Liverpool needed a more clinical striker while Man United needed to play better
Saturday's goalless draw between Liverpool and Manchester United was the second consecutive 0-0 at Anfield between the sides and Jose Mourinho is yet to win at any of the Premier League's "big six" since arriving at Old Trafford last summer. This was classic Mourinho: Play defensively and settle for a draw, against a big side.
The critics had their complaints ready before the match even began, but look beyond the score and this was actually a perfectly entertaining match, at least for the first hour. Both sides had presentable goalscoring opportunities and the main reason the game remained goalless was the excellent performance of David De Gea, who made a truly wonderful save from Joel Matip.
The "expected goal" statistic from the game was 1.8-0.3 in favour of Liverpool, which tells us two things. First, the game was reasonably open and the chances created were of better quality than several others games in England's top flight at the weekend, including Watford's win over Arsenal. The ball simply didn't cross the goal line; it was a very different goalless draw from last season's snoozefest.
Second, more importantly, it demonstrates that United were not defensively solid: Liverpool created much the better opportunities. The main story is surely that the away side simply didn't play very well.
Mourinho was concerned about Liverpool's counter-attacking, so was cautious in the number of men he committed into attacking positions. Further, the use of Ashley Young on the wing is always a surefire sign that United will be playing defensively.
But their primary method of attack -- attempting to play direct balls toward Romelu Lukaku and depending upon him to get the better of Dejan Lovren -- seemed a reasonable bet. Going into the game, you'd back the Belgian forward but Lovren had a tremendous game. Tenacious without being reckless, he stuck tight to his man and won the ball quickly and cleanly, with Matip always in a good covering position behind.
Lukaku wasn't able to get the better of Liverpool's full-backs, either. Alberto Moreno was barely troubled on the left and has improved the defensive side of his game. On the opposite flank, Joe Gomez was arguably the star performer and showed tremendous defensive discipline to help deny Lukaku the one time he escaped the attentions of Lovren.
This was the game's key incident. After 43 minutes, Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Lukaku were involved in a clever passing triangle on the edge of the Liverpool box, which led to United's striker going through on goal. He shaped as if to shoot left of Simon Mignolet, but Gomez darted inside to cover behind his centre-backs, which seemingly forced Lukaku to instead shoot straight at Liverpool's goalkeeper.
This was United's best chance and a rare time they got numbers into attacking positions. But Mourinho will have been concerned by what happened next: United throwing players forward had created their most clear-cut opportunity, but immediately played into Liverpool's hands.
After Roberto Firmino launched a counter-attack, Mohamed Salah dribbled down the right and then slipped in Philippe Coutinho, who couldn't quite find the angle to switch the ball into the path of the onrushing Emre Can.
Mourinho made little attempt to win the game after half-time but neither did Jurgen Klopp. Having started with three solid central midfielders -- Can, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum -- a natural move would have been to sacrifice one of them to introduce Daniel Sturridge, the penalty-box poacher Liverpool were sorely missing, with Coutinho reverting to his favoured position as part of a midfield trio.
In fact, Coutinho played so deep from his nominal wide-left position that he often appeared more like a fourth midfielder anyway, leaving Liverpool undermanned in the box. As it was, Klopp didn't make any substitutions until the 78th minute and, when he did, replaced his front three, which hardly constituted an attacking move.
Granted, Firmino, Salah and Coutinho had endured a long week of travelling and Klopp was probably right to give them a breather. Indeed, it's worth considering whether Liverpool will continually suffer because their four key attackers -- the aforementioned three and Sadio Mane -- face considerable journeys back from international duty on a relatively regular basis.
Klopp has deliberately built a team without an out-and-out striker and while that's a valid approach in 2017, it is not a coincidence that Liverpool's goal return is frequently less than their pressure and chances would suggest. Sometimes you need a proper No. 9 and Saturday was one of those occasions, yet Sturridge played only 10 minutes.
But the post-match focus was on Mourinho and his defensiveness. Curiously, these performances seem to constantly prompt comparisons with United's displays under Sir Alex Ferguson, complete with questionable assertions that the legendary manager would never been so defensive in a Premier League match. This, though, is a re-writing of history.
There were plenty of occasions when Ferguson set up defensively and based around the counter-attack in big games during the mid-2000s. The use of Park Ji-sung was equivalent to Mourinho's use of Young, while Wayne Rooney spent long periods screening his own left-back in a similar manner to Anthony Martial at Anfield.
In fact, one of Ferguson's primary inspirations during this period was clearly Mourinho, whose safety-first approach at Chelsea revolutionised the Premier League and forced his managerial rivals to adjust.
More than a decade later, there's certainly an argument that Mourinho might need to adjust to win more games in a season that will probably require 90 points for the title. To get to that stage, however, it's probably about playing better than they were on Saturday, as opposed to simply attacking more.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.