LIVERPOOL, England — Manchester United’s wait for a victory at Liverpool has rolled into its eighth year, but Sunday’s 0-0 draw at Anfield was a win for manager Erik ten Hag. It was a day when his players slammed the brakes on their nine-game losing streak against top 10 opponents away from Old Trafford, and turned down the volume on crisis talk sparked by three defeats in four games ahead of this clash against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
“Football always starts with good organisation and defending,” Ten Hag said. “If I have a criticism, it is that we should have had more passes going into the box to hurt the opponent. That’s the next step we have to make. We have to get more consistent in our performance levels.”
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Don’t be fooled into thinking that United and Ten Hag are out of their season-long crisis, though: it will take more than this backs-to-the-wall performance to prove that the only way is up. However, the manner of Sunday’s result, and the players who earned it, will give Ten Hag the confidence to believe that his side can now emerge from their slump.
United lost 7-0 at Anfield last season and were beaten 4-0 a year earlier — halting that horror show of results against their biggest rivals was the priority, and they did that. Liverpool had 69% of possession and created 34 shots compared to United’s six. They outscored United by 12-0 on the corner count, but when referee Michael Oliver blew for full-time, both sides left the pitch with a point.
“I can’t remember such a dominant performance against Man Utd — even the 7-0,” Liverpool manager Klopp told Sky Sports. “Now it’s 0-0 they probably feel slightly better than us, but we take the point and keep going.
“We tried everything and the numbers we created — in terms of shots — is crazy. But with that amount of shots, there should be a few more on target. That was our fault, and we go from here. From a passion point of view, Manchester United played a fantastic game — they put everything into it.”
Klopp’s assessment of United was another win for Ten Hag. Too often this season, United have been devoid of passion and commitment, and it’s been reflected in their results, most notably their insipid 2-0 defeat at Newcastle. Due to injuries, suspensions, loss of form and, in the case of Jadon Sancho, disciplinary issues, Ten Hag has struggled to produce a United team capable of beating mid-table opponents this season, never mind title-chasing sides like Liverpool.
Such woeful results and performances have put the former Ajax coach under pressure to mount a convincing case for him to remain in his position when INEOS, led by Sir Jim Ratcliffe, finalise their deal to buy a 25% stake in United and take over control of football operations from the club’s owners, the Glazer family.
After exiting the Champions League this week by finishing bottom of Group A, the last thing Ten Hag would have wanted was a trip to Anfield, especially with so many players unavailable. Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelöf, Lisandro Martínez, Mason Mount, Casemiro, Bruno Fernandes, Anthony Martial, Tyrell Malacia and Christian Eriksen were all unavailable, as was Sancho, who hasn’t kicked a ball for United since August due to his spat with Ten Hag. The catalogue of absences left the United manager with a patched-up team and a midfield duo of a slow and careless Sofyan Amrabat and the promising, but inexperienced, teenager Kobbie Mainoo, while his front three of Antony, Rasmus Hojlund and Alejandro Garnacho had managed one goal between them all season in the Premier League.
This game was all about crisis management for Ten Hag. His team was exposed and vulnerable against a Liverpool side with a recent history of tearing United apart, but he somehow managed to coax out a performance of commitment and organisation that has been absent too often this season. And by the end of the game, United ultimately created the clearest chance to score and win the game, when interplay between Scott McTominay and Hojlund resulted in Hojlund having a clear strike on goal from six yards in the 67th minute. The Denmark international aimed his shot too close to goalkeeper Alisson, who blocked the attempt to keep the summer signing still waiting for his first league goal for United.
Overall, it wasn’t pretty, and United’s defensive performance betrayed the traditions of a club that once won with style and audacity — Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk said “only one team tried to win the game” — but it ended with a result that could be the pressing of a reset button for Ten Hag.
“There were a lot of aspects, absolutely,” Ten Hag said. “I think the performance was very good from our side. The game plan went well, the players were brilliant how they stuck together and were in the fight.
“We have a good squad, a good team and we can make something out of this season.”
Out of Europe and with only the league and FA Cup to focus on, Ten Hag now has a six-month period with one game per week to get his players fit and to figure things out on the training ground. It will make or break him as United manager because there will be no more excuses by the time the end of the season comes around.
But if Ten Hag does get United back on track, he will look back on this game at Anfield as the day when the bounce-back started.