Manchester United need more than a couple of signings this summer. Trent Alexander-Arnold was sensational for Liverpool, if not England.
1) Before Thursday, Manchester United had been behind at half-time of a home game in which they opened the scoring just twice in Premier League history. The first instance was against Liverpool in March 2009; they succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 defeat. The second was against Tottenham in October; they were thrashed 6-1. Jurgen Klopp and his players would not have expected to complete the hat-trick with a 4-2 victory here.
The third goal in this humbling bore similar hallmarks to the first when Spurs came to visit seven months ago. Manchester United have a strange capacity to collapse as an entire defensive unit and do a series of inexplicable things in the space of a few seconds until the opposition finally capitalises. While there was no direct example of Harry Maguire wrestling Luke Shaw to the ground and opening up space for the completely unmarked Tanguy Ndombele to score from six yards, this was a different brand of the same ineptitude that exposed their underlying problems: the lack of reliable quality depth at centre-half; a midfield that often actively wants to avoid possession; a group of regular starters from which everything has already been mentally and physically squeezed because those in reserve are not good enough or have not been afforded the opportunity to prove themselves as such.
The consolation for Manchester United is that they shot themselves in the foot but still limped to a vaguely respectable display – at least in comparison to what came directly before it. But if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer felt the loss to Leicester showed that “a couple more” players were needed to truly challenge for the Premier League title, this proved that to be a low estimate.
2) Liverpool were seven points behind fourth place with a game in hand when this match was initially scheduled to be played at the start of the month. Champions League qualification seemed like a distant possibility dependent on the failure of other teams. By the time the fixture was finally completed the Reds were four points off fourth, Chelsea having played a game more.
That quirk in the season might be the stroke of fortune Liverpool feel has been long overdue after their title defence was undermined by injuries and the myriad issues stemming from them. They faced a Manchester United team knocked off their rhythm instead of one unbeaten in the Premier League since late January. They were afforded an unexpected rest at a time they were finally able to accommodate a more congested schedule. They go into Sunday’s game at West Brom safe in the knowledge that at least one of Chelsea and Leicester, who face each other in the FA Cup final a day prior, will drop points when they meet again in the league the following Tuesday. Liverpool have all the momentum and at this point should be disappointed if they do not salvage something meaningful from this relative wreckage of a campaign.
3) The current positions of their three remaining opponents would ordinarily be cited here to back that up. But pointing out that Liverpool face teams in 13th, 15th and 19th has the opposite effect. They have picked up 17 points from 13 games against the bottom eight: fewer than Newcastle (19), Fulham (18) and every other side but West Brom (15) and Sheffield United (11). Their record in such matches has been a persistent problem this season.
Counter to that is this latest example that Liverpool fare better picking on teams their own size. They are top of the Big Six mini league by three points, picking up at least six more points than every other side against teams currently in the top half. A first victory over an opponent that started the day above them in the table since December 16 suggests the Reds have hit form at precisely the right time.
4) One of the main differences between these two teams was born out of a clear similarity. Neither looked particularly sound in defence but whereas Liverpool have had months to adjust to the absence of their leader at centre-half, Manchester United have had mere days. Harry Maguire has his detractors but a player’s impact is best defined by how a team copes without them. And his team did not.
Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly have their uses in a squad that harbours hopes of playing 60 or so games across four different competitions over ten months. This might have been the final nail in the coffin that carries both of their hopes of establishing themselves as regular starters. Manchester United deserve more evenings like this if they continue to neglect the position this summer in favour of a marquee signing designed to build bridges with fans that were scorched long ago.
5) The same stands for that central midfield. Fred has often been unfairly maligned and the characterisation of Scott McTominay as Darren Fletcher-lite can sometimes be a little harsh. They are good players, decent for certain games and capable of excellent one-off performances. And if that is the bar Solskjaer has set for them then that is fine. But the ruthless reality is that neither should be starters for a side with genuine aspirations beyond winning Europe’s secondary competition against Spain’s seventh-best side. It would be gross negligence to prioritise a new right-winger when a better centre-half and at least two superior central midfielders are needed.
Manchester United have no issues in attack that require immediate action. They are booking themselves in for plastic surgery when an entire spinal reconstruction is necessary. Twist, twist, a million times twist.
6) Liverpool should stick as much as possible but the lack of familiarity in that defence almost cost the visitors when Alisson tried a short pass out to Rhys Williams while somehow failing to spot the rampaging 34-year-old Uruguayan in his peripheral vision. Edinson Cavani curiously took a touch before shooting and thus returned the gift still in its wrapping, but five minutes later Manchester United were ahead.
There was no blame to be attributed to Alisson on this occasion, nor Nat Phillips despite the centre-half diverting a Bruno Fernandes effort into his own goal. Fingers should be pointed at Georginio Wijnaldum for shadowing Andy Robertson and not tracking Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s underlapping run, with plenty of questions to be asked of Fabinho and his uncharacteristically poor awareness. He tried to close the space when the more advisable option was watching the man, particularly when that individual was Fernandes about 12 yards out. It was a horrible goal to concede but an appropriate conclusion to a slow and sloppy start.
7) That was to be Manchester United’s last shot for almost 20 minutes; Liverpool had three in the interim. Luke Shaw blocked a Mo Salah effort, Rhys Williams missed from a corner and Diogo Jota forced a save out of Dean Henderson after a flowing move. The final ball was supplied by Trent Alexander-Arnold: the game’s decisive player.
The right-back created as many chances (5) as the opposition overall in the opening 45 minutes. Only Fernandes (6) had more than his four shots. He had a crucial hand in the second and third goals. One of his better passes of the game was long forgotten by full-time, the 22-year-old intercepting a Shaw ball before sliding Firmino in behind after two minutes. The Brazilian tried to square the ball when he should have tested Henderson but Alexander-Arnold cannot be expected to do everything himself.
It was a fantastic performance in front of Gareth Southgate, who will have learned nothing new about the defender. The desperation to paint every Alexander-Arnold game as either proof of his deficiencies or his strengths depending on one’s opinion of his England prospects became tiresome long ago. It is possible to appreciate his obvious quality in a Liverpool side set up for him without pretending he sent some sort of message.
8) Liverpool were feeling confident after half an hour despite trailing. The obvious tell that they were in the ascendancy came when Thiago followed an absolutely unnecessary stepover with a superfluous pass to Robertson with the outside of his boot. He is both a two-time European champion and also the kid at school who always waited to see who was winning the latest fight in the playground before getting a couple of cheap kicks in while they were down.
9) The equaliser came, but not before some good old-fashioned penalty controversy. Which is to say that Anthony Taylor erroneously but understandably awarded a spot kick when Phillips was upended by Bailly, only for replays to immediately show that it was a fine tackle from the Ivorian and any ‘follow through’ was negligible at best. The decision was overturned on the advice of VAR Paul Tierney. The system worked perfectly.
It was still funny to see opinions split almost entirely down the middle between ‘Definite penalty’ and ‘Never a penalty’. When there are equal levels of fume on either side of that fence despite the ability to watch the incident in real-time and then in numerous slow-motion replays, it is easy to see how difficult a referee’s job is.
10) Jota started ahead of Sadio Mane and justified that decision completely. It was his flick that brought Liverpool’s first goal after Manchester United failed to clear a corner, one the forward won himself after a clever volley. The 24-year-old had the opportunity to secure the points on the hour mark but hit the post with Manchester United still in flux.
He continues to excel in that forward line. The most striking thing about Jota is that he is so versatile not just in where he plays but when. He has scored five goals in 12 Premier League starts and four in six substitute appearances. And despite the obvious improvement since he joined from Wolves, there is still a great deal more of his game – his passing, for a start – that can be refined. Considering how good he already is, that is cause for excitement.
11) Firmino is a baffling player. He can be utterly infuriating but perhaps deserves more of a reputation for producing on the biggest stage. Dating back to August 2018, 17 of his last 29 Premier League goals have come against Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham. His brace here was dripping in striker’s instinct: a fine header from a set-piece and a close-range finish after a goalkeeper parry. Liverpool would be naive to rely on him so heavily next season and even more foolish to discard him completely.
12) Manchester United, as aforementioned, pressed the self-destruct button as a collective for the third goal. Fred gave the ball away first, Shaw then tried to carry it out after it was barely retrieved and then Henderson spilled his save out to the feet of Firmino. It was catastrophe piled upon catastrophe.
Henderson’s first Premier League defeat since Southampton beat Sheffield United on the final day of last season was a chastening experience. He managed a couple of decent saves but emitted no confidence whatsoever and compounded a difficult situation for the decisive fourth goal. It is an unenviable position for a goalkeeper to be in, staring down at an elite striker in a one-on-one. But the 24-year-old could not possibly have made himself look smaller by standing in such a way as to open up the entire right-hand side of the goal for Salah to slot into. Henderson was dealt a bad hand but went all in on the inadequacy.
13) Then there was Paul Pogba, who gave away a needless free-kick in a dangerous position because Fernandes had gone down and stayed prone for no apparent reason in the other half, before giving Firmino a free run at the back post to equalise. The Frenchman was awful and an uninspiring performance was epitomised by Jota shrugging off his challenge just after the hour to launch another counter-attack.
The decision to move him from the left to a deeper central position brought a slight improvement but Pogba does feel emblematic of a Manchester United side that only seems to play well when there is jeopardy. With nothing particularly on the line here but personal pride and a club rivalry most players have only a manufactured stake in, a motivated Liverpool with something still to play for always had more than a slight chance.
14) A ray of positivity for Manchester United was Mason Greenwood, who sparked a brief revival from the bench. His 27-minute cameo injected some urgency and willingness to actually show for the ball, managing eight fewer touches than Cavani in a fraction of the time. One effort was cleared off the line after Marcus Rashford halved the deficit within five minutes of Greenwood’s introduction. This only reiterated that the teenager should start the Europa League final based on form alone because Rashford has been run into the ground and it has been showing for some time.
That decision in less than a fortnight will reveal a huge amount about Solskjaer. The former player cannot possibly pick a striker with one goal in his last eight games to start a major final over one that has scored eight in 12 if he is to maintain a pretence of ruthlessness.
15) The last time Manchester United lost consecutive Premier League home games they quelled supporter backlash by signing Fernandes and instigating this unexpected rise to second place. He had six shots and managed to test Alisson, the Brazilian enduring one of his poorer games, only once. Fernandes remains integral and generally excellent but he cannot paper over any and all cracks forever.
That Europa League final has taken on added importance in light of recent results. Solskjaer protested against his side having to play four games in nine days yet the response has betrayed a group tired in mind and body. While they played the familiar tunes against Aston Villa, that was not enough at home to Leicester and Liverpool and Fulham and Wolves could compound this dip further before the game with Villarreal. Lose that and a wonderful season becomes a distant second with no trophies ahead of a summer in which the chasing pack will not rest on their laurels.
Manchester United cannot waste the opportunity that Champions League qualification will afford them. This team has an excellent starting line-up but the squad has to be improved upon. Chelsea will get better. Leicester’s recruitment has long been sound. Klopp is far from done at Anfield. Liverpool and Manchester City have gone from runners-up to champions in the past two seasons yet the second-placed teams from 2013/14, 2014/15, 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18 came sixth (Liverpool), fourth (Manchester City), fifth (Arsenal), third (Tottenham) and sixth (Manchester United) respectively in the following campaign. The warning is there: sides go down more often than they go up after reaching the penultimate rung of the ladder.
16) A potential own goal, an overturned penalty, an assist, a clearance off the line and the most headers won of any player on the pitch is some pure, unadulterated Nat Phillips. It took the 24-year-old time – forgivable considering the circumstances of both his career and the situation – but he does not look at all out of place in this Liverpool side. Williams alongside him was also very good. Klopp’s singular “Yep” when asked whether he was confident heading to Old Trafford with that pairing spoke volumes. Had he trusted them and moved Fabinho back into midfield sooner then this result might have meant even more to Liverpool.