One does not simply walk into Old Trafford, as the saying may or may not go. There was plenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth prior to the second meeting of these two sides in the 2016-17 Premier League campaign. Thanks to the familiar blend of FIFA opacity and presumed incompetence, Liverpool opted not to name Joël Matip to the squad that would face José Mourinho’s Manchester United. And to make a tricky situation worse, Nathaniel Clyne was unable to play due to a rib injury, leading to a first league start for young Trent Alexander-Arnold.
United, for their part, had reeled off six league wins in a row prior to this contest, and it was increasingly looking as though Mourinho had finally figured out how to disengage the parking brake on his very expensive new car. The icing on the cake?Liverpool would be wearing their infamous toxic thunder colors. Under those circumstances, you could hardly blame a supporter for thinking that walking away with a point would not be the worst result in the world.
Spoilsports that they are, the league actually requires teams to play out the fixtures, so that put a quick end to the whole “let’s just take a point and go home” project. And play Liverpool did, starting out in a diamond with Adam Lallana as the focal point and Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino ahead of him. Liverpool, as is their wont, set about trying to force mistakes high up the pitch, and for a while, it seemed as though United would struggle to impose themselves.
By the end of the first quarter of an hour, however, United had weathered the initial storm, and were beginning to probe for softness in the Liverpool belly. They soon found an option they would try to exploit during the first half: Anthony Martial isolated against the 18 year old Alexander-Arnold. There were some nervy initial moments from the youngster, most notably when Martial found space early to lob a tantalizing cross for Ibrahimovic, but Alexander-Arnold would grow into the contest, and eventually turned in a very fine performance under difficult conditions.
The same could be said for some of Alexander-Arnold’s more senior colleagues in the back four. Dejan Lovren appeared to have gifted the opener to United with a casual backpass but Simon Mignolet was alert to the danger and nullified the danger with Ibrahimovic about to pounce. It would not be the only time today that the resurgent Belgian came to Liverpool’s rescue.
But this was by no means one-way traffic, and United were guilty of making their own unforced errors, allowing Liverpool menace De Gea’s goal. Phil Jones’ dawdling precipitated a messy scramble just in front of De Gea. United bundled the ball out for a corner, but on the ensuing corner Paul Pogba - flailing about wildly after losing track of Lovren - was correctly judged to have handled the ball. Up stepped James Milner, who, to nobody’s surprise, converted the spot kick and burnished his reputation as a flawless taker of penalties. Liverpool now had a slender advantage to protect.
Forced to show a little bit more enterprise, United continued to test the flanks with Valencia on the right and Martial on the left. Liverpool, on the break, sensed vulnerability in Rojo and Jones, but were perhaps guilty of being too cute by half in possession, and more often than not surrendered possession without fashioning a chance of note. The sole other moment of note during the first half was a sortie by Mkhitaryan. The Armenian midfielder was put clean through on goal by a brilliant ball, only to be denied by more heroics from Mignolet.
Upon the restart, Wayne Rooney was summoned to replace Michael Carrick. For Mourinho, this was something of a high risk-high reward move, and though there was no immediate impact from Rooney’s introduction, the visitors were starting to show an alarming carelessness when in possession. This time, a brief lapse in attention from Alexander-Arnold allowed Martial to seize the ball, and Mkhitaryan, at the business end of the ensuing counterattack, was somehow unable to finish. Something needed to be done.
That something turned out to be the appearance of Philippe Coutinho, only recently recovered from injury. Coming on for Origi, Coutinho’s awareness almost paid dividends right away, and his mercurial presence was a constant source of worry for United whenever Liverpool countered. Back and forth the sides went - it was pleasing football for the neutral, interrupted only by a really poor challenge by Rooney on Milner. Milner was lucky to escape serious injury and Rooney was lucky to escape punishment by Michael Oliver.
There was time for a few more rolls of the dice, and Mourinho would do the rolling, bringing on Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini for Martial and Darmian respectively. Cue an onslaught of high balls lofted in Mignolet’s general direction, with Fellaini looking to make a nuisance of himself. It wasn’t the most sophisticated plan in the world, but it worked. From an offside position on the right, Valencia was allowed to hoist the ball goalwards, and Ibrahimovic was the lucky contest winner when the pinging and ponging around Mignolet’s goalmouth came to an end. United were level, and that was how the match would finish.
Next up for Klopp’s side will be a rematch against Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup, mixed in with a home fixture in the League Cup against Southampton. In the league, Liverpool will host troubled Swansea City before a make-or-break matchup against Antonio Conte’s Chelsea at the end of January.