Manchester United reduced Liverpool’s heavy metal play to pliant putty in their hands via a staggering transformation after the humiliation of two consecutive losses.
How a team trounced 4-0 at Brentford last time out could outfight, out-skill and, most of all, out-run an opponent who defeated them 9-0 on aggregate last term is the definition of sport’s ability to invigorate.
On a night where the latest anti-Glazer protests had up to 10,000 marching to Old Trafford, United were a picture of bravery and quality from David de Gea in goal to Marcus Rashford at centre-forward, his second-half strike coming after Jadon Sancho had opened the scoring.
Liverpool were a ghost side; here but not really, allowed zero leeway to impose themselves because Erik ten Hag’s team did exactly this in a victory which means United leapfrog the Merseysiders, who are yet to enjoy a league victory this season.
Against a backdrop of “we want Glazers out” United threatened first. Slick interplay featuring Scott McTominay, Sancho and Bruno Fernandes had the ball zipping through the middle. Rashford motored on to it but when he unloaded Virgil van Dijk blocked.
Next, Rashford barged aside Trent Alexander-Arnold, the defender impeded him, and Christian Eriksen’s free-kick, taken on the edge of the area, earned a corner. It yielded nothing but United were in the contest, Liverpool had no foothold. Next Anthony Elanga, one of Ten Hag’s four changes, was slipped in by Fernandes and struck Alisson’s left post, drawing oohs from the crowd.
What followed was a sweet back-to-front sequence that finished with United scoring. Raphaël Varane made a superb intervention, taking the ball from Roberto Firmino’s toes in the area. Those in red moved upfield, before Elanga found Sancho, who feinted, left James Milner on his backside, and coolly beat Alisson.
Exhilaration surged through the home side. For Liverpool, Milner gave Van Dijk a telling off about something, and Klopp was a manager marooned in the technical area. So far so good for United, a pattern that continued when the effervescent Elanga turned Alexander-Arnold and drew a foul. This time Eriksen’s free-kick was tipped over by Alisson.
The intrigue had been around which United would show up – and which Liverpool. At kick-off the former had zero points, the latter two. Casemiro was paraded pre-game, with the transfer to be official once the Brazil international is granted a visa. Ten Hag’s headline selection call was dropping Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo. The removal of his captain and arguably his best player was proving a brave move as four of the XI who started at Brentford were gone, Tyrell Malacia and McTominay replacing Luke Shaw and Fred.
Klopp had 10 players unavailable including several injured A-listers: Thiago Alcântara, Diogo Jota and Naby Keïta, plus the suspended Darwin Núñez. The manager showed a preference for the functional and selecting the 36-year-old Milner instead of Fabinho, a natural whose legs were nearly a decade younger, was a head-scratcher.
Klopp was in moan mode when Luis Díaz was penalised for dropping Diogo Dalot. In his view the decision should have gone the other way. At play here was frustration at his side’s potency deficit, summed up by Liverpool’s first corner coming half an hour into the game.
But later, when Salah tapped to an onrushing Alexander-Arnold, his cross was stabbed away by Varane, and Harvey Elliott’s shot had to be stopped. This came in a passage of resurgence for the visitors.
Liverpool rued their ill-luck, however, when Milner headed a corner and Fernandes crashed the ball towards his own goal only to be saved by Lisandro Martínez who blocked on the line and hacked it away.
For United to reestablish supremacy in the second half, they could do without McTominay ceding the ball by his area but Fernandes was there to help his teammate out and end the danger. Liverpool were in the ascendancy but lacked quality, a wild Salah volley emblematic of their problems. So United, their support as loud as in recent memory, proceeded to show the Egypt international how to do it far better via a classic counter.
Henderson miscontrolled and Anthony Martial, on for Elanga at the break, steered the ball to Rashford. Bursting in, the maligned forward beat Alisson with a sweet finish for a first league strike since January (one that survived a tight VAR check).
Ecstasy and delirium ensued and the question was what adjustment might Klopp make to halt United’s fever-pitch play? The answer was to hook Henderson for Fabinho.
Still, though, United were a juggernaut. From deep in their own territory Dalot headed to Sancho who relayed the ball to Martial. The striker skated forward and, when he tried to find Sancho, the ball came back to him before Liverpool somehow survived.
With nine minutes left Salah gave Liverpool a lifeline, forcing home after a corner. Ronaldo was introduced as United hoped to hang on for a rousing win. They did. Ten Hag’s tenure is finally up and running.