The thing is Liverpool weren’t even that good for a lot of this game. Certainly they had been much better against Watford, their passing through midfield a fair deal crisper and Trent Alexander-Arnold all the more devastating. Were it not for the 15 minute period midway through the first half when the visiting engine room began to splutter, this could have been so brutal a drubbing that referee Anthony Taylor would felt compelled to stop the fight.
Had he done so there would have been few dissenting voices among the Old Trafford crowd. Many of them were long since gone when Mohamed Salah poked in his third goal as Liverpool romped to a 5-0 win. It could have been so many more. This was the nightmare scenario for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, one that will inevitably heighten the debate over his credentials for the Manchester United job.
Equally, so much of this felt like it had been coming for so long. If wins over Villarreal and West Ham, among others, were the best that Solskjaer could have expected given the way his team played, this was the worst that this approach can deliver.
The contrast was stark. It is easy to paint United against Liverpool, Solskjaer against Klopp, as a battle of individualism and the collective, but to do so is to diminish the quality of so much of the team in white today. In Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and maybe seven others, the visitors had the better individuals. They existed in a system that heightens their qualities and mitigates their flaws. This is the natural outcome.
It was hard to know exactly what United were intending to do to stop Liverpool creating chances. Were they pressing? On occasion Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood seemed to commit to it but Cristiano Ronaldo’s sole notable defensive contribution to the first half was a stamp on Curtis Jones that was rather more offensive, though some how didn’t end up with him seeing a red card.
Those United wide forwards did not drop back as others did. That left huge tracts of land for Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson to advance into. Two of the first three goals came from spaces down the right vacated by Luke Shaw, who had been dragged infield by the weight of numbers committed to central areas by the Liverpool attack.
It took Paul Pogba’s red card in the 60th minute for Solskjaer to plug those gaps by switching to a five man defense. Alexander-Arnold had already laid one on for Diogo Jota by then as had Naby Keita for Mohamed Salah, both low crosses from acres of space down the right to be tapped in at close range. For each goal it felt unreasonable to blame Shaw, who had no choice but to deal with the problems on his inside shoulder.
One would sympathize with the manager if this were not the exact issue that they had faced four days ago against Atalanta. And four days prior against Leicester. Ahead of the match it felt inevitable that Solskjaer would change something because any top tier manager would look beyond the result, assess the opponent’s strengths, his side’s weaknesses and do what he could to mitigate them. There was no evidence whatsoever of United adapting to their opposition.
Liverpool, it should be noted, did. Ibrahima Konate offered more mobility at the back. Diogo Jota added some fresh legs to an attack in which Roberto Firmino fizzed. Were it not for the Solskjaer melodrama it would be Salah that stole the headlines. His three goals were superbly taken, particularly the dink over David de Gea for the fifth after a brilliant pass by Jordan Henderson, but his stand out moment might have been the delicate assist for Keita, a through ball judged to perfection. It is, Klopp told CBS Sports last week, the big change that came over the summer. His status as the world’s best player looks all the more secure with every passing game.
But really, no one needed this game to tell them how good Liverpool and Salah are. It was really about showing Manchester United what a cohesive unit of quality players can achieve.
Every minute of this match seemed designed to inflict maximum humiliation on Solskjaer. Ronaldo found the net as he so often does here only for VAR to judge him offside by the slightest of margins. Edinson Cavani somehow hit the bar from inches out. His half time change, replacing the energetic Greenwood with Pogba, was questionable even before the Frenchman went flying over the ball and into Keita’s leg, getting himself sent off a mere 15 minutes after he entered the game.
As home supporters streamed out of Old Trafford the chant of “Ole’s at the wheel” was heard loud and clear from the Liverpool supporters. It has been an ongoing joke on social media for some time that rival fans want Solskjaer to stay, so convinced are they that he is what’s standing between United and real success.
It is a little cruel towards a manager who stabilized this club in the aftermath of a predictably toxic denouement for Jose Mourinho. He has made United a better team than they were before. But can you imagine his team at top gear, at the very least they’d then be playing as well as Liverpool do when they are simply coasting along?