When Liverpool played Manchester United 12 months ago, the table looked somewhat different. The world felt animated and bustling. Football was a drama with an audience and not a rehearsal without a crowd. There was a 27-point gap between the teams before the match, a 30-point gap after the match, and a general feeling that these two sides were in different stratospheres, especially for the first 65 minutes as the Reds hammered harder on the door than is technically possible without a) increasing their one-goal lead or b) breaking something.
Looking back, there were signs that United were not about to bow down to the Champions-Elect. Wise after the event? Maybe, but there might be something in it. As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said at the time: “The last 10-15 minutes we really pressed them back and made them look tired and us look really fit. We didn’t have quality with our finishing or last pass.” Anthony Martial blasted one over the bar but nobody was really listening to the Norwegian back then; he wasn’t the story. The Kop were singing: “We’re going to win the league.”
Solskjaer has been gently and mercilessly mocked after being greeted as the Messiah after the extraordinary PSG win in March 2019. He’s a good chap and club legend, former baby-faced assassin, hero of ‘99 and any other OGS Bingo shout-outs you can muster. In managing of one of the biggest clubs in the world, he has appeared to lack the gravitas to sustain the good moments. It was only a few weeks ago that his ‘Leipzig lockdown’ prompted severe question marks about motivational or tactical considerations. It will come back to bite on Thursday nights, but for now there is a great big shining light at the end of the tunnel to salve that sore. United are in a title race.
Almost a year on from that 2-0 defeat at Anfield, United are now level on points with Liverpool with a game in hand against Burnley and a visit to the supposedly ailing champions thereafter. To some, this may seem like a strange universe that can only be explained by multiple factors that would not normally combine. How about losing a world-class centre-back and a world-class midfielder for months to Everton Taekwondo tactics in the same game? Others might say, well, that’s life. Deal with it. Perhaps it is time to take them seriously, something which requires a bit of practice for those who still mock PE teachers.
United have taken 26 points from the last 30. That was Liverpool efficiency not so long ago. A closer look at the granular data of the games can tell us a little more. Two-nil down in the 59th minute against Southampton, United found a rhythm and purpose to steal all three points at the death. They also found their way back from a total blackout of a first half against West Ham, who could have been out of sight. The Old Trafford side stunk the place out against Wolves too, but like that last-gasp Divock Origi goal against Everton, there’s nothing like a messy winner to get things going. The Red Devils have won a league high of 15 points from losing positions, while Liverpool have leaked late goals to lose points against Everton, Brighton and West Brom, something they totally avoided through the duration of the 2019/20 season.
It is much easier to idly talk of title challenges, or for Brendan Rodgers to threaten to “disrupt the Premier League hierarchy” in early January when the pack are bunched. Rodgers is prone to excitable vocabulary and may come to regret speaking out after playing down his team’s chances before. Ole has been a bit more circumspect, suggesting that he can talk of the title ‘later’, as if he has control of the subject. We simply don’t know how this team will react in extremis without a trophy-winning manager in tow. Liverpool know how it feels to come close without delivering anything silvery. Until they had breached that trophy cabinet, the label of ‘bottlers’ or ‘bridesmaids’ was almost their trademark. Ole’s troops still have to face the inevitable Troy Deeney cojones task after failing their exam papers against Manchester City, Chelsea and Sevilla in three semi-finals. The first litmus test for real pressure will be that game against a revitalised City on Wednesday.
The Premier League 2020/21 is a packed Grand National field and we haven’t even got to the Chair. Some will lose their riders (watch your back, Frank) and some will inevitably tire down the very long straight. Solskaer is about to find out whether he has the requisite thoroughbreds and the crack of the whip to ride them home. Close, but no cigar really means something this season.
Tim Ellis – follow him on Twitter