Perhaps no match felt weirder without fans than the biggest rivalry in English football. Usually the atmosphere for a Liverpool-Man United match can be described as overly passionate, vitriolic, psychotic, poisonous, and/or blood-thirsty. Without the 55,000 baying until their lungs shriveled and filed for retirement, today’s match lacked that extra something. And it showed.
The way the two teams came into today’s match didn’t reflect the usual boisterousness of the rivalry. Liverpool have suddenly gone flaccid in front of goal and are actually paying attention to those Frank Thomas ads, while trying not to look like they’re paying attention. United’s recent revival has been built on a newfound defensive solidarity. Throw in the fact that Liverpool haven’t lost at home in nearly four years, and United haven’t lost on the road all season, and the whole thing screamed a drab draw.
It might not have been drab, but it could certainly see drab from the perch it decided to rest on. Liverpool were a little more lively in the first half than they have been in the last three matches, but still rarely broke through the reinforced United defense to trouble keeper David de Gea. United were content to bunker right at their penalty box and let everything crash into them, hoping for a chance or two on the counter. The game was filled with some neat Liverpool build-up, only to see a shot or player dribble into two or three United defenders where it would die from lack of oxygen. United did get a couple of chances on the break in the second half, but Liverpool keeper Alisson saved from both Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba.
And that was about it. Today’s draw does nothing to alleviate the worry over Liverpool that their once-Earth shattering attack has lost its magic. Roberto Firmino was borderline clownish with his passing, finishing, and decisions, and his two-goal outbreak against Crystal Palace in December now looks like an exception rather than the signal of a change in fortunes. Sadio Mane was also off, and this was yet another occasion that United’s Luke Shaw pretty much had Mohamed Salah in his pocket.
The reasons for Liverpool’s impotence lately are myriad. Their front three have all hit a dip at the same time. The injuries in defense have forced midfielders back there—and keeping a clean sheet with Jordan Henderson and Fabinho as the central pair is no small accomplishment, but now they’ve lost that dynamism and familiarity in midfield closer to their strikers. Their fullbacks, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, have also gone off the boil after being the best pairing on the flanks in the world for two seasons. Liverpool are relying on Thiago Alcantra to provide something different, but today was only his third start this season. He’s lacking feel. There aren’t too many other options to help bolster the scoring from deep beyond that with both Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain battling their customary injury problems.
Liverpool will also claim fatigue, but how much that really has to do with it can be debated. Their schedule since Christmas has not been all that taxing, with a full week off before their loss to Southampton, a full week before their FA Cup win against Aston Villa’s daycare center, and another week to this one. Certainly the injuries play a part, and Diogo Jota forcing that vaunted front three to play almost every game isn’t helping, but it’s not the end-all be-all.
As for United, this might feel like something of a missed opportunity. They came in the hotter team, and facing a makeshift defense behind a team lacking in confidence. But this has been the way for United against top of the table teams under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Their encounters this year with the aristocracy have seen them shredded by Spurs, 0-0 draws with City and Chelsea that bordered on war crimes, and a 1-0 loss to Arsenal that was even worse. Even coming in winning 9 of 11 in the league couldn’t force Solskjaer to get even slightly more ambitious. He will say that if it wasn’t for Alisson, it would have worked, but everyone had hoped for more. But maybe in this season, you can go far only beating the middle and lower reaches of the league. There’s still a sense that United are just whatever Bruno Fernandes and their other attacking talent can conjure instead of some cohesive plan. Should anyone there lose form or gets injured, and they may face the same questions they’ve been dealing with for three years.
What the draw does do is open up the lane for Man City to come strolling through. City started the season in a fog, as Pep Guardiola decided to spend the first part of this impossible-to-navigate season locking down their defense. They’ve now won four in a row and six of eight while conceding just two goals in that time (and they’re leading Palace 1-0 at the time of writing), Should they see that out, City will be just two points behind their neighbors with a game in hand. They’ve looked their old selves again, which isn’t something anyone’s been able to live with in recent history.
Perhaps that’s just how this season will go. It has been defined by whoever is hot at that time. It started with Everton winning five in a row. Then Spurs won six of seven to go top. Now it’s United and City. With the games so thickly packed, any hot streak can catch fire in a hurry, and also any cold streak can see icy results pile up. It may just come down to who closes the fastest, or who can make their streak last the longest.
Which is what those Frank Thomas ads are about, right?