supporters that make this fixture much of what it is. Perhaps, all of those 0-0 big games have equally fell as they have because there have been no fans to urge on their team and seize the chance to grab this season by the scruff of the neck.
Nevertheless, all those teams at the top seem to be quite content to linger until spring and then make their move - like the rest of us, one could add. It is lending itself to a tight and compelling title race with the fog still very much persisting for now.