United stoop to trench-digging for pragmatic draw at Liverpool | Jonathan Liew

United stoop to trench-digging for pragmatic draw at Liverpool | Jonathan Liew

The new plan isn’t any plan. Males standing, solemnly, in a spot. Protecting the areas, after which the areas in between the areas. Block, buffer, deny every part. You didn’t get Harry Kane and also you didn’t get Frenkie de Jong and also you didn’t get Declan Rice, and so right here you might be: watching Jonny Evans punt lengthy balls up the touchline within the hope – nay, the dream – that Antony can possibly get on the tip of it and win a throw.

And for Manchester United there needs to be no disgrace or chagrin in any of this, within the jubilation of their followers within the Anfield Street Stand because the curtain fell on this grizzled and forgettable sport. That is, fairly frankly, a membership that would use just a little extra of this sort of humility, a extra reasonable recognition of the place they stand within the taxonomy of English soccer. Sir Alex Ferguson was within the stands right here, and even his champion sides hardly ever regarded a degree at Anfield as a nasty level.

So when you’re Erik ten Hag, nursing a group sitting eighth within the Premier League with a aim distinction of minus three and an damage checklist stretching to Altrincham, you merely take your medication, settle for the struggling, plod the trail of most resistance. You lay out your two banks of 4 like a tarpaulin, squeeze and frustrate. And if there have been occasions right here when United appeared like a group surviving somewhat than actually dwelling, then maybe it’s as a result of Ten Hag himself is a person in full-on survival mode, combating for his challenge, combating the vacuum that has sucked the 5 earlier coaches earlier than him into its vortex.

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There have been even possibilities, late on, for United to hit the jackpot. As the sport opened out within the second half, United nonetheless periodically threatened on the counter, creating possibilities for Rasmus Højlund (there’s your downside) and Scott McTominay from distance (additionally: there’s your downside). Marcus Rashford got here on within the closing minutes and did a satisfactory impression of a person who knew learn how to rating as soon as. However for essentially the most half it was gloriously grim, a masterclass in tactical pragmatism, a victory for nothing in any respect.

You could possibly see it within the bizarre goal-kick routine, which concerned Raphaël Varane tapping the ball sideways for André Onana in addition the ball so far as he may, a method that reaped no conceivable sporting benefit however did eat valuable seconds out of the sport. You could possibly see it within the petty free-kicks and the hefty rugby-style punts to the touch. You could possibly see it in the way in which United principally gave up on urgent after about half an hour and easily dug themselves a trench.

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It was a low block, pretty much a 4-4-2 out of possession, with Antony and Alejandro Garnacho effectively double full-backs and McTominay at the top of midfield. McTominay’s increasing importance to this United side since almost being sold in the summer has been one of the more curious subplots of this season: from expendable makeweight to handy midfield option to principal goal threat and now stand-in captain and – according to Ten Hag – “one of the examples of what it means to play for Manchester United”. And for all the pleasing symmetry of the personal redemption arc, it’s also possible to wonder how a club of United’s size and resources developed such a reliance on such a yeoman player. Whether – in other words – it’s McTominay who got big, or United who got small.

Behind him Sofyan Amrabat chased down loose balls without ever really threatening to win control of one, and the promising Kobbie Mainoo was assigned the role of snuffing out Liverpool counter-attacks by fair means or foul. For all its lack of sophistication as a defensive tactic, it worked pretty much perfectly. You can point to Liverpool’s 34 shots on goal, but few of those shots were of decent quality. And after a red-hot opening United quietened the Anfield roar, kept their shape, dragged Jürgen Klopp’s team down to their level.

Darwin Núñez, right, and Raphaël Varane battle for the ball at Anfield. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

The real question is whether United can – or even should – have anything more to offer than this. Many United fans and ex-players will argue that they need to show more ambition against weaker opponents, but where exactly are those weaker opponents? Where did billowing hubris get them against Brighton or Crystal Palace or Bournemouth or Copenhagen? Why should United approach their trip to West Ham next weekend any differently? Perhaps it is unfair to demand that a team in this state of permanent flux, so evidently short of Champions League standard, start playing sparkling Champions League football.

And so of course you can pin your hopes on that delicious Mainoo pass to Garnacho in the second half, and the injuries clearing up, and Højlund finally banging them in, and the Ineos takeover eventually going through. But right now you take your clean sheet and you are grateful for it. You fight for the present, because at Manchester United you learn soon enough that the future never comes.

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