Manchester United started their evening with protest, but ended it with their helds held high for the first time in a very long time.
1) When was the last time a club started a match on quite such a low, but found quite such a high so quickly? Before kick-off at Old Trafford for one of their biggest games of the season, Manchester United seemed on the brink of some sort of meltdown. But by the time the full-time whistle blew, the atmosphere inside Old Trafford couldn’t have been more different, a raucous celebration of a win of the utmost practical and symbolic importance.
2) There were protests against the Glazers outside Old Trafford prior to the start of the match, with aerial shots outside Old Trafford about 40 minutes before kick-off indicating that thousands had joined the march organised by protest group The 1958. But any hopes that protests might #EmptyOldTrafford seemed to fall somewhat on deaf ears. When Casemiro took to the pitch before the match to be introduced to the crowd, he was met with a mixture of polite applause and anti-Glazer songs.
And these aerial shots contrasted sharply with footage shared on social media of a number of United supporters throwing bottles at a coach which they presumably expected to house Liverpool supporters but which actually turned out to be full of United-supporting schoolchildren instead. It should go without saying that they shouldn’t be lobbing bottles at anyone, but it’s not a strong look for anyone at the club, fans included, that something like this should have happened.
Liverpool supporters, for their part, turned up singing ‘Glazers In’ and wearing masks of the United owners.
3) Both managers made changes following disappointing starts to the season. Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo could exchange ribald bantz on the bench as they were both dropped, along with Luke Shaw and Fred. Both the replacement of Maguire and Ronaldo were stories in themselves; Maguire as the club captain, and Ronaldo within the context of everything that has been going on with him over the course of the summer.
Manchester United’s re-jigged defence of Diogo Dalot, Lisandro Martinez, Raphael Varane and Tyrell Malacia contained no-one who started their 5-0 home defeat in the corresponding match last season. Scott McTominay and Anthony Elanga were the other players brought in, with Elanga taking Ronaldo’s place in a front three with Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.
After a strangely sluggish start in the league, Liverpool also had changes to make. One of them was enforced – Darwin Nunez was suspended after his little rush of blood to Joachim Andersen’s forehead; Roberto Firmino deputised – but the others looked tactical, with Jordan Henderson and Joe Gomez replacing Fabinho and Nat
Lofthouse Busby Phillips.
But the Nunez sending-off had distracted a little from a second consecutive sub-par performance in the league this season, from Liverpool against Crystal Palace. Indeed, the Palace game was the sixth Premier League match in a row in which Liverpool had fallen behind, and even though they’d failed to lose any of those games (indeed, it’s usually considered a tribute to a team’s strength of character to be able to come from behind like this), it already felt like a bit of a statistical anomaly. By the end of the evening, that run was over.
4) All of this made it a bad night to be playing Manchester United. Everybody knows how Old Trafford can grow on a big day or night, fuelled by the cacophonous nose of 70-odd thousand baying fans, and that the first five or ten minutes is critical in getting the crowd going and building a momentum which may become self-perpetuating.
And when it came to the first goal, Liverpool had already had a warning, when Elanga found himself unmarked as Bruno Fernandes swept the ball across from the left and hit the base of the post. But no, six minutes later United had the lead, with Liverpool’s defence standing around like mannequins as Jadon Sancho stopped, got the ball under control, took a step to get his balance right, and passed the ball past Alisson to give United the lead.
It was this sort of composure that was part of the package that they paid £72m for in the first place, but Sancho had until this moment been suffering from the same affliction as so many of his team-mates. Whether this is a flash in the pan or the start of him blooming into the player that everybody knows he could be remains open to question, but this was a clear and obvious step in the right direction.
5) But it was a torrid evening for Trent Alexander-Arnold. He was booked after 25 minutes, the culmination of a first quarter when Elanga showed him a clean pair of heels more often than he should have been comfortable with – though it should be added that he was left somewhat exposed by a Liverpool midfield that didn’t seem particularly inclined to offer him a great deal of support.
6) For 35 minutes, Manchester United’s new defence wasn’t put under a great deal of pressure, but on the rare occasions throughout the first half they coped well, with two players making a beeline for Mo Salah every time the ball passed within ten yards of him. And Salah being neutered was more than enough to quell any significant Liverpool threat. Firmino looked off the pace all evening, and Luis Diaz seemed to want to stay wide on the left, which made him more of a potential supplier of goals. Liverpool missed Darwin Nunez and his ability to occupy the centre-halves and run in behind.
But by contrast, confidence was flowing through Manchester United by the mid-period of the first half, probably best epitomised by Christian Eriksen trying a free-kick from an angle best described as ‘ambitious’, but which still required an excellent save from Alisson.
7) But Liverpool’s central midfield was largely conspicuous only by its absence throughout much of the game. Jordan Henderson and James Milner may have added experience to the team, but alongside they didn’t offer much energy or pressing and seemed overrun every time United showed any aggression whatsoever. As the half progressed, they did finally start to get into attacking positions, but David de Gea was barely tested throughout the half.
8) For all the chest-beating that had been coming from Old Trafford throughout the first half, a stern reminder of how brittle this new-found energy might be came five minutes from half-time, when James Milner’s header across goal was inexplicably driven towards his own goal by Bruno Fernandes, only to thump off the fortunately placed Lisandro Martinez and away to safety. Never forget, this moment seemed to be telling us, Manchester United have still got this sort of thing in them.
9) Anthony Elanga was replaced by the returning Anthony Martial at half-time. It felt like a somewhat surprising tactical switch, considering how much success Elanga had found throughout the first half, but it took less than ten minutes into the second half for the change to reap its reward.
Marcus Rashford is another player whose crisis of confidence at Old Trafford over the last couple of seasons became so great that it even seemed possible that he may leave this transfer window for a fresh start. But on this particular evening, reshuffling the attack gave Rashford the space to match the energy he’d shown in the first half, and when Martial split the Liverpool defence with a through ball eight minutes into the second half, he rolled back the years to finish with a confidence that has been missing from his game for too long.
10) James Milner and Virgil Van Dijk are senior professional players with well over a thousand senior appearances between them. As such, both should be embarrassed by the bickering that flared up between them more than once throughout the course of the evening. It looked like an admission of defeat from both players.
11) While it’s clear that Liverpool have very much been missing Sadio Mane since he departed for Munich in July, the problems in this match couldn’t be boiled down to that alone. The battle was being won and lost in midfield, and it seems difficult to believe that Mane’s presence on the pitch would alone have made an appreciable difference to Liverpool. The ball quite possibly wouldn’t have got near him anyway for much of the game.
12) But Manchester United’s confidence can only be brittle at the moment, and they had a warning that their buffer might not be completely comfortable when the ball smacked off Firmino and brought a save from De Gea. But from the resulting corner, United did fail to clear and Salah bundled the ball over the line. From being a game on the wind-down, the quiet inside Old Trafford reflected less a drop in intensity as a sudden collective rising of very familiar-feeling nerves.
13) Within seconds of the goal having been scored, Bruno Fernandes might have found himself getting sent off after first withholding the ball from the now suddenly hurried Mo Salah and then claiming to have been struck in the face. Already on a yellow card for an earlier dive inside the Liverpool penalty area, Fernandes came quite close to completing one of the stupidest sendings-off that any of us would have seen this season.
14) After an insipid first 85 minutes, the colour seemed to flood back into Liverpool cheeks with the goal in the last five minutes. However little they may have deserved it – and they really, really didn’t – they suddenly had a potential route back towards a most unlikely point, and for much of the closing stages of the game it felt more like we were probably be expecting from the past. United, meanwhile, were bordering on showboating by bringing on Cristiano Ronaldo, and even found a place on the pitch for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who found the time for an air-shot on the edge of his own penalty area.
15) Nine injuries is a justifiable explanation for Liverpool’s poor performance and the shallowness of the depth of their bench offers an explanation as to why Jurgen Klopp only made three of his five available substitutions, but fine words butter no parsnips and having already found themselves four points behind Manchester City after just two games of the new season, City’s dropped points at Newcastle a day earlier had given them the opportunity to at least start to chip away at this deficit, and when the standard is as high as has been set in recent years, any opportunity to close it has to be grasped with both hands.
None of this is to write Liverpool off after two matches. Let’s not go jerking those knees too hard. But while the result was bad enough in itself, the nature of the defeat, so supine against aggression from a team that they know has flaws and who are their biggest rivals, was even worse. With less than two weeks to go before the closure of the summer transfer window, Jurgen Klopp may even have to decide whether Liverpool need to dip in again, at a point when he clearly doesn’t want that.
That this should have been such a weak performance is bad enough in itself. That it should have come against this particular opposition is another matter altogether.
16) It’s been a long time, so let’s take a moment to consider the ways in which this was a satisfying evening for Manchester United: they beat Liverpool, they went above Liverpool in the Premier League and left them a point above the relegation places, they climbed out of the relegation places themselves, and several players who haven’t performed well in a very long time were outstanding.
And yes, it is fair to ask whether this is a flash in the pan, or whether Manchester United could get anywhere near Manchester City (or perhaps even Arsenal, Spurs or Chelsea), but this win is clearly and evidently a huge step in the right direction. Aggressive and assertive from the outset, they made Liverpool look creaky and unready for a match of such high intensity.
There have been plenty of false dawns at Old Trafford over the last nine years, and even a performance this good doesn’t magically ‘fix’ everything that is wrong at the club, but it’s a start, and if nothing else it’s a reminder of what they can be. Now all Manchester United have to do is replicate this, week in and week out.