Another lacklustre performance from Liverpool against Manchester United at Old Trafford could yet prove costly — but for the bench it could have been much worse.
It was arguably the biggest game in English football, and it certainly lived up to expectations with the bitter feeling clear for all to see. Jürgen Klopp and his Reds went into the game as heavy favourites to win, after a flawless start to the season picking up maximum points from eight games. Sadly, nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems.
Following a timely international break for an injury-hit United, the hosts started the better team and showed intent from the off. Many expected a defensive compact game plan, but it proved much different as Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men pressed high, making it tough for the Reds to settle.
Like what you see? Get it for free!
Get all of our content delivered straight to your inbox — completely free of charge.
In what was a controversial end to a pulsating first half, VAR was called into action not once, but twice. The inquest will continue as to whether VAR has had a positive or negative impact on the game so far, although surely in the case of Marcus Rashford’s surprise opener the use of technology surely has to be better.
Divock Origi appeared to be clearly impeded having collected the ball in United’s half of the field. Swedish defender Victor Lindelöf looked to have fouled his man from behind. Referee Martin Atkinson evidently disagreed and allowed play to continue.
The attack that followed led to the hosts taking the lead. Immediately, Atkinson turned to the help of VAR to get the correct decision which the majority — including commentators Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville — thought would have been to overturn the goal. It wasn’t to be.
Just moments later, it was United’s opportunity to ask for VAR. Liverpool forward Sadio Mané managed to get the better of his man Lindelöf in the box and cleared an opening to score, only for it to be ruled out due to use of his arm. Fair to say the tensions were rising just before half time.
As the half time whistle blew Klopp had clearly seen enough, racing down the touchline to prepare for his team talk, but 15 minutes later and there was little change from his side’s performance. For the first time this season the Reds looked devoid of ideas and it showed by the German’s quick reaction to turn to his bench for inspiration.
First to enter the fray was energetic midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who replaced Origi. The Englishman showed his intent straight from his introduction, running at the opposition defence and forcing their defenders back.
Next up was the arrival of Adam Lallana, in for captain Jordan Henderson — who had been deployed on the right momentarily — before finally a recovered Naby Keïta got his chance to impress.
Make no mistake about it, without the use of his bench in this game United would have become the first side to beat the Reds in the Premier League this season. Solskjær’s tired side could cope with the direct running from the three substitutes and subsequently it was all hands on deck.
Not only were the Reds now in the ascendancy on the pitch, but also in the stands as the pressure piled up for the hosts. In the 85th minute, the pressure was finally rewarded and two of Klopp’s trusted introductions were heavily involved.
Keïta picked up the ball in the middle of the park and produced a bit of magic that may well go unnoticed in the grand scheme of things. However, without his intelligence who knows what might have happened.
The former Leipzig man held the ball just that extra few seconds allowing left-back Andrew Robertson to get beyond his man. Now in all sorts of space, the Scot instinctively flashed the ball across the box, where Lallana was on hand to tap it home for a crucial equaliser.
A late flurry almost provided the gloss for title chasing Reds but the point is all they could take back to Anfield. The squad depth that Klopp has created at Liverpool now is the difference between challenging for top four and competing for major trophies. The upturn in performance was certainly no coincidence, it was a result of quality entering the pitch.