Manchester United: a correction. When we, the Premier League’s massed quick-reaction media hacks, wrote of a decisive culture shift, of the healing hands, blazing eyes of an ascetic bald Dutch man, of ripping out the rot at source, what we really meant was, steady as she goes, still a fair old bit of damp in there mate, you might want to give it a while.
Headlines such as Banana Bread, Bikram Yoga and Shostakovich: a 10,000-word Deep Dive Into Total Ten Hag; or Everything Is Fine It’s The ‘90s Again; or Casemiro: How He, Like, Totally Carried Modric For Years may have given the impression that we, the football media, are simply trying to graft some kind of meaning on to a constantly shifting set of parts. Or indeed that it is just more fun to see a story of progress and major chords than a period of indeterminate change.
But there are times when you just have to appreciate football’s arch sense of humour. From a narrative point of view Liverpool’s 7-0 evisceration of Manchester United is, above all, a very funny result. After Real Madrid, Barcelona, the Carabao Cup final, there were some certainties here. The new red dawn. The end of the age of Jürgen. Okay. Have a 7-0 defeat. Not four or five. Now, you were saying?
The fallout has of course been focused largely on sudden gear changes, and the whine of high-speed reverse. We hear now that Bruno Fernandes — United’s best player for the past few difficult years — is in fact the cause of that sick and failing culture. It seems now that arguing on the pitch is the final indignity and not, as it was at Wembley a week earlier, a sign of Nelsonian leadership.
There has been chatter about Erik ten Hag’s allegedly scrambled substitutions. And even some suggestion from the deluded periphery that this defeat is a delayed karmic consequence of getting a toxic 37-year-old celebrity off the payroll.
With the benefit of a little post-match reflection, there are certain things worth saying about the result of the season to date. All involve an unfashionable degree of moderation. Don’t panic. Because it actually changes very little.
First, and at the risk of stating the very obvious, Manchester United’s problem is not Ten Hag or Fernandes, or any combination thereof. These are the good bits of this thing. And second, Sunday afternoon was far more instructive and far more straightforward in its lessons for Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool.
As Klopp will be keen to emphasise, this is simply a staging post. There are still plenty of edges to be stitched. But there was an undeniable cohesion in Liverpool’s attack, a chemistry not previously seen on this scale in the speed, mobility and ruthlessness of Cody Gakpo and Darwin Núñez; combined with one of those imperial Mo Salah games, where he just seems to be playing on the moon, having fun, utterly unafraid.
Klopp has asked for signs that it is possible to create a second iteration of this team. Well, here it was: life, heat and the sense of something germinating. It may or may not come to full bloom. But there is a spark of something genuinely potent in there.
For United the lessons are more diffuse. There will be new bruises from this defeat, and the basic weight of that scoreline to digest. But it is necessary to consider not just the evidence of Sunday but also the evidence of progress already made, and indeed the evidence of the last 10 years of internal deterioration. Taken in the round this feels more like a black swan scoreline. The re-emergence, all at once, of certain key disaster-level frailties but with its own random elements too.
This was at least a surprise and less profoundly wounding than, say, the 5-0 between these two teams at Old Trafford last season, when United fell apart from the first minute to the last, a game that captured perfectly the sense of decayed internal architecture.
It was also a strange game. Liverpool were sublime in the second half. But they also had eight shots on target and scored from seven. For United, 11 days had brought Barcelona, the Carabao Cup final, the FA Cup and Liverpool at Anfield. They won the first three of these, and kept pace for the first 43 minutes of this one. From there they shipped seven goals in the next 47 minutes, and basically fell apart on every metric.
Why now? It has been an unusually gruelling season for everyone. Weird results have become less weird. Liverpool have won 9-0, 7-1 and 7-0, but also suffered a 5-2 defeat two weeks ago that felt like its own kind of irretrievable calamity. Newcastle couldn’t lose, then couldn’t win. Spurs seem to have lost every single game, but are still somehow fourth. Manchester City are transitional/irresistible or some combination thereof.
In the middle of this cut-and-shut schedule United have played slightly more games than any other team. Has Ten Hag been able to manage this properly? Marcus Rashford has played 20 games in 69 days. Most of the same starting XI have appeared in the past four. This is not to excuse their extreme brittleness. But it is perhaps to explain it a little.
There is a sense also that large defeats have become more common generally. Perhaps this has a tactical element. When a rigorously drilled systems team such as Liverpool or United click, they click in an irresistible fashion. But high-spec parts and complex electrics can also snarl just as spectacularly.
So we seem to be seeing more of this stuff. Two seasons ago Liverpool lost 7-2 to Aston Villa, then won 5-0 and 7-0, then lost six home games in a row, all the while chasing the same model of high-pressure football.
This is not to excuse the abject failings of United at Anfield. It is genuinely rare to see any elite team, with 10 players signed for £40 million or more, outgunned to this degree. But the real truth of Anfield, 7-0 and all that, is that the rot runs deep here.
The previous decade of decline and dilution wasn’t a mirage. Its effect will remain until they can be erased by time and good practice: the bizarre recruitment, the football-club-as-marketing-tool dynamic, the dressing room self-interest, the creation of a team with a hole in it. Across 18 league games from March to October last year Manchester United lost 4-1, 4-0, 4-0 and 6-3. And of course, that dilution is just as hard to flush, ready to be reinflamed by errors, fatigue — or the excellence of an opponent.
Ten Hag has done some fine work on the hoof in the past six months. But it is worth remembering that he has remained cautious even in victory. As disastrous defeats go, Anfield feels more like a warning from the past, a reminder that decay sets in deep; and that for all the attention to detail and tough love among the players, it is a long and treacherous road. —Guardian