Ole Gunnar Solskjr got so much right in Sundays draw at Old Trafford but even a lethargic Liverpool were good enough to deny him a much-needed victory
So close. So, so close. Manchester United came within five minutes of pulling off their best result since Paris in March. Had they done so, Ole Gunnar Solskjr would have been hailed for his tactical genius, for the boldness of the changes that forced Liverpool into their worst performance of the season, for the vision that found a plan from the most unpromising pieces.
But results are the great validifiers, and the 1-1 draw leaves United two points above the teams in the relegation zone. As Solskjr observed last week, in what must have been for him a moment of devastating self-realisation, its not the 1990s any more.
Perhaps this will prove a springboard. Perhaps this was the performance that will remind United what they can be. Perhaps (and this may be more important to United fans in the short term) this will sow doubts at Liverpool and interrupt their title challenge.
The sense was that Adam Lallanas late equaliser changed everything. That it will persuade Liverpool they can still pull out results when everything is going against them and that it will confirm to United board, fans and players that stagnation is now their state.
Even the identity of the goalscorer seemed to be making a point: Lallana, a player blighted by injury, scoring his first goal since May 2017. Sometime the fates really have it in for you: Mohamed Salah is injured; you have blunted Sadio Man; you have kept Roberto Firmino quiet; you have seen off Divock Origi; and you end up being the patsy to a heartwarming comeback story. In the 90s it was United who played with the force of fairytale story behind them.
Solskjr got much right. The switch to a back three allowed the wing-backs, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ashley Young to push higher and engage Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson early. The Liverpool pair contributed 23 assists between them last season and had added a further two each this. But at Old Trafford they ended up hitting a string of crosses from deeper positions from where they are easier to defend, particularly when you have three central defenders waiting. The result was the cross accuracy of Liverpools full-backs was 17.6%, having been at 27.6% over the first eight games of the season.
But the leveller, of course, for this really was not Solskjrs day, stemmed from a mis-hit cross from Robertson on the left, on one of the few occasions he had got into a dangerous position high on that flank.
The back three also allowed Solskjr to sit two holding midfielders deep, in just the area where Firmino likes to drop. At the same time, that trapezium of five defensive players packed into a central block the same structure that was so effective for Antonio Contes Chelsea was hard for Liverpools midfield to penetrate, one of the reasons why their passing was so wayward. Again and again they seemed to choose the wrong option, at least in part because the usual option was not available.