It was always going to happen, but not like this. There was always going to be a level of inadequacy from which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United could not return. It was just that few expected it would manifest itself so spectacularly as a four-goal halftime deficit at home to their bitterest rivals, ultimately becoming a five-goal defeat.
Liverpool were brilliant, that should go without saying. Yet they are brilliant most weeks, and against inferior players, too. They are not usually leading by four at half-time, though. It takes two to dance that tango and Manchester United were willing partners.
Their chaotic backline, their soft-as-marshmallow midfield were as much of part of this result as Liverpool’s speed, invention and devastating finishing. These teams pose as equals but this was a mismatch. This was a day of reckoning from which Solskjaer may never recover. Ole’s at the wheel. Yes, but so was the quartermaster of the Titanic.
Quite simply, Liverpool took Manchester United apart. Not just with their football, but their wit, their game management, and intelligence. One can look at the team assembled by Solskjaer and admire, but what is he doing to improve any of them? Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw are better defenders with England. Maguire is no better than he was at Leicester, if not worse. He is going backwards with this club. Who is going forwards?
The younger ones? Think of Mason Greenwood or Marcus Rashford under Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp. This should be a tipping point. As for Paul Pogba, he was left out of the starting line-up – which should be a clue, given the importance of the fixture – brought on at half-time and sent off 14 minutes later for a dreadful challenge on Naby Keita.
The only surprise is Anthony Taylor needed the help of VAR Stuart Atwell to elevate his initial yellow to a straight red. It was a shocker. We can argue Pogba was frustrated at not being picked and over-compensated, but the lack of discipline was shocking. Pogba is tanking under Solskjaer, too.
Before there was a debate about the best player in the world: Messi, Ronaldo, Salah? It sounded rather specious by the end.
Mo Salah’s hat-trick confirmed what most already knew. There is surely no better player at the elite end now than Liverpool’s striker. He scored three and made the first, too. What a statement this was. By Liverpool, obviously, but by the man they work all week to feed with the ball also. United had no answer to his pace, his insightful running, his reading of the game. His finishes were perfect, his work rate was outstanding.
After his third – Liverpool’s fifth – went in the cameras caught an exasperated Sir Alex Ferguson puffing out his cheeks in fear of what might be next, then cut to Sir Kenny Dalglish, huge grin and howling with laughter. It summed up the state of the game.
In the build-up, it was possible to imagine this as a looming battle royale. Liverpool are the better team, but Manchester United always raise their game for this match; just as Liverpool did in the days when they were underdogs. It could be one of those epic, toe-to-toe encounters, both teams at it, like the old days. That illusion was quickly dispelled.
Bruno Fernandes had a good chance after four minutes that he should have taken, but then Liverpool scored and from that point Manchester United were always fighting a loosing battle. They looked desperate, panicked, struggling to retain a sliver of credibility as contenders. Remember when it was going to be a four-way race. Already Manchester United appears to be in a fight to finish top four. They are losing close on a point per game to Chelsea.
Back to the action and the first time Liverpool threatened, they scored. Just five minutes were gone. Liverpool passed through Manchester United like a training exercise. Roberto Firmino picked out Salah and United’s center-halves were drawn out of position leaving Shaw overwhelmed. The ball fell to Naby Keita and he finished smartly past David De Gea. There was already a sense of foreboding around Old Trafford. It just looked too easy.
And it was. In the 13th minute, Maguire and Shaw went for the same ball and both failed to get it, leaving Keita to pass out to Trent Alexander-Arnold, who crossed for Diogo Jota to slide in and convert at the near post. Genk had scored a similar goal here on Wednesday, and Liverpool had scored three like it the weekend before against Watford. Make the connections and should United have been caught out like that?
So it continued. Rashford made an incredibly bad back pass which nearly put Salah away, had De Gea not saved, but resistance could not last forever – or even to half-time. Liverpool’s next three goals were scored by Salah across the space of 12 minutes – from the 38th to the 50th.
For his first, Salah had a shot blocked but the ball was recycled to him by the excellent Keita and he finished at the near post that Liverpool loves to attack so much. Someone at United really should have spotted that. The second came in the fourth minute of first-half injury time, another move that showed United putting little pressure on the ball, before Jota found Salah, who shot with precision.
The hat-trick came from a quite superb pass by Jordan Henderson that set Salah free and, in this form, he was never going to miss. In between goals four and five, Cristiano Ronaldo was frustrated by an Alisson save then took his anger out on Liverpool substitute Curtis Jones, on for James Milner after 26 minutes. Taylor showed a red but it could have been more. Pogba was not so lucky. Nor might Solskjaer be, after this.