Manchester United and Liverpool played out a rather eventful 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, as James Milner first half penalty was cancelled out by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s deft header in a hotly contested affair between the North West giants.
This meant that United’s impressive seven game winning run in all competitions was snapped at the hands of Sunday’s visitors but they still remain one of Europe’s in form sides having gone unbeaten now in 16 games – the highest active unbeaten streak in Europe’s top five leagues. Here are the three things that we have learnt of the Red Devils in their latest fistfight at the top end of the table.
1. United are struggling in big games
Manchester United maybe unbeaten since early November but Sunday’s stalemate was probably their worst performance since that period – given the circumstances i.e the form Liverpool went into and the number of key players they missed in their starting line-up. On the other hand, United lined up with probably 10 of their first choice 11 but still only managed three shots on target in the entire game, which is fewer than their average (6) and never really tested Simon Mignolet and a weakened Liverpool defence.
But this has been a pattern in the big games against fellow top six sides in the league. United have now failed to beat Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool at home and their only win against a side higher than them in the league table came against Spurs at Old Trafford. Although, Manchester United are playing much better than they did at any point in the post Sir Alex era, the Red Devils need to make the big step up in crunch games in a league where there is very little to separate the big boys.
2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is worth his weight in gold
Old Trafford roared with relief when the Swede put the only chance he was given in front of goal into the back of the net drawing United level late into the game. This was his 19th goal in the season in all competitions, 14th in the Premier League, at least 10 more than any other in the squad. His goal tally is remarkable and for a player who is 35 in his debut season in the most intense league in Europe, who has in truth got very little to prove to anyone, is testament to the player’s insatiable hunger and drive, which is pushing United in the right direction.
The Swede has scored 44% of his side’s goals in the league and is definitely one of the best signings that United have made in recent seasons, but their overall goal output in the league is less than satisfactory for a side littered with attacking prowess, particularly when pitted against the teams they want to be in the mix with. If the Red Devils were to propel themselves into that top four, they will need more than just their centre-forward to deliver the goals.
3. Mourinho’s Game Management is Making a Difference
United are reaping the rewards of having a manager who knows the league in England more than most, with the astuteness that has made a tangible impact more so in recent weeks. Not only has Mourinho settled on a first eleven, that includes a settled midfield and back four who have been doing consistently well since December, the Portuguese has also cracked how to make game-changing substitutions with this United squad.
Against Middlesbrough, Manchester United managed to claw back a one goal deficit, largely down to the manager’s substitutions of Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford in the second half. The pair also made a similar impact combining for the first goal at the London Stadium earning United a vital 2-0 win after a drab goalless first half. In the League Cup first leg encounter, Fellaini scored the all important second goal after coming on from the bench, which gave United a much-needed cushion ahead of the return leg away from home. On Sunday, his changes in the second half brought about the directness which finally bypassed Liverpool’s pressure and contributed to the equalizer in the dying embers of the game. United seem to have a potent plan B, at long last.
It’s no coincidence that the Red Devils have scored 9 of their last 14 goals (in six games) on or after the 75th minute at a time when Mourinho’s influence on the outcome with the timing and nature of his substitutions has shone. But it will be interesting to see if the Portuguese manager can guide this squad to considerable success on all four fronts they are competing in, at this moment in time where results are the be-all and end-all.