Well, that’s out of the way, and now we can discuss Liverpool’s utter 5-0 bludgeoning of Manchester United at Old Trafford. I had written about it a couple of times. My colleague Sean had as well, but Ole Gunnar Solskjær has maintained the flimsiest of balance to remain manager of United. There have been a handful of moments or games the past three seasons where it felt like if United lost that would be curtains. And right about the time the axe would fall, he would Crisco his way out of the guillotine with some miraculous win.
This past week seemed like another one that would render judgment. United were pretty much pummeled by Leceister last Saturday, 4-2, and looked disorganized and disinterested for most of it. Their defending would be best described as “daycare center,” and the goals they managed were a product of individual brilliance rather than cohesion. As has been their way for all of Solskjær’s tenure. Staring at a crunch Champions League game against Atalanta and then one against Liverpool at home, it wasn’t a huge leap to say that if they lost both, there would be no more Houdini acts for Ole.
And at halftime on Wednesday, that looked nailed on. Atalanta were up two, in Manchester, and United didn’t look much of a threat. But this is Solskjær’s United, which means they will chase the immediate high despite the long-term damage it will inflict. They are junkies. They staged a three-goal comeback, capped off by an injury-time winner by Cristiano Ronaldo. The dogs of war would still be on the leash. They had momentum heading into their game against their biggest rival. Even a hard-fought loss would have kept Solskjær completely safe, maybe proving that United weren’t so far away.
And then... that.
Here’s the thing, Liverpool weren’t at their best. With the game still at 1-0 or 2-0, United were able to bypass or go through Liverpool’s midfield, which was pretty open, thanks to no Fabinho to anchor it and Jordan Henderson moonlighting as the defensive holder. Once they could ship the ball straight to their four attackers, there were cracks for United. Bruno Fernandes missed a golden chance in the game’s opening throes. Marcus Rashford barely missed when it was only 1-0.
The problem was that United were just six defenders, four attackers, and nothing in the middle, and no plan to link them. You could have landed an airplane between United’s attack and their defense. Which meant Liverpool had the entire center of the park to do whatever they wanted. Look at how easy this is:
No United player gets within a yard of any Liverpool one with the ball. There’s no mutual support. Aaron Wan-Bissaka kind of pressed Diogo Jota on the sideline, but not really. Harry Maguire half-steps up to pursue Roberto Firmino, but not really, leaving an acre for Salah to run into and leaving Luke Shawk all alone. This is four defenders all just doing their own thing.
Excuse me, I need a dance break.
Here’s some more “defending” for you from Maguire and Victor Lindelöf as they decide to do their Statler and Waldorf impression with the ball in between them.
Here’s some more, where Mo Salah simply runs by three United players to be first at the near-post, after Rashford, Fred, and Scott McTominay paw at trying to close down like a kitten:
We could go on, and believe me I really want to, but this was the story all game. Liverpool hunted down the ball all over the pitch, and then knew exactly what they were going to do with it, flooding Fred’s and McTominay’s spots with Firmino dropping into midfield, their fullbacks getting high with no one tracking them, and their two advanced midfielders splitting toward the sideline as well. United’s plan was to punt it up to their forwards and hope they just figured something out. There was even time for Jordan Henderson to strip Paul Pogba like he was just shucking an oyster clean at the midfield line, and then curl this Rembrandt to Salah for his hat trick.
It was quite the afternoon for Pogba, who came on at halftime, got undressed for Liverpool’s fifth, and then got sent off 10 minutes later for a horror tackle on Naby Keïta. And if you think that was a rare example of United’s composure being something like that of a toddler, Ronaldo should have been sent off at halftime for simply kicking Curtis Jones and using the ball as an excuse.
You know what, I need another dance break:
Perhaps nothing symbolizes United’s need to skate by on temporary highs and barely scrape themselves out of disaster instead of long-term building better than Ronaldo. As their midfield was violently torn to vapor, he just stared on from up the field. He can’t help where United need it most, but man, those headlines when he signed. Those last-ditch goals to save games that United shouldn’t find so tough in the first place. He provides a lot of buzz and a lot of relief, but no actual solutions. Meanwhile, $100 million man Jadon Sancho can’t get on the field, and he was the player Solskjær just had to have.
If this isn’t it for Solskjær, it leads one to wonder what is bottom? Perhaps under the Glazer ownership it’s merely enough to provide just enough moments and headlines to fool just enough people that a dawn is coming without actually doing the work to create one, or hire someone to rattle enough cages to create one. We’ll know in the next few days.
Yeah… gonna need one more dance break: