Adam Lallana scored his first Liverpool goal for more than two-and-a-half years as Liverpool landed a sucker punch on Manchester United to preserve their unbeaten Premier League record.
Though the European champions’ winning streak in the league ends at 17, going back to their stalemate against Everton in March, Lallana’s cameo off the bench extended their lead over second-placed Manchester City to a healthy six points.
Earlier, Marcus Rashford had poked in a wonderful Daniel James cross while United were rarely troubled by their fierce rivals at the other end.
Their showing will give them heart, though the fact remains they have won just two of nine league games this season and are mired in 13th.
As is protocol in the Premier League this year, there was a hefty dose of VAR controversy. Jurgen Klopp was enraged after the video assistant refused to instruct referee Martin Atkinson of a foul on Divock Origi by Victor Lindelof in the build-up to Rashford’s goal.
Klopp was downright apoplectic moments later when VAR overturned a Sadio Mane goal moments later, as the ball had brushed the Senegal forward’s hand before he slotted home.
Here we VAR again
Not since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson – and Howard Webb – will armchair viewers have bayed as much for the blood of the Old Trafford officials. It’s the new, fandangled VAR we have to thank for that.
Letting United off the hook twice in several minutes is a sure-fire way to raise hackles, but the decisions in their specific ways were consistent. One was in line with what we’ve seen this weekend, the other with what we’ve seen the entire year.
Victor Lindelof undoubtedly made contact with Divock Origi’s leg before United swept up field to score. Was it enough for him the Belgian to topple to the floor? And had he already lost control of the ball? The existence of these questions meant that VAR could not overturn the goal.
🎙️ "James for Marcus Rashford!"— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) October 20, 2019
Think @GNev2 enjoyed that one? 🙌🏻
VAR controversially upholds Rashford opener and disallows Mane strike before Lallana leveller: https://t.co/rdc2TFkZeH pic.twitter.com/IuFDTIiGw3
A similar incident happened at Tottenham on Saturday, when Jan Vertonghen nibbled at Gerard Deulofeu several times only for Watford not to be awarded a penalty.
Those were the rules this week. What about before the international break? Marc Albrighton lightly tapped Mane’s ankle, and with the VAR winds blowing the other way, Liverpool got the spot-kick and proceeded to beat Leicester.
As for the handball, any incidental contact has seen goals struck off this season. It’s deeply unpopular – but ask yourself if we truly want to introduce more shades of grey to this nascent technology.
Solskjaer shows nous
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a fortnight to furiously draw up a plan for stymieing the league leaders and save his own skin. Surprisingly for some, the blueprint was more or less the best United could have hoped for.
Axel Tuanzebe’s bizarre hip injury during the warm-up – just who are the strength and conditioning coaches at Carrington? – forced Marcos Rojo into an experimental back three, while Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ashley Young were pushed so high up as to be genuine wing-backs.
That resulted in caution from Liverpool on the flanks, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson wary of letting Marcus Rashford and Daniel James slip inside to use their pace with the extra support. United were also able to shift Rojo and Lindelof out wider when called upon, and the visitors simply weren’t dynamic enough in midfield to capitalise on the space behind Scott McTominay and Fred in the centre.
What United possessed in energy wasn’t matched by ability. Andreas Pereira was sprightly, but several bone-headed decisions, particularly early on, illustrated why Solskjaer’s attack so often travels own cul-de-sacs.
Without James’ pace and two-footed menace they’d have had no success at all.
Bench pressed into action
Klopp eventually called upon the cavalry to spice up that mild midfield. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the lesser-spotted Lallana and then Naby Keita filtered into the game over the course of the last half an hour and started to drive their side at United’s weak points.
Forceful dribbles and smart, sharp runs begun to pick at the hosts’ seams with Lallana doing much of the heavy lifting in that regard, winning free-kicks and simply giving Liverpool an outlet.
⚽️ Adam Lallana has ended a run of 36 apps without a goal for Liverpool, since the 3-0 PL win v Middlesbrough, May 2017 - scored 4 goals in Dec 2016 but only once since before today pic.twitter.com/FBM6RVlaox— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) October 20, 2019
His moment came when Young decided not to track his run but it was a canny one nonetheless by a player who could well still be shown the door come the summer.
Escaping with a point was reward enough after a limp display. The greatest prize, however, was a reminder to themselves that they have the personnel to rectify a perceived weak point and apply dynamism to the centre of the park.