Jürgen Klopp’s tepid attack is feeling ripple effects of a drained defence | Barney Ronay
Of course it was nil-nil. Liverpool came to Anfield for the most spiteful, razor-edged derby in elite-level English football having scored in their last 42 Premier League home games. They took to the field without a single specialist central defender against a free-scoring Manchester United. The week had been shot through with hopeful talk of title charges, Judgment Days and the usual final countdown waffle.
At which point, welcome to the more mannered world of Covid-era football, a stage show that is required to generate its own pulse and where players are asked to alchemise from the empty air the kind of heat and fire that tends to make the difference in a game like this.
So of course it was 0-0, just like United versus Chelsea, United versus City and Chelsea versus Tottenham before it. It turns out these have been real ghost-game casualties of this strange season, collisions between top-of-the-table teams that seem just a little more careful, a little more controlled without the added derangement of voices and shared life from the stands.
There was also a little more to this than just caution. United will see a point gained and another little ratchet up towards whatever this team’s ultimate level might turn out to be. For Liverpool there will be satisfaction too as Jürgen Klopp fielded a defensive rump of midfielders stacked upon midfielders, with Jordan Henderson and Fabinho both having fine games in the Virgil van Dijk-shaped space between the full-backs.
There is, though, something off with Liverpool. The symptoms are clear enough. A 0-0 draw here made it three league games without a goal. And this is not the same Liverpool right now, not the same champion team that was able to sprint through these games, strangling its opponents in midfield, pulling apart the stitching on the flanks, every collision, every surge of passing a weakening of their opponents’ will.
It would, though, be wrong to lay the blame on a lack of edge in attack, even if Mohamed Salah in particular looked a little cobwebbed, and Roberto Firmino was at his most frustratingly ponderous just when something ruthless was required.
It has taken a while for the effects of Liverpool’s defensive crisis to filter through this team. But they were present here in a kind of cascade from back to front. This was cause and effect in a very obvious straight line. Take out the defence and replace it with the midfield. Take out the midfield and replace it with another style of play altogether, an entirely different set of rhythms.
The indirect victim of all this flux is the front line. Klopp has often spoken about the way his hard-pressing midfield is in effect a creative force, with its ability to steal the ball, to suffocate an opponent in dangerous spaces.
Without that pressure the forward line is required to play a different way, presented with opponents in more settled positions, no longer gasping for breath. By the same process the full-backs, the team’s most creative force, have less space, less cover, less licence to keep on surging into dangerous areas.
Much has been made of Van Dijk’s influence, the way one relatively orthodox but hugely assured centre-back can make the rest of this team work. Well, here it was, written in fidgety, brittle passages of attacking play, in chances almost made, in a match where things kept on almost happening.
For the opening half-hour Thiago Alcântara appeared to be running this game. His start in English football has been so bitty it is easy to forget quite how good he is. Which is, to be clear, very good. This is, lest we forget, Pep Guardiola’s one-man shopping list at Bayern, an aristo of the modern possession game for whom a home debut at Anfield is simply another episode in his deep, loving and very personal relationship with the ball.
For a while in that first half Thiago was so good that United’s own free man, Bruno Fernandes, went and stood next to him to shut down his space. And Fernandes was disappointing at first, completing just three passes in the opening 22 minutes.
Alongside him Paul Pogba was installed in another new and exciting role as a meandering right-winger. He did his best out there, but most of the time Pogba-as-right-winger looked like a throwback to one of those pre-substitute games where some game but dazed centre-half ends up wandering about on the flank, head swathed in brown paper and Vaseline, just trying to make a nuisance of himself.
For a while in the second half Fernandes began to come into the game on the left. Finally United were pressing their thumb into those tender spots in the centre of this makeshift Liverpool team, weaknesses Thiago’s mastery of possession had disguised.
They were let down by Marcus Rashford’s poor showing as a centre-forward. In the first half Rashford touched the ball eight times and only ever really seemed to be involved in that weird dead time spent waiting for the raising of the offside flag.
Liverpool did press with some conviction at times. Chances were missed. Firmino repeatedly clogged the final point of attack with a heavy touch or a poor pass. But this felt like what it was, a Liverpool team learning to play another way on the hoof, and configured into different shapes. The goals will return for the league’s top scorers. But the source of that current mini-drought is, most likely, something deeper.