This should be the line in the sand for Manchester United but that has been said countless times. Liverpool absolutely humiliated them.
1) To be honest, drawing 16 Conclusions on that has the same vibe as a throwaway piece of five things we learned during a club’s latest training session. For Liverpool, that really was a stroll around the cones. Their opponents were utterly embarrassing, from Alisson’s fourth minute Cruyff turn on Bruno Fernandes, to Martin Atkinson sticking a fork in Manchester United as a response to Diogo Dalot almost completing the mirror image of October’s decimation with an own goal.
Never before has a team been so thoroughly, regularly and publicly deconstructed to the sporadic glee of the baying masses. Mo Salah casually saying “they make our life easier in the midfield and in the back” after the game was crushing analysis of the single most comfortably one-sided season in this rivalry’s history.
2) It was after a chastening 4-0 defeat on Merseyside that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once declared of his players, “some of them won’t be here next year,” following a performance “not worthy of a Man United team”.
That thrashing at Everton was on April 21 of 2019. Almost exactly three years later, David de Gea, Victor Lindelof, Phil Jones, Dalot, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Marcus Rashford all reprised their starting roles for a display that was even worse. That XI being warned over their immediate futures and seven not only still being at the club but playing in such a prominent game so long after is a nonsensical equivalent to children continuing to misbehave because they do not fear the consequences of the guardian punished for their misbehaviour, nor the step-parent they know won’t be there long.
A line has to be drawn. The expiration of certain contracts dictates a certain level of churn but at least four of those that started against Liverpool must be moved on as soon as possible; history cannot be allowed to repeat itself.
3) This might also signal the end of Ralf Rangnick’s loosely defined contribution to Manchester United beyond his interim reign. The lack of clarity regarding his consultancy role has been bizarre and while there have been some bright sparks since his appointment, the general sense is that the club finally appointed a director of football but in entirely the wrong position. The German’s lack of coaching experience at any level since 2011, barring a pair of interim spells at an RB Leipzig side whose very structure he helped establish, has eventually told.
The misconceptions surrounding a three-man central defence are entrenched. Some believe it naturally shores up the backline but it can actually further weaken it, adding just another combustible element to an incendiary unit. Harry Maguire and Lindelof as a partnership is a known quantity, so adding Jones to that equation was always a gamble. Rangnick admitted before the game it was essentially a toss-up between the 30-year-old and Eric Bailly, which hardly imbued a confidence that the system was being deployed to suit the players.
It was undermined within five minutes when Dalot left his post, Maguire tried to simultaneously fill the 30 yards of space behind him and stifle Sadio Mane, and Jones and Lindelof both tried to catch Luis Diaz in an offside trap that was designed for the wrong forward. The subsequent 85 minutes hardly reflected much kinder on any of them
Gareth Southgate was perhaps the biggest winner from the game. He deserves a little more respect for devising and using such an effective three-man defence with Maguire at its heart, because this made it look impossible.
4) The damning contrast came 10 minutes later. A rare Manchester United turnover, not forced but gifted by Trent Alexander-Arnold complacency, offered a glimpse of a counter-attack. The pass needed to be sharp, crisp and quick, which is precisely how Matic delivered it. Yet Jesse Lingard barely had a chance to contemplate his signature before Virgil van Dijk stepped up, made an interception on the halfway line and immediately resuscitated Liverpool’s move. The difference between an £80m defender exposed by the failings of a formation destined to highlight his limitations and a £75m centre-half elevated by a system designed to accentuate his strengths was stark. Maguire pressed high then backed off the emerging embers; Van Dijk acted instinctively to extinguish the flames before they could breathe.
It bears repeating that these two players were ostensibly cut from the same cloth, excelling enough in mid-table to suggest they could rise to the challenge of an elite platform. Van Dijk is twice the player he was at Southampton and Maguire currently half of his previous Leicester self, being generous. But then Liverpool signed their catalyst because they had identified him as the leading candidate for a specific role; Manchester United bought theirs because they saw the two best clubs in the country do it and thought they had stumbled upon an expensive secret to transform a defence. They copied the answer of ‘Spend loads on a centre-half’ but without the substantial working-out that Liverpool and Manchester City put in before them, it is little wonder they still struggle to understand it.
5) The second goal was irresistible brilliance, a build-up featuring Joel Matip and Luis Diaz building to a crescendo of Mane’s sublime lofted pass around the corner into Salah’s path. The Egyptian finished well but he was shown a sizeable portion of the net by De Gea, whose presence was ultimately hollow throughout. He so often manages to make the target look bigger with his positioning and anticipation, which seemed non-existent for the first two strikes. De Gea remained stationed in his six-yard box for both, despite them coming from scintillating breaks that could perhaps have been swept up by an enterprising keeper.
Alisson handily proved that point with some impressive bursts off his line to suffocate first-half attacks before they properly took shape. Even De Gea’s distribution was a problem and his inexplicably long attempt at a switch out to Dalot played a part in the first goal. He makes some spectacular saves but there is a gulf in quality and contribution between him and the best players in his position – although he is good enough to ensure Manchester United’s short-term priorities lie elsewhere.
6) One common thread pulled the two goals together: the false nine play of Mane. Even more specifically, the reaction to it. In both instances, the Senegalese dropped deep and into the space between a watchless defence and a hapless midfield, both fickle enough to consider it a no man’s land of responsibility, far enough away from goal to pose no threat. Yet Anfield might as well have started celebrating then. Mane had not even taken a touch when receiving those first-time passes from Jordan Henderson and Matip respectively when Salah – accompanied by Alexander-Arnold for the opener – had broken into a full sprint and left Diogo Dalot in a world of man-marking pain.
The first half was a showcase for a Liverpool team which knew the next three passes and best alternatives ahead of time, and a damning indictment of a Manchester United side which was playing and thinking on a laggy connection. Those two goals were the epitome of phenomenal proaction against delayed reaction.
7) A nod to the game director, who followed the second goal by cutting to a shot of Sir Alex Ferguson looking miserable in the crowd and Sir Kenny Dalglish grinning indiscriminately. It has become a customary scene in recent games between these two sides but that does nothing to dilute its inherent charm. And this time it was sandwiching the lingering image of Manchester United fan in an almost parodic pose: head in hand before stroking his face in disbelief. It was a gripping and fitting remix of a modern classic.
On the plus side, United remain absolutely top of the league for memes pic.twitter.com/CTw4UVu0JO
— Tom Williams (@tomwfootball) April 19, 2022
8) Mane fulfilling the Roberto Firmino role to such an exceptional standard is not normal. It is testament to his malleable magnificence but also Jurgen Klopp’s coaching, with this the latest stage of his redevelopment of a generational forward line. With Mane’s mantle handed to Luis Diaz, the Senegalese was converted into the enduring link between midfield and attack, dumbfounding Manchester United with his movement and incisive link-up play.
The pass for the first goal was made to look routine. For the second, it was service as good as any playmaker could provide. Mane’s next action was to shepherd an overhit cross and heavy Aaron Wan-Bissaka touch out for a throw-in as makeshift left-back. And the wherewithal to stop his run to offer a pull-back option before his first-time finish for the third, precisely when Liverpool most needed it, was laughable. Manchester United were indefensible but Mane was undefendable.
9) The biggest controversy of the game came in the 33rd minute. There was an audible shout from the crowd which either emanated from a Liverpool supporter or a Manchester United fan. A full-scale investigation can hopefully be launched into whether someone was revelling in the fun by yelling “Maguire, you’re a sh*thouse,” or pleading for the captain to “sort your sh*t out”.
There was worse to come. Maguire can justifiably feel incredibly hard done by at times, judged to an unremittingly ludicrous degree beyond a price tag he did not set and an armband he never demanded. His every action is scrutinised and decontextualised and agendas are set for and against a player neither as good as his fans claim, nor nearly as bad as his detractors protest.
A prime example of him being set up to fall came with his comments in the build-up, when he was thrown no bone by Sky Sports in being asked whether stopping the Quadruple was part of Manchester United’s motivation for the game. Maguire was hounded for replying in the negative but had he said that it was an influential factor then he would have been annihilated for having a small-time mentality.
With that said, the interviewer’s question did not compare to the hospital ball Maguire gave substitute Hannibal Mejbri ahead of the fourth goal. Switching the ball high and about ten yards behind the teenager wide on the right, Maguire watched Robertson make the tackle, then stepped up to initiate a trap Elmer Fudd would have grimaced at as Salah ran through to score.
He should be dropped. There is a solid defender in there and nothing to suggest he has no long-term future at Old Trafford, but neither the captaincy nor a fee paid three years ago should safeguard places in any vaguely functional meritocracy. If Phil Jones can make his second Premier League start since January 2020 against this opponent at this ground, then there are enough options to let Maguire sit out at least a couple of weeks, even if only as a performative show of egalitarianism.
10) The last two goals were a fun reminder of old Liverpool. It is not as though they have ever stopped counter-pressing and scoring through quick transitions but the sheer speed and precision with which they leapt into action was like the swashbuckling attacks of a few years ago. Luis Diaz assisted Mane to score within ten seconds of Robertson snaffling Lindelof’s pass into Anthony Elanga; six seconds passed between the Scot dispossessing Mejbri and playing in Diogo Jota to find Salah. Liverpool saw a wounded animal and took full advantage.
11) It brought to mind to Jose Mourinho’s last game as Manchester United manager, the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield after which he heavily praised Robertson. The left-back was “absolutely incredible” then and remains peerless now as the chief tormentor of a beaten, battered and bruised foe. Imagine already being physically knackered, emotionally drained and professionally inept, only to see a Scottish bloke still rampaging down the wing and not giving you a moment to think on the ball. It must be a right pain in the arse.
12) If there was one positive for Manchester United to glean then it was the performance of half-time substitute Jadon Sancho. He alone could not drag an acceptable collective display from the visitors – it should be said that Lingard was relatively bright from the bench, too – but there was flashes. The former Borussia Dortmund forward had the best of their two shots, was not afraid to actually carry the ball and showed some impetus. An assist should have been forthcoming but Rashford’s recent travails continued when put through just after the hour.
Rangnick has, to his credit, rehabilitated Sancho from his early season struggles. The next manager must build an attack around the 22-year-old.
Sancho has been immense
— ً (@TheFergusonWay) April 19, 2022
13) Salah assisting Luis Diaz, who assisted Mane, who assisted Salah, is lovely. The fabled Liverpool front three that centred around Firmino never managed that particular feat of all scoring goals set up by one of the others in a single game. It is quite remarkable, considering their longevity and success, that this front line achieved it first instead. The way the back-up options of Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri have been quietly upgraded is astonishing.
14) Manchester United followed their 20 minutes of competence at the start of the second half up with a customary descent into harmful petulance in the closing stages. They committed six fouls all game, two of which came in the last minute plus stoppage-time. Both were awarded yellow cards, Fernandes for leaving one on Alexander-Arnold and Mejbri after going in late on Henderson. The latter would probably have been sent off in ordinary circumstances when he clattered Naby Keita moments later but Atkinson resisted pouring salt into the wound.
Those tackles were welcomed in some quarters as an actual show of heart and passion, of something instead of the nothingness that had preceded it. In actuality they were precisely the same examples of cowardice, cynicism and after-the-fact bitterness that best emphasise a beaten team’s inferiority. It didn’t prove that those players cared about anything other than their perception.
15) Thiago is something else. Keep him fit and that trophy polish might find good use.
16) Liverpool’s starting XI cost £340.3m. Their three substitutes cost an additional £93.75m. They had the most expensive goalkeeper and forwards. Two of their players cost nothing in terms of a fee – and while a talent the level of Alexander-Arnold cannot reliably be produced internally, Joel Matip will go down in the books as one of the great free transfers.
Manchester United’s starting XI cost £398.45m. Their three substitutes cost an additional £73m. They had the most expensive centre-half, two costliest full-backs and the priciest central midfielder. Four of their players cost nothing in terms of a fee and the other 10 were varying degrees of worthless themselves.
The cost in assembling these two sets of players was similar but that is where the resemblance ends. Klopp signed 11 of Liverpool’s, inherited Henderson from Dalglish, James Milner from Brendan Rodgers and Alexander-Arnold from the academy. Rangnick signed none of Manchester United’s, inherited four each from Solskjaer, Mourinho and the academy and two from Ferguson. One screams focus, planning and forethought. The other is dripping in chaos, randomness and disorder.
It could take three or four transfer windows to fix. It could take 10 or 20. It could take one or two. This is not an exact science and Rangnick stating post-match that Liverpool “are six years ahead of us” seemed fanciful. It is futile to speculate on the time required to complete the work when the restructure needed does not seem forthcoming. Manchester United need to accept their endemic failings before even considering how to close the gap. And if this result proved anything to them, it’s that throwing money on top of budgets on top of war chests on top of investments is not the answer. A cheaper Liverpool just summarily dismantled the most expensively assembled squad in football history thanks to a decade of FSG groundwork built on by seven years of almost perfect management from Klopp and those around him. It will take more than a decent summer to compete with that.
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