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Ken Early: It was typical Liverpool at Old Trafford – creating chances but lacking the ruthlessness to take them

The Manchester United-Liverpool match was far more entertaining than the nullity of Manchester City v Arsenal, but which team do you think will win the title?

Last weekend, Manchester City and Arsenal put on an exhibition of futuristic nullity. Yesterday, Manchester United and Liverpool showed us the other kind of football. The out-of-control, make-it-make-sense kind, strewn with chaotic and random events that nevertheless seem to conform to ancient laws of superstition and magic.

Most of us prefer to watch this kind of match, but by the end of this one it looked more likely than ever that one of Arsenal or Manchester City will be winning the Premier League title.

An AI of the type the big clubs now have analysing football might assume that superiority of the kind Liverpool enjoyed in the first half at Old Trafford would continue in the second. The football we all grew up watching taught us that if you have 15 chances in the first half and only score once, you can expect to pay for it.

When Jarell Quansah’s slack square pass gave Bruno Fernandes a glimpse of the target from 45 yards, the United captain scored a goal-of-the-month contender with United’s first shot of the game. At least, it was a goal-of-the-month contender for about 15 minutes, until Kobbie Mainoo scored an even better one.


Jürgen Klopp might not agree that Mainoo’s goal was quite that good. All season people have been laughing at Manchester United for their habit of absent-mindedly allowing a huge empty space to open up between the front and back of their team. Mainoo’s goal came after Liverpool staged a tribute act to United’s signature move.

There was no obvious danger when Casemiro, under pressure in his own half, hooked a ball over his own shoulder in the general direction of midfield. But because the Liverpool midfielders had all pushed forward on to Casemiro, Mainoo was left as the only player in the middle.

In this situation Klopp expects his defenders to close down and challenge the opponent, but instead Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson dropped off, giving Mainoo space to turn and run at the defence. A quick interchange of passes, an inspired spin and shot from Mainoo, and United had a scarcely believable lead.

The Liverpool manager exploded at his defenders. “You have to push up!” he screamed from the sideline. Their passivity as the ball came to Mainoo was a detail many in the crowd would have missed, but to the press-obsessed Klopp these are the moments that make the difference.

All the same, you could forgive Van Dijk and Robertson if they thought, maybe you should give a bit of that to Darwin Nuñez or Dominik Szoboszlai. Sure, we shouldn’t have let Mainoo turn, but should they really be missing this many chances?

It’s been a familiar pattern for Liverpool this season: they generate so many chances that they outgun the mid-ranked and lower sides, but they lack the ruthlessness to beat the bigger teams.

They have eight points and just one victory from eight matches against the other teams in the top six. Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City all came away from Anfield with a draw. In those three matches Liverpool had 65 shots and scored just twice – one of those a penalty.

Nuñez’s failure to score against any top-six opposition hasn’t stopped the Liverpool fans loving him with a kind of desperate fervour. His air of self-belief is infectious. He is obviously not one of those players, like Tony Cascarino, who has an abusive inner voice telling them they are no good and beating them down during games.

But maybe he could do with the kind of inner voice that occasionally makes constructive suggestions to help with decision-making.

Just after Bruno’s equaliser, Szoboszlai intercepted Alejandro Garnacho’s pass on the edge of the Liverpool area and suddenly Liverpool were breaking with eight United players caught behind the ball. The break culminated with Luis Díaz passing to Nuñez arriving at the far post.

Nuñez had three good options. He could try to score directly at the near post, he could cut back and score into an empty net once Aaron Wan-Bissaka and André Onana had finished sliding out of his way, or he could play a short pass back to the unmarked Szoboszlai for a tap-in.

He chose option four: hammering the ball across goal to absolutely nobody. It was worse than a miss. It was just not the sort of thing a top player would do.

There are those at Liverpool who claim the club would not swap Darwin for Erling Haaland. You suspect the people at City would be even less enthusiastic about that prospective swap.

Knowing the draw has cost his side the initiative, Klopp tried some Alex Ferguson-type run-in commentary. “Arsenal is a good football team and if United play like today, Arsenal will win that game, I’m 100 per cent sure. I’m really sorry to say that but this is a matter of fact. We should’ve won both games and didn’t. That’s our fault.”

Klopp doesn’t have much practice with mind games – and it shows. When Ferguson caused Kevin Keegan to explode with rage in 1996, he did it with the sly suggestion that other teams would not try as hard against Newcastle as they did against Manchester United.

“For some of them it’s more important to get a result against Manchester United, to stop them winning the league than anything else. To me, they’re cheating their manager. Of course, when they come to Newcastle, you wait and see the difference,” he said after United had beaten Leeds at Old Trafford.

By accusing the Leeds players of betraying their manager, Ferguson put them under real pressure. The implication was they were good enough to get a result against Newcastle, if only they had the integrity to actually try. It was an insult that the Leeds players were bound to respond to.

All Klopp has done is say that United aren’t good enough to take any points from Arsenal. Stating this widely-held view doesn’t put United under any extra pressure, and the only team he’s insulted here is his own.