Liverpool-Man United’s latest marquee game falls flat


Playing football while a pandemic is raging takes its toll in different ways. The absence of fans in almost every stadium is the obvious price that robs the sport of its cultural framework. The onslaught of games, squeezed into an even tighter than usual schedule to make every final game and tournament possible, has brought players to their knees and caused all kinds of injuries. And a number of games had to be postponed as more and more positive cases occur with some teams.

But insisting on a full season regardless of the debilitating circumstances has had another effect that is perhaps harder to quantify: few of the big games have delivered.

On Sunday, the final, much-touted episode of the Liverpool-Manchester United rivalry heralded a rare edition with both teams actively participating in the title race. Oddly enough, these two Premier League juggernauts almost never thrive at the same time. In the 1970s and 1980s, Liverpool’s global dominance coincided with a long swoon from the United States. Legendary Red Devils manager Sir Alex Ferguson set out to reverse that dynamic, and he did so when United won 13 titles in 21 years and Liverpool went without one for 30 years. In the aftermath of Ferguson, United turned around when Liverpool finally came back to the top under Jurgen Klopp.

Before that game, United were back in first place – the first time since 2013 that it had led the league this deep into the season – and Liverpool were the defending champions to take the lead with a win.

The game disappoints. This rare encounter between Peak Liverpool and Peak (ish) United resulted in a game that was tight and tense but resulted in no goals and few scoring opportunities. It was the fourth game without a win for Liverpool, while United have now put their unbeaten streak back in more than two and a half months. It was also the third time in four games that Liverpool, who slipped to fourth place as United, have been sent off. Despite the only goal in this stretch, the Reds lead the league with 37 goals in 18 games.

The Manchester United and Liverpool clash on Sunday wasn’t a bad game per se, but it was just a marquee. (Phil Noble / Pool via AP)

It wasn’t a bad game in itself. There were strong individual performances from Paul Pogba and Harry Maguire on United’s side and Gini Wijnaldum and Fabinho on Liverpool’s side. Thiago was bossy. Bruno Fernandes was also for stretches. But by and large, it was more like a game of chess that ended in a humble stalemate than a showdown between the highest-scoring teams in the league. Liverpool had more ball but lacked precision at break. United had better chances but lacked precision in completing them. Fin.

It wasn’t the first mega game of the season to be deflated and hyped before the air slowly oozed out of it.

Despite the defensive fragility and widespread hits, Chelsea drew 0-0 against United in October and 0-0 against Tottenham Hotspur in November. The game also ended 0-0 after feverish preparation for the Manchester derby in December, which likely saved Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job before the United manager put his team in first place. And then there was City Liverpool in November, a great game for one half and a bland one for the other, as the players ran out of gas.

Then there were downright bizarre results, like Spurs, who trampled United 6-1 at Old Trafford, or City, who slipped 5-2 to third place in Leicester City.

It’s hard to find a reason for the sheer number of submissive or one-sided games between the big teams. It could be the effect of all of these injuries – the fact that Liverpool were forced to use two of their best midfielders to plug holes in their defenses and starve their rhythm attack, for example.

It could be a general tiredness due to the schedule. It is possible that the increasing reliance on reserve players as teams plumb their depth maps has diminished their sharpness. Or maybe the differences between the big teams are reduced to the point where they cancel each other out while retaining enough weight advantage to rumble over the smaller teams.

Perhaps the lack of fans is taking the edge off these big games and somehow watering down their urgency. Perhaps managers have become risk averse in an open title race.

None of this is detectable. Much of it cannot be argued convincingly either. You can find counterpoints to any of these if you want. But taken together, they could explain one of the stranger aspects of a relentlessly strange season.

Tuesday brings Leicester-Chelsea. The following week is Spurs-Liverpool on the program. Be excited at your risk.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a columnist at Emox News and a lecturer in sports communications at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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