If neither half of Manchester got their wish, Liverpool certainly did not.
A rare occasion when Manchester City hoped for a Manchester United win ended with Liverpool returning to the Premier League summit. It nevertheless enhanced City’s chances of retaining their title.
Their neighbours did them the desired favour and, in the circumstances, United’s efforts were all the more commendable.
Liverpool’s were all the more underwhelming as they endured a fourth draw in five games and a second successive stalemate. They have rarely been as sterile, just as they will get few better chances to win at Old Trafford.
“It doesn’t feel world class in the moment but we have a point more,” said Jurgen Klopp. “It was a strange game without a lot of highlights.”
There were a few lows. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plans were disrupted, his team decimated and his tactics changed by a remarkable sequence of injuries. Patched up, United nevertheless stood firm, not merely denying Liverpool victory but restricting them to a solitary, forgettable, effort on target. “United played with a completely new midfield and a new three up front but we lost the rhythm and couldn’t get it back,” Klopp rued.
But while Solskjaer remains unbeaten in domestic encounters, that record felt under particular threat when United made unwanted history. They had never made three changes before half-time in a Premier League game; indeed no one had since 2015. That changed in a stop-start first half featuring 26 players.
“You are never surprised in football but losing three players in the first half with hamstring injuries,” said the caretaker, who enhanced his case to become the permanent manager.
One by one, midfielders broke down: Nemanja Matic in training on Saturday, ruling him out for several weeks, then Ander Herrera, followed by Juan Mata and eventually his replacement Jesse Lingard.
Their problems went beyond that: Marcus Rashford hobbled his way through the game. “He was injured in the first minute,” said Solskjaer. “We only had half of Marcus. Probably he should have come off but he is a warrior.”
Others showed a similar attitude. Romelu Lukaku put in a sacrificial shift on the right flank, Luke Shaw subdued Mohamed Salah and the youngsters Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira showed discipline in a new-look midfield. “
You come out with so many positives,” said Solskjaer.
He could have also had a victory. Joel Matip put the ball in his own net with a stray touch from Chris Smalling’s cross, but the United defender was correctly ruled just offside.
The game’s best save of the game. Old Trafford has been a graveyard for past Liverpool goalkeepers. Not for their most expensive ever. Alisson did superbly to stop Lingard rounding him after Lukaku picked out the substitute with a defence-splitting pass. “A massive chance,” added Solskjaer.
It seemed likelier to result in a penalty or a goal. Instead it brought a substitution, with Lingard injured in the process. His comeback clearly came too soon.
Solskjaer’s squad seems ever more stretched which, as United lost fourth place to Arsenal, could have consequences, but their teamwork, their resilience and their commitment to the cause should stand them in good stead.
For Liverpool that lack of incision should be a concern. They have only scored more than one goal twice in 2019 and there was the symbolic sight of Salah, who has never struck against United, being substituted just as, while injured, Mata had still managed to dispossess the Egyptian in the box.
Sadio Mane endured one of his worst games for Liverpool and Roberto Firmino was the fourth enforced withdrawal of the first half.
“A catastrophe,” said Klopp, though United showed him how to cope in adversity.