There are very few moments when a draw can feel like a loss. And there have been very few times in recent memory when Liverpool’s play was so dire or frustrating that even gleaning a result wasn’t at least something that brought a measure of fun.
Liverpool fans have been living a bit of a blessed existence in this recent run of form. The team acting out the determined and resolute swashbuckling hero across all of their Premier League opponents to date. They even picked up a UEFA Super Cup trophy against Chelsea along the way to add to their trophy cabinet.
But this past weekend’s derby match against Manchester United was a wholly different affair. Liverpool played without star winger Mohamed Salah, slotting Divock Origi in his place. And the attack, predictably, regressed to the one that hit a bit of a rough patch in September before finding their way back over the last match before the international break. Which is to say that they did not create much - save a specific play involving a specific technology and a specific rule that blew my very specific mind - and played, statistically, to a draw with a rather bereft United squad.
It was a poor performance that has some of us wondering what to make of this squad moving forward.
A primary concern is the health of Mo. Liverpool’s star striker has been off to a bit of a slow start. Not so much with creation, but he’s been unable to hit the back of the net with the same rate of return as either Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. He’s also looked just a step off most of the season, even before sustaining the ankle injury against Leicester City, which held him out of the derby.
Still, one could not help but notice how the attack looked a bit disjointed without the Egyptian winger to help progress the ball and start the phase of attack in transition. And the rest of the crew certainly suffered from lack of service due to that.
Jurgen Klopp indicted ahead of the match that Salah might be in contention for Wednesday’s Champions League tie, but that would be a decision that would be taken with the two days of prep used to make that assessment. There is hope, then, that the biggest issue for us fans - the seemingly stagnant play - might be rectified immediately.
VAR, though, is something that can’t be changed with the return of a healthy star. Nor bad officiating. And yet, here we are, in need of talking about both. And that’s genuinely what was perhaps the most frustrating bit in the whole match.
We’ve written quite a bit about Liverpool and luck. How Liverpool’s play has been so-so, perhaps, over the past month and yet the team has managed to eek across results. And not just draws - wins. 8 straight to start the season just prior to this match. 17 dating all the way back to the final half of last season. Liverpool have been impressive.
And in order to string together a streak that long, the ball just has to bounce your way a few times. So, it’s tempting to say that Liverpool’s luck just ran out. Or, to use a more technical term, that Liverpool’s run of having fortunate calls/bounces go their way just regressed back to the mean.
But it’s tough to swallow that when it looked like that turn of luck can be attributed to either incompetent refereeing from a guy that I will forever refer to as Human Zazu or to poor rules/mechanics involving VAR. To the first point, Martin Atkinson simply failed to call a competent match and, unfortunately, Liverpool ended up being on the short end of his incompetence. Combined with the use/mechanics of using VAR being uneven in this early phase of its adoption, the overriding sense of having a performance where the lads did maybe just enough to nab all three points in front of a hostile Old Trafford, is inescapable.
Because if the goal for Marcus Rashford was disallowed due to the foul being correctly called on Divock Origi which started the sequence, the xG for United drops even further from 0.7 (Liverpool’s, for reference, was about 1.0 via Michael Caley’s model seen below).
xG map for Manchester United - Liverpool— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) October 20, 2019
what fun we all had watching the football pic.twitter.com/SkpmGlS2xL
And Liverpool wouldn’t even need for a re-write of the handball rule to allow for Mané’s goal in order to pull the win. Liverpool would, essentially, have held United to no good chances.
Which is why, if there is a sense of being robbed in this match, it’s that. Liverpool weren’t clicking in attack, but they put further a rather dominant display. And yet, somehow managed to be officiated completely out of the match.
Where this leaves Liverpool is holders of a now reduced lead at the top of the table - at 6 down from 8, over Manchester City. And likely terribly frustrated at the result, the officiating, and themselves as they would and should have expected a better showing against their wounded rivals.
When you step back, though, it also reveals itself as kind of a typical derby match. Hard fought. Sharp. Edgy. And not always revealing in terms of good, attractive football. It was a derby.
Thankfully, the lads won’t have too long to wait before getting back to proceedings, with a mid-week visit to Belgium to face hosts, Genk, in the Champions League. Another match, then, to rinse the palate after that show. Another match to, hopefully, get this team finally flowing at its top gear.