A hint that it was not Manchester United’s day emerged around half-hour before kick-off. The PA played Sit Down, the 1990s anthem by the local band James. But, as many a football fan knows, it has been appropriated by Liverpool supporters, changing the chorus to “Mo Salah”. The name of Liverpool’s Egyptian king echoed around Old Trafford long before he became the first opponent to score a Premier League hat-trick there.
It felt sadly symbolic of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United: the emphasis on all things Mancunian, the good intentions, the lack of coherent thought and the predictably bad outcome. When Cristiano Ronaldo’s previous appearance in the meeting of English football’s two most decorated clubs ended in a 4-1 Liverpool win in 2009, there was a genuine sense of shock. If 5-0 in 2021 represented a sensational scoreline, if United were shocking, this had felt very possible.
A harrowing defeat to Liverpool cost Jose Mourinho his job; Solskjaer proved equally unable to find an answer to Jurgen Klopp’s full-throttle football, but may linger on longer. Unlike his predecessor, he is not toxic. He has simply been outclassed and outcoached repeatedly over a dreadful six weeks. Even the comeback wins against Villarreal and Atalanta, thrilling as they were, inviting memories of famous fightbacks in the past, were only required because of United’s failings.
“It didn’t come out of nowhere,” the former United midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “It wasn’t a surprise. Liverpool showed them the difference, which is huge - having a philosophy & vision.” In contrast, United have a nostalgia project. Their powerbrokers can be out of touch, slow to act and hesitant about hiring new managers, but the realisation should be dawning that ambitions will not be realised under Solskjaer. He may go down as a transitional manager, but not a transformative one. The title will be contested by three clubs led by superior tacticians, with more modern ideas and the attention to detail to implement them. The major honours will not go to a side with a solitary clean sheet in 21 games.
Solskjaer is a natural optimist who looked shellshocked. His argument for why he should carry on was little more effective than his tactics. “I do believe I am getting close,” he said. United were runners-up last season, albeit a distant second. But now they have lost three of their last four league games. Liverpool only lost one in 38 when they were runners-up in 2018/19. The standards were altogether higher. A sympathetic Klopp cited Liverpool’s 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa last autumn; freak results can happen but that was a one-off. Perhaps this was not: United lost 6-1 to Tottenham a couple of hours earlier that day. Solskjaer was an escapologist as a player, a master of late goals, and has confounded predictions of his demise before, but a Manchester derby in November has the potential to be equally painful.
Certainly Solskjaer’s strategies involve relying on players to step up. In defence, Raphael Varane is injured and Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw are in wretched form; the captain was rushed back to face Leicester and was unfit and awful. Neither is afforded much protection. The ‘McFred’ partnership of Scott McTominay and Fred were supposed to at least offer the solidity of twin defensive midfielders, but United can’t defend. With Paul Pogba suspended, Nemanja Matic immobile and Donny van de Beek forgotten, there are no alternatives. That Liverpool won 5-0 at Old Trafford with their fourth-choice centre-back, Ibrahima Konate, and minus five injured midfielders, after Pogba hurt Naby Keita, is an illustration of the difference a manager can make. Liverpool have such a manager. United don’t.