Horror show raises doubts over United’s heart and soul
MANCHESTER United’s aggregate score over two Premier League games against Liverpool last season was 0-9. This season it is 2-8. United have improved, then. But after this remarkable afternoon at Anfield, it seems Erik ten Hag has more work to do than we thought.
This was a result and a performance taken right from Ten Hag’s difficult early days at Old Trafford. A 4-0 defeat at Brentford and a 6-3 defeat at Manchester City that flattered them were staging posts in Ten Hag’s opening attempts to drag his club out of the darkness and back in to the light.
We thought all that had gone. We thought that dysfunctionality, weakness and refusal to take individual responsibility had disappeared out of the door with Cristiano Ronaldo in the early days of winter.
But here, out of nowhere and on the back of a long run of winning, progressive football, all the horror — all the unspeakable stuff — came frothing and bubbling back to the surface like sewage.
United stank here. Maybe that goes without saying. Maybe it is impossible to lose by seven goals and emerge with any kind of credit. But still the feeling remains that this was a showing that pointed at something not quite right at the heart and soul of Ten Hag’s team.
In some ways, this was about more than the football.
All the concerning signs were there. David de Gea moaning at Lisandro Martinez after the first goal went in. The young Brazilian Antony (goals this season: six) waving his arms around at Marcus Rashford (goals this season: 22) after losing possession and choosing not to chase back for goal No 4.
And that is before we come to the captain Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese is a talent. He is also a baby. Great United captains down the years — the likes of Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, Steve Bruce — did not always have things their own way. Nobody is perfect. They all had bad days.
But the captain’s armband brings with it a responsibility to lead, to set an example, to keep your head up. Fernandes presented absolutely none of that at Anfield yesterday.
His most notable contributions came not from his feet but from his mouth. At full-time, he was still arguing, this time with Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker. Prior to that, he rattled Ibrahima Konate with a late challenge. He feigned injury — holding his face — when swatted on the chest by the same opponent.
It was extraordinary that he was not booked. It was equally surprising that Ten Hag left him on the field for the whole game.
Fernandes was not alone. Luke Shaw resembled a wrecking ball in over- sized shorts. De Gea — so impressive on the whole this season — had an afternoon when the simple stuff suddenly felt difficult.
Diogo Dalot, butchered down his side by Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson, was so confused that by the time Roberto Firmino swept in the seventh goal, the United full back was trying to stop it on the goal line while standing half a yard behind it.
It was chaotic, it was ill- disciplined and for those United supporters brave enough to stay until the end, it must have felt not only embarrassing but also utterly confusing.
Before this game, United had lost once since November 6. One defeat in 22 games. And then this.
The first half saw United carry a latent threat that has steadily become recognisable as this season has moved forwards. Liverpool were the better team, but until Cody Gakpo scored the opening goal just before the interval, the better chances — one for Fernandes and one for Rashford — had come United’s way on the break.
Anfield was alive with hope at half-time. The goal had done that. But the manner in which Jurgen
Klopp’s team trampled all over United in the second period is what will have sent Ten Hag back home to Cheshire wondering if there is still a sickness lying deep in the make-up of a squad with which he has already achieved so much this season.
Liverpool were electrifying in the second half. They smelled blood once the second goal went in on 47 minutes and the manner in which they went after United like hunting dogs was reminiscent of some of their great modern performances.
All the issues that became visible in United’s football and in their minds were clear to Liverpool’s players on the field. They turned small tears into gaping holes. They turned vulnerability into naked, aching weakness.
And on the back of that they turned their own energy, belief and aggression into goal after goal after goal. We have seen many exceptional things at this stadium in the Klopp era but we have not seen much like this.
Still, though, United were complicit. They are a good side these days but Liverpool and Manchester City have set the standards in the decade that has passed since Sir Alex Ferguson’s last Premier League title in 2013. Here United discovered that they remain short of those standards, mentally and emotionally as much as technically and tactically.
Ferguson was here for this one. He always is. He knows what it takes to win titles and complaining, fighting, fouling and moaning have never been part of the tool kit.
Good teams can lose but they do not lose like this. Good teams shut games down. They limit the damage. They get out with dignity. Here, United opened the door to Liverpool and simply looked the other way.