THE indignities for Liverpool started with the â€œ24 Years and Countingâ€ banner that was unfurled before kick-off and, by the time another grievous setback was complete, it was not easy to imagine how long it might be before this proud old club is a realistic contender again for another league title. The team who bewitched us last season are no more. The deterioration is sharp and football is such an impatient business Brendan Rodgers will know his status as manager-of-the-year does not spare him scrutiny.
Nine months ago Liverpool came here and, as Sir Alex Ferguson recalled in his autobiography, â€œbattered usâ€, a 3-0 thumping that seemed to epitomise the David Moyes era at Manchester United and the brilliant work that Rodgers was apparently undertaking at the other end of the East Lancs Road. What is happening now makes it feel like all the momentum has been lost. No team can defend this badly and expect to get away with it and the disappointment of losing to the old enemy will hardly be soothed by the knowledge this is not even a terribly good United side. Dog and Duck 3, Red Lion 0? Not quite, but you knew what Gary Neville meant.
The difference is that Louis van Gaalâ€™s team have re-established themselves on an upward curve and, though the quality of football still fell short, they have won six successive matches to establish a 10-point advantage over Liverpool in the skirmish for next seasonâ€™s Champions League places. Chelsea are another eight points clear and, bearing in mind the story of last seasonâ€™s title race, it is startling to see the way the team from Anfield have lost their way. There is a 21-point swing from the last time they visited Old Trafford.
Their lack of confidence could be seen in the performances of Joe Allen and Dejan Lovren, to name but two, or the sudden loss of self-belief that afflicted Raheem Sterling whenever he had a chance to round off some penetrative approach work by taking aim. Sterling, to give him his due, came up against a formidable goalkeeper. This was another wonderful performance from David de Gea, not just because of his uncommon hand-to-eye co-ordination but the way his best moments came in key periods of the game.
Consider, for instance, what might have happened if Sterling, set free by Adam Lallana, had been able to get the ball past De Gea with the gameâ€™s first chance, when Liverpool had started reasonably well. The importance of that save has to be put into the context of what happened next. Within a few seconds, United had worked the ball to Antonio Valencia on the right. So often over the last couple of years Valencia has been reluctant to take on his man and resorted to drilling in low, aimless crosses. This time we saw the Valencia of 2011, slipping the ball through Allenâ€™s legs for a beautifully delivered nutmeg, taking out two other opponents in the process and then having the presence of mind to pick out Rooney for the opening goal.
De Geaâ€™s other highlights included two outstanding saves in the early parts of the second half, first to deny Sterling again and then turning a shot from the substitute Mario Balotelli against the crossbar. A goal at that time would have given Liverpool encouragement to think a feat of escapology was on. Instead, United broke on the counterattack and Lovren hashed an attempt to clear Rooneyâ€™s cross. Juan Mata picked up the loose ball, played a disguised pass to Robin van Persie on the right and the third goal went in.
Liverpool were entitled to be aggrieved there was no offside flag when United made it 2-0, five minutes before half-time, when the only possible explanation was that the linesman did not notice Van Persie applying the faintest of touches from Ashley Youngâ€™s cross before Mataâ€™s stooping header. A bad call, however, does not excuse the wonky defensive line, the absence of a credible challenge, or the way Alberto Moreno lost Mata at the far post. Rodgers had experimented with a three-man central defence but lost Glen Johnson to a first-half injury and his back line failed again. The best teams also defend all over the pitch and Philippe Coutinhoâ€™s half-hearted attempt to track Rooney for the first goal is a good example of why Rodgers said Liverpool needed to â€œrecapture the team ethosâ€.
For United, Valencia was excellent, particularly in the first half. Mata played with great intelligence and Van Persie is clearly over that rough spell when his place was seriously under threat. There are, however, some obvious shortcomings, not helped by the seemingly ceaseless injury issues affecting their defenders. James Wilson struggled to make an impact on the day Van Gaal started the 19-year-old ahead of Radamel Falcao and Liverpool, despite their own failings, got behind the home defence so frequently it put a strange complexion on the final score. The paradox was that De Gea was man of the match by some distance, his brilliance made all the more pronounced because of the story at the other end.
Rodgers had chosen this occasion to drop Simon Mignolet but his replacement, Brad Jones, completely misread the trajectory of Rooneyâ€™s shot for the first goal, almost comically diving the wrong way. It was inexplicable and the hard evidence, perhaps, why Rodgers had persisted for so long with Mignolet. Yet Liverpoolâ€™s problems, languishing in mid-table, are not just consigned to goalkeeping issues.
Man of the match David de Gea (Manchester United) – The Guardian