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Five thoughts on Manchester United's stalemate at Anfield

God, that was dull.

Liverpool v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

More international break blues

José Mourinho will be more pleased with a 0-0 draw at Anfield than most Manchester United supporters, but a hard-earned point cannot hide a disappointing performance from most of the team in Saturday’s return to Premier League action. Although set up in a deep-lying and defensive formation, United looked surprisingly shaky at the back and proved unable to possess the ball for any length of time.

No one expected Mourinho to forego pragmatism for an all-guns-blazing attack, though most would have hoped for a stronger overall effort. United struggled to contain a Liverpool squad missing the dangerous Sadio Mané and mustered little threat going forward. Other than the brilliant David De Gea, there were no standout performances.

The problem was less with the manager’s tactics and more about how poorly the players carried out his instructions. If a team chooses to sit back and soak up pressure, there must be the occasional spell of possession to clear the decks and relieve pressure. Likewise, such a defensive setup should limit the opposition to few dangerous scoring opportunities. On both counts, Manchester United came up short.

Outnumbered in midfield

With Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini, and Michael Carrick all sidelined with injury, United could only send out a midfield duo of Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera. That posed a problem when Liverpool countered with a robust midfield trio of its own. Mourinho explained, “They played with a very strong midfield of Can, Wijnaldum, and Henderson for 90 minutes but, in the second half, I had no one on the bench to change the direction of the game.”

Missing several key midfielders, there was no one else to throw into the mix and even up the numbers game in central midfield. They struggled to string passes together and left Romelu Lukaku isolated up top for most of the game. Herrera has not played much so far this season and — at least offensively — it really showed. He hounded Philippe Coutinho at every opportunity, reminiscent of his impressive performance against Eden Hazard last year, but that took its toll on his offensive contributions. Matić likewise tired noticeably in the second half.

Afterwards, Mourinho lamented his lack of options on the bench to shake up the game: “I tried with my substitutions to make us more dynamic in attack but, in reality, we lost power and energy and control in midfield.”

No complaints about a point at Anfield

While this was unquestionably Manchester United’s worst performance of the young season, getting a point against Liverpool at Anfield is never a bad result. “It’s away from home at Anfield — a difficult stadium and a difficult team — so we’re happy with the point,” star man De Gea said.

Matić agreed, “We didn’t have many chances, but we had two good chances that we didn’t take. But this is football and the most important thing was we didn’t lose the game.”

This is always one of United’s toughest matches each season and no league title will be lost by grinding out a result. The architect of that plan, Jose Mourinho, summed it up succinctly: “A point at Anfield is OK.”

A game of few chances

All of United’s hard work, though, would have been for naught if not for another world-class save from David De Gea. Joel Matip’s point-blank shot looked destined for the back of the net, but De Gea’s strong left foot kept it out. The Spanish goalkeeper has been at the top of his game this season.

But, as the whistle for halftime sounded, United felt most aggrieved to still be level. Just minutes earlier, Lukaku spurned a great chance to put his club ahead when, put through on goal, he shot straight at Simon Mignolet. That turned out to be United’s best chance of the afternoon and Lukaku will surely rue the missed opportunity.

A mounting injury crisis

Saturday got off to a bad start with the late-breaking news that both Eric Bailly and Marcus Rashford had suffered injuries during the international break. Marouane Fellaini had already been ruled out with a knee problem picked up while on Belgium duty, but Bailly and Rashford were unexpected absences.

Rashford made the bench (eventually coming on in the 65th minute), but Bailly missed out altogether. Chris Smalling filled in for the Ivorian, pairing with Phil Jones in central defense, but Bailly’s absence surely played a part in the aforementioned lackluster defending. A well-rested Anthony Martial, who was not called into Didier Deschamps’s France squad, replaced Rashford in the starting eleven.

Fellaini will be out for a few weeks and the extent of Bailly’s injury remains unknown, but Mourinho will be champing at the bit to get as many players fit as possible ahead of a very busy period for the club. United travel to Portugal for a Champions League match on Wednesday and will play twice weekly for the rest of the month.