A match between Manchester United and Liverpool hardly needs any building up. The rivalry between the clubs, embedded with the feelings practically bordering on enmity between the two cities, is as huge as possible within sports, but in a way that still allows for the reasonable members of either fanbase to acknowledge and respect the achievements of the other club; and there is certainly plenty to acknowledge and respect.
These days, United are still seeking for a way back to the paths of former glory, which they’ve been unable to keep following since Sir Alex Ferguson retired with the club’s 20th league trophy in his hands in 2013. Liverpool have, on the other hand, already discovered the way back to the very top, and their mission at moment seems to be to prove that the 2018-19 Champions League and the 2019-20 Premier League triumphs weren’t just brief flashbacks from the glorious ’70s and ’80s, but the first signs of a proper comeback. Be that as it may, both teams entered 2021-22 with the same aim – to give a strong push for the title amid the challenges put forward in recent years by the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea.
On Sunday, United welcomed their old foes to Old Trafford and suffered such a thrashing that even the oldest among their supporters probably can’t remember anything similar. It took Liverpool less than five minutes to break the deadlock through Naby Keita, and eight minutes later, Diogo Jota doubled their lead. If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his men thought about producing another comeback like the one against Atalanta in midweek, they obviously left Mohamed Salah out of their reckoning and paid the price as the Egyptian scored in the 38th, deep in first-half stoppage time, and then again in the 50th. The home team’s misery was made complete by Paul Pogba, who earned a straight red card on the hour-mark.
Pogba sees red
Speaking of red cards, perhaps it’s best to get that aspect of the game out of the way immediately. It took referee Anthony Taylor a few seconds to blow his whistle after Pogba’s reckless tackle took out Keita, and he at first only booked the French midfielder as Keita received medical treatment. However, Taylor was sent to review his decision on the pitch-side screen, and having gotten a clearer view of the incident, he was left with no doubt in his mind as he gestured the cancellation of the yellow card and whipped out the red one.
Pogba is a player who boasts superb talent coupled with tremendous physical ability, though his occasional lack of desire and spirit has been criticized for a long time. One has to wonder about the reasoning behind Solskjaer’s decision to leave him on the bench of a game of this magnitude, and it most likely played a big role in him coming into the fray already frustrated, before he even kicked the ball. Having spent just 15 minutes on the pitch, his foot was unnecessarily raised as he slid into Keita and caught the Guinean’s shin full-on. There can be no question about the red card, though it probably should have left the referee’s pocked before that particular moment.
What about Ronaldo?
It was late in the first half when Curtis Jones, who had come on for the injured James Milner earlier, shielded the ball from Cristiano Ronaldo deep in his own half and caused the frustration inside the Portuguese superstar to burst all barriers. Ronaldo threw the 20-year-old down on the ground, and proceeded to kick out at him even after whistle had gone for the obvious foul. Ronaldo received only a yellow for his antics, though many believe it was a very soft punishment.
Frustration is understandable, especially in players who are known for their immense desire and winning mentality, but there is a line which separates it from unsportsmanlike conduct. It’s OK to be angry. It’s not OK to take that anger out on an opponent, especially if you’re an experienced star and the opponent is a 20-year-old youngster who simply beat you for the ball. Ronaldo will have lost plenty of respect from neutral followers of the game with this. He really didn’t need it.
United lack a plan
Apart from Pogba and Ronaldo, some may want to place a closer eye on the way other United players performed individually as well, and they will certainly find fault with Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, and even Bruno Fernandes. However, plenty of the weight of this heavy defeat rests on Solskjaer’s shoulders.
The Norwegian’s approach seems far too simplistic at times. It doesn’t look as if he prepares his team for specific matches at all, which would indeed be inexplicable. It looks as if he simply goes for whomever he thinks is the best player for a certain role in his 4-2-3-1 formation and hopes that the individual quality of some of his stars will suffice to outplay, or at least outscore, the opposition. It occasionally works, even if he has to make a few halftime changes to the personnel to make it work. The Atalanta comeback was a good example, but even in that match there was a lot that stuck out as bad, and resulted in conceding two first-half goals they later had to chase to overturn.
Former midfielder Paul Scholes rightly warned them about such a thing happening against a team of higher quality and got his prediction 100% spot on, but it seems those that really should have paid attention completely missed the danger signs.
The only question here is, why Solskjaer and his staff, whose job it actually is, weren’t able to see all this? Why didn’t they devise plans to at least try and counter Liverpool’s pressing, stop their wide men from delivering deadly crosses, stop Keita and Roberto Firmino from picking up the ball between the lines or at least double up on Salah? Did he genuinely believe playing Liverpool was the same as playing Atalanta? If so, United will do well to identify a suitable replacement and move on from their former forward as soon as possible.
There was a high number of records broken in this match, and you’ll hopefully forgive yours truly if some of them aren’t mentioned.
First of all, the name that stands out is once more Mohamed Salah. Much was made ahead of the match of his quality being weighed up against that of Ronaldo; both Solskjaer and Klopp were asked to make the comparison, and neither seemed too happy to give a definite answer.
Most neutrals would agree that Ronaldo’s long, illustrious career will never be overshadowed by anyone except perhaps Lionel Messi, but there’s no denying that nobody plays as well as Salah these days. Not many would have thought it possible, but the 29-year-old is actually at a level higher than he was in 2017-18, his first season at Liverpool when he broke Ronaldo’s (joint with Luis Suarez and Alan Shearer) record for most goal in a 38-match Premier League season.
Leaving such subjective assessments aside, there was only one winner of that particular contest in this match, Salah’s 10th consecutive in all competitions in which he scored – a Liverpool record which he already had to himself at nine. He also surpassed Didier Drogba as the top African scorer in the Premier League with 107 goals. He has also become the first player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford for an away team since Ronaldo (the Brazilian) did it for Real Madrid in 2002, and the first-ever Premier League player to do so.
Meanwhile, Naby Keita’s goal, coming at 04:42, was the quickest Old Trafford goal Liverpool have ever scored.
The Premier League table certainly doesn’t make a nice view for anyone at Manchester United right now. The Red Devils are in seventh place with 14 points, with teams like West Ham and Brighton sitting rather comfortably ahead, as well as Tottenham Hotspur. They are six points behind Manchester City in third, seven behind Liverpool in second, and eight
behind Chelsea at the top.
The gap is not too big given the number of games left to be played – there is certainly plenty of time to make up for lost ground, but the fact that it has appeared after only nine rounds is worrying nonetheless. The main question the club need to find the answer to is whether they see things getting better in the near future. Solskjaer doesn’t seem to have shown himself capable of delivering long-term plans and ideas, and he is probably closer to the exit door than he’s ever been yet.
But even a sacking isn’t a sure way of improving things, especially if there isn’t a proper replacement lined up already. A new manager would probably mean new staff, new training regimes, new systems and new pecking orders among the players, not to mention new transfer targets, and that takes time to produce results. There have been names mentioned in media reports, but the club made it clear Solskjaer still had their trust before the match and there has been no indication that their stance has changed as of yet.
Next up, it’s Spurs in North London for United.
On the other hand, Salah’s brilliance, on a clear display once more, has only made the issue of sorting out his contract more pressing to the minds of everyone at Liverpool. Salah himself said only a few days ago that he would love to stay at Anfield for the rest of his career but that the matter was not in his hands – it was in the hands of the club and depended on what the club wants. Given everything we’ve seen from the forward, not only this season but throughout his four-and-a-half year spell on Merseyside so far, can Liverpool really afford to not meet his demands and keep hold of his services for years to come despite him turning 30 next summer?
Remember, Salah will be entering the final 12 months of his current deal two weeks after turning 30.
As for Liverpool and their aspirations for this season, they seem fully in contention for the Premier League title, and it looks like it will come down to a race between them, Chelsea, and defending champions Manchester City. They’re also in full control of their Champions League group with nine points from three matches.
The only worrying aspect of this match for Klopp will have been the injuries sustained by James Milner and Keita. The German tactician was already without Harvey Elliott, Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho for the match, so he now has five central midfielders to worry about over the coming days. He will likely field Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain along with a number of academy players for the match against Preston North End in the round of 16 of the Carabao Cup on Wednesday, but he’ll want his senior midfielders back for the Brighton and Hove Albion match that takes place next Saturday at Anfield.