Considering the form with which Liverpool and Manchester United entered Sunday's showdown at Old Trafford, the highly anticipated match could have gone in plenty of directions. It could have shown Liverpool to perhaps not be as sound as its record might indicate. It could have shown that Man United did indeed turn a corner, and that the second half of Wednesday's dramatic defeat of Atalanta in the Champions League was more emblematic of where it stood as opposed to the first half.
Instead, it confirmed what's largely been becoming more clear and clear: Liverpool is all the contender it is hoping to be, with the world's most in-form player as its driving force, while Man United is a flawed side whose manager doesn't look likely to make it beyond November, if ownership is at all placing an emphasis on performance and results.
Liverpool's 5–0 defeat was a comprehensive dismantling, with the visitors scoring twice in the opening 13 minutes before Mohamed Salah's hat trick finished off the rout in style. Salah now has goals in 10 straight games in all competitions, something no Liverpool player has achieved, while scoring 14 times in that span. There isn't an attacking player in the world in better form than the Egyptian at the moment, as he continues to state his case for a new, lucrative contract. Becoming the first opposing player to score a hat trick in Premier League play at Old Trafford will certainly boost that campaign.
He was the focus of some of the post-match chants as Liverpool fans stayed late to revere their team (in contrast to the United supporters, who left far before the final whistle en masse, having seen enough). Another focus was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was mocked by Liverpool fans who sang "Ole's at the wheel" in jest, happy for the his reign to continue.
The questions of Solskjaer have been asked ever since he's taken the reins as manager of Man United as to whether he's primed to bring United back to the top level. He's shown he can make United a top-four team, and he's shown he can help United to spring perhaps an unexpected surprise in an early Champions League knockout round while also having the capacity to reach a Europa League final. But those were the barometers by which Arsenal had been judged before it fell out of European contention altogether. Surely, Man United has higher aspirations. And after a summer in which it made two astute signings in Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane and a romantic one in Cristiano Ronaldo, it had higher expectations. Varane's injury has been a stark reminder that Victor Lindelöf's partnership with Harry Maguire is a cut below what's necessary to compete, while the knock on signing Ronaldo and the domino effect it has on the rest of the team if trying to press has proven prescient. He does score goals and he has come through in major moments in his first couple of months back, but there is a greater price to pay for his presence at times.
With Paul Pogba resigned to bench duty again Sunday before coming on at halftime—and then subsequently being sent off on a red card 15 minutes later—it again highlighted a personnel decision by the manager that did not work out. All Sir Alex Ferguson—who pushed for the Ronaldo signing and has been credited as part of the reason for it happening—could do from the stands was shake his head. The warnings, meanwhile, came from another Man United great.
In the aftermath of Wednesday's 3–2, come-from-behind victory over Atalanta in the Champions League, another match in which United fell down 2–0 early, Paul Scholes offered a scathing analysis of the club and how it played, stating that if it came out the same way against the likes of Liverpool, it'd get ugly.
"I looked at that game thinking about Liverpool on Sunday," Scholes said on BT Sport. "I thought in that first half, United were all over the place. They were disjointed. They had the two midfield players playing on their own. Now, if you do that against Manchester City or Liverpool, halftime it'll be 3- or 4- nil. You'll be out of the game. You're not coming back. And yet it's great watching, seeing the excitement, seeing the United way, all the attacking, all the goals ... it's brilliant, I know that. But that first half just stuck with me.
"Will he play that way Sunday against Liverpool? It was that brilliant, it was that good, everyone's smiling, everyone's happy. Go and do that Sunday against Liverpool, see what happens. Imagine Jürgen Klopp at home watching that game in the first half, rubbing his hands together."
And that's precisely how things played out. The inability to adjust, to make the right—and sometimes difficult—decisions won't suit Solskjaer well in the long run. The fight showed against Atalanta was inspiring, but it's not sustainable for the long term, not if the goal is to compete with the Man City, Liverpool and Chelseas of the Premier League. United, which does currently top its Champions League group, is now winless in four straight in the league and is eight points off the summit.
Solskjaer called Sunday his "darkest day" in charge at the club, and it's hard to argue. He pointed out the 6–1 defeat to José Mourinho's Tottenham last season, but that season didn't start with the same heightened sense of expectation that followed United's spending spree this summer. With managers like Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane available for hire and another match at Tottenham on deck (followed by a trip to Atalanta and then a home date vs. Man City), it feels like having the hard truths exposed leaves United with no in-between anymore: Either make significant alterations to how this current group is utilized against top competition, or bring in someone else who can.
"We are at rock bottom. We cannot feel any worse than this," Solskjaer said.
It may be that soon enough he finds out whether that's true.
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