The Red Devils had fitness, the form of a nine-game winning run, and home ground advantage in their favour, but seemed more pleased with the draw
Jurgen Klopp could hear it in the questions. He could sense it all through the build-up to the blockbuster; there was a strong, unshakable sentiment that Liverpool’s test at Manchester United had arrived at an inopportune time.
And as kick off edged closer, that feeling had only ballooned.
The German joked pre-match that the tactics “had already started” with him not being able to have a cup of coffee, with only tea available.
“For the first time, there was no ‘welcome’ or something like that in the programme,” Klopp continued with a giggle.
Liverpool were indeed handicapped ahead of kick off, but not by those trivial details. Influential defender Joel Matip was withdrawn from selection consideration with FIFA yet to confirm whether he is eligible to play for the club during the Africa Cup of Nations.
Their rearguard had already been rocked with Nathaniel Clyne unable to overcome pain in the muscles between his ribs, resulting in a first start for 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Captain Jordan Henderson was fit enough to lead Liverpool out at Old Trafford, but could not have been anywhere close to 100 per cent after overcoming a heel complaint.
Philippe Coutinho, who returned in a cameo at Southampton in midweek after ankle ligament damage, was on the bench.
And yet it was the Merseysiders who led until the death on Sunday courtesy of James Milner’s penalty.
United had fitness, the form of a nine-game winning run and home ground advantage in their favour, but seemed more pleased with the draw thanks to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 84th-minute header.
The discussions leading up to the tussle had centered around the rejuvenation of Jose Mourinho’s men.
Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba’s telepathy was sharp, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was back to the player that dazzled at Borussia Dortmund, while Michael Carrick’s partnership with Ander Herrera was proving highly effective in and out of possession.
And beyond all that, there was David de Gea, the goalkeeper usually man of the match against his club’s great enemies.
Klopp, in preparation for a more “in-tune” United, one that only conceded thrice in their nine-game winning streak, opted for a midfield diamond.
Negating the danger of being overrun in midfield, it led to a more measured rather than expansive approach.
Liverpool’s press had created multiple problems for the hosts, with the opener born out of their pressure. Roberto Firmino robbed a dallying Phil Jones, with Adam Lallana following in. The defender managed to halt the Brazilian from breaking through, but ceded a corner.
Pogba, having lost Dejan Lovren as he’d done during the previous set-pieces, panicked and handled the ball. Michael Oliver rightly had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and Milner, in front of the Stretford End, slammed his kick too high to the left of de Gea for the Spaniard to reach.
Preceding that period of play Pogba – the first player to gain a personalised Twitter emoji – wasted a fine pass from Mkhitaryan, failing to work Mignolet as he pulled his effort wide of the left post. His icon posted all over the advertising boards around the ground, it was an awful day for the France international to be in the spotlight. A more fitting emoticon would’ve been a facepalm.
The Liverpool stopper did make two strong interventions to deny Ibrahimovic from a free-kick and then the Armenia ace, who was through on goal.
In the second half United opted to go more direct to circumvent the visitors’ press. The Reds had dealt with the aerial bombardment well enough, with Mourinho stating: “It’s good to see Liverpool can play defensively too. And they were a danger in the counter-attacks.”
United’s feeding of Marouane Fellaini and Ibrahimovic finally paid dividends, albeit with an offside not being called on Valencia, who crossed from the right to Wayne Rooney. He found the Belgian, whose header hit the bottom of the far post. United kept the ball alive and in the scramble, Ibrahimovic brilliantly nodded over Mignolet and in off the underside of the bar.
As per Mourinho’s assertion, Liverpool were dangerous on the break and Gini Wijnaldum should have produced the winner late on.
Lovely interplay between Coutinho and Firmino teed up the unmarked midfielder, who tamely shot at de Gea. “We were the better side, we played better football, we had the better plan,” Klopp said post-match.
“We changed the system a little and there were situations were we could have been more clinical.
“We would have deserved three points today.”
Klopp, since his appointment in October 2015, has not lost away in the league to the club’s competitors, twice winning at Chelsea with victories against Manchester City and Arsenal as well. Tottenham have twice held them, with United denying the Reds today.
The pre-match anxiety on Sunday was misplaced, as it has been for every other big trip Liverpool have done in the division under Klopp.