16 Conclusions: Manchester United 0-5 Liverpool
Liverpool were superb, but this was an abject humiliation for Manchester United, who have no positives to take from a dismal afternoon.
1. This, then, was the day that Manchester United’s fairly straightforward start to the league season finally caught up with them. It is surely common knowledge that they have been flying by the seat of their pants for weeks, now, winning matches against moderate opposition with moments of individual brilliance and last-minute goals, while frequently playing as though under-trained in just about every respect. Put up against a team which is capable of beating just about any in Europe, they were woefully exposed against Liverpool.
And it wasn’t just the fact that this was a heavy defeat. United’s performance was abject, and in just about every way that you could imagine. Lackadaisical and disorganised in defence, and collectively losing their heads before the half-time whistle had even blown, this was a performance for the ages from them for all the wrong reasons. This would have been a mind-meltingly bad performance from Manchester United at any point in living memory. For it to happen with almost half a billion pounds having been spent on the team and against these opponents hints at a sickness that bleeds right the way through the club.
2. While the drama has been happening elsewhere, Liverpool have been gliding through this season so far with the minimum of fuss. In pre-season, all the talk was of the big-money signings at Chelsea and Manchester United, and at Manchester City’s failure to bring in a replacement for Sergio Aguero. While this was going on, Liverpool were adopting a policy of continuing as they had been going on. If anything, they were being underestimated by the time this season started, but since then they’ve been the most consistent team in the Premier League and the team which looks most likely to win it again, come the end of the season. The extent to which they were overlooked in the summer was surprising, but it’s doubtful that anyone will be overlooking them again this season.
3. It was a ridiculously open first 20 minutes. Manchester United had already started at a hundred miles per hour and had already created the first clear chance, when a slick attacking move ended with Ronaldo rolling the ball wide to Bruno Fernandes, who blasted high and wide from an angle. But within a couple of minutes, Liverpool had the lead. The Manchester United central defence allowed themselves to be pulled out of position, and Mo Salah touched ball through for Naby Keita to roll it easily past De Gea. The lop-sidedness of the defensive positioning made it look easy for Liverpool.
A couple of minutes after this, Keita won the ball from Fred in a dangerous area and played a ball through for Roberto Firminho, only for his shot to be saved by De Gea. United struck back quickly with a shot from Marcus Rashford that was dragged narrowly wide. Manchester United v Liverpool has had a tendency to be a cagey match in the past, and these four chances in the first ten minutes of the match were more than they’d managed in 90 minutes, in some of their previous encounters.
4. The second Liverpool goal was half incisive attacking, and half non-existent Manchester United defending. Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw collided into each other on the edge of their own penalty area like a pair of drunken heavyweight boxers in a pub car park after closing time, allowing Keita to nick the ball from between them and feed it wide to Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose low cross was turned in by Diogo Jota.
It was certainly a bold choice from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, to effectively start the game without a central defence. Watching Manchester United’s defence over the first 45 minutes of this match left you wondering what on earth this lot actually do get up to at training sessions. Ironically, when United did push forward there seemed to be a little space for them in attacking positions as well, but Liverpool’s defence hadn’t taken their self-destruct button onto the pitch with them, whereas United’s had.
And the silly mistakes came from all over the pitch. Marcus Rashford played a pass to nobody in particular which allowed Salah a run at goal, and a third Liverpool goal was probably only prevented by the narrowness of the angle from which he had to shoot, which allowed De Gea to block.
5. Particularly impressive in midfield for Liverpool during the first half was Keita. Keita has been compared to N’Golo Kante at times, and during those opening 45 minutes these comparisons made a lot of sense. Keita was all controlled aggression and intelligent distribution, hassling and chasing, winning possession from United’s spooked-looking central midfield and distributing the ball with devastating accuracy.
6. Mo Salah was the biggest beneficiary of this laser-sharp movement and passing. He’s playing the best of football of his career at the moment, and his record of scoring in ten consecutive matches is an extraordinary achievement. But his job was made substantially easier by the absolute inertia of the Manchester United defence, who played as though on a remote delay timer.
Every time a pass was played into a dangerous position, it seemed to take them three seconds longer to react than it did anybody in a Liverpool shirt. There were almost certainly points during the first half when he literally could not believe how much space he was being given, how easy it was being made from him. The hat-trick was thoroughly deserved, a new whole new level after a dream start to his season. He’s the first player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford in a league match in almost 30 years.
7. The third goal was even more of the same. Salah’s shot hit Maguire but bounced kindly for Keita. With Salah being a player whose movement is precisely why people have been saying he’s one of the best players in the world, Keita knew immediately what he needed to do with the ball, and he drove a low ball across the face of goal for Salah to stab it in from close range. A subsequent aerial view of the goal showed Manchester United’s defenders to be scattered around the penalty area like a handful of red Skittles thrown across a snooker table.
And in first half stoppage-time, it happened AGAIN. This time, there were five United players drawn towards the ball like moths towards a lightbulb, but none of them seemed particularly bothered to make a challenge to win the ball, and it was very straightforward for Jota to thread it through for Salah to score Liverpool’s fourth.
8. There were signs that Manchester United’s players were starting to lose control of their own behaviour in the closing minutes before half-time, when Cristiano Ronaldo was booked for taking a kick at Curtis Jones and then kicking the ball into his body while he was laying on the floor, and then Fred followed suit with a high kick at Keita.
The resounding boos at the sounding of the half-time whistle seemed to hint that patience within Old Trafford towards both Solskjaer and the United players as they left the pitch for the changing rooms had worn extremely thin. Subsequent television footage showed a not-inconsiderable number of United supporters leaving the ground at half-time, which wasn’t particularly surprising, considering the abysmal performance their team had put in during the first half.
The number of people heading for the exits accelerated considerably five minutes into the second half, when Jordan Henderson threaded the ball through to Salah on the right, again. He seemed to have taken a touch too many with the ball, but such is his blistering pace of acceleration that he was still able to nip the ball wide of De Gea and in, to complete his hat-trick.
9. Sometimes, nothing’s going to go your way. Within a couple of minutes of Liverpool’s fifth goal, Cristiano Ronaldo found a little space on the left and rifled a shot in, only for the goal to be pulled back for offside. There had already been no ‘SIUUUUU’ celebration from the CR7 himself as he trotted back to the centre circle and the cheers from the Stretford End had been limp enough to sound ironic. In all honesty, he didn’t even seem that bothered by the decision to overrule the goal.
If anything, this match proved just how redundant Ronaldo is without the players that he needs around him. He was far from the biggest problem that Manchester United had in this match, but he could never be expected to solve those problems, either.
10. Paul Pogba was introduced at half-time, and on any other day this would have been a moment to give the opposing team pause for thought. But this occasion, Pogba’s only contribution to the game was a moment of disgrace. After an hour had been played, Pogba threw himself into an unbelievably reckless tackle on Keita, which led to the Liverpool player being taken off on a stretcher and Pogba leaving the pitch for the dressing room following a sickening, foot up tackle. Premier League referees have been given greater leeway to let play flow this season, and Anthony Taylor called this one as a yellow card upon first viewing, only to change his mind upon seeing the video nasty of a replay. The Premier League has good cause to revisit this ‘letting things go’ brainwave.
11. Keita’s enforced departure from the game after an hour seemed to be enough to persuade Liverpool that this match wasn’t really worth exerting a great deal of extra effort over. They slowed the game down and passed it around amongst themselves for the next ten minutes while the United players chased shadows. The ‘last ten minutes possession’ statistic after seventy minutes showed that Liverpool had enjoyed 88% of possession during this period.
Manchester United did keep huffing and puffing – they even hit the crossbar through Edinson Cavani with eight minutes left to play – but with the match effectively over with forty minutes to play, all Liverpool had to really do was run down the clock. As with everything else at Old Trafford on this particular day, Manchester United made it easy for them, and ‘with eight minutes to play when you’re 5-0 down at home to your bitterest rivals’ is a little late to start rediscovering the concept of ‘pride’. By the time the full-time whistle blew, there were so few home supporters left inside Old Trafford that even the booing wasn’t very impressive.
12. If anything, at the end of the match Liverpool may even be an iota disappointed at not having won by more than five goals. This in itself speaks volumes for the paucity of Manchester United’s performance. Indeed, there were points in the first half when Liverpool’s defence looked as open as United’s, and the home team did have a couple of half-chances to get back into the game when they were just the two goals down. But in the end, even the fact that Liverpool had their patchy moments in the first half turned out to be an utter irrelevance. You can have five minutes with things not quite knitting together, if the other 85 are completely controlling.
13. Manchester United supporters will never be happy with losing to Liverpool. Much is made of the ‘entitlement’ of ‘big club’ supporters, but supporters of all clubs have a right to better than the sequence of turds that the club laid on for its fans in this match. Results do matter, but so does losing with dignity, and Manchester United’s lavishly-paid superstars couldn’t even manage that. At the full-time whistle, the club’s Twitter account could only manage one word – ‘Defeat’. But this only tells part of the story from an afternoon that everyone associated with the club will want to forget, but few will likely be able to.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) October 24, 2021
14. For Liverpool, of course, this was the most resounding of wins. They’ve scored 19 goals in five away matches already this season, and have scored at least three goals in each of them. Their top goalscorer has now scored in ten consecutive matches. It already feels difficult to believe that they finished five points behind Manchester United at the end of last season, and it seems inconceivable that anything like that will happen this time around. It wasn’t a perfect afternoon for them – Jurgen Klopp will be bitterly disappointed at the Naby Keita injury – but it came close. Klopp could be forgiven for wondering why United made it so easy for him.
15. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had vast amounts of sympathy and patience from within Manchester United over the last three years, but the evidence has built that the club’s current plight is something that he will not be able to fix. In some respects, it’s all understandable. He is a club legend, and the will for him to succeed coupled with the club’s vast financial resources have allowed the cracks to be papered over for far too long. Where does he go from here? It’s easy to say ‘you’re getting sacked in the morning’, but the reality is a somewhat more complex, and the directors of the club have made their support for him very clear indeed.
The honorable thing for him to do would be to resign and walk away, but this isn’t necessarily easy, either. In the headspace of somebody who’s so closely associated with the club, to accept defeat and walk away must feel like an almost insurmountable challenge. But at this stage in his managerial career with the club, Manchester United look as far from winning the Premier League as they have at any point since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, and on the evidence of the last few weeks they are are some way off being a shoo-in for a Champions League place come the end of the season, as well.
That, it is generally understood, is the baseline requirement for Manchester United managers under the Glazers, but with the team now in 7th place in the Premier League table and going in the wrong direction, is sticking with Ole a gamble that they’d be prepared to make if he doesn’t walk away voluntarily? After all, for all the clamour for a new manager, the club won’t have made any preparations for a new manager and it’s the middle of the season. Even now, they might be stuck with him until the end of this season.
16. Part of the deal with being a football manager is that you are the channel and the focus for everything that goes right or wrong within your football club, but the issues at Manchester United run far deeper than can be pinned on this one man alone. From the boardroom down, Manchester United give off an air of incompetence. The owners and senior management do not seem to be there for footballing reasons. There doesn’t really seem to be anyone in the entire coaching staff who instils a great deal of confidence that much is going to improve as things stand. Ultimately, the issues that Manchester United face remain institutional. A fish rots from the head down, and there was a distinctly unsavoury aroma emanating from Old Trafford by the end of this match.