Liverpool’s defensive frailties exposed by Manchester United as stuttering start becomes a sorry one

Trent Alexander-Arnold looks on after defeat at Old Trafford

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lost the ability to do it. Ralf Rangnick rarely managed it. Erik ten Hag certainly hadn’t come remotely close in his first two games in charge. Then Liverpool came along and, within minutes, made Manchester United look a good team. And then a seriously good one. If Ten Hag and his relentless group of players were the architects of one of the most surprising home wins in decades at Old Trafford, Liverpool ensured that, as in both games last season, one of these sides left the pitch embarrassed.

Then it was United, 5-0 and 4-0 thrashings providing perhaps the worst days in a campaign littered with humiliations. Now it was Liverpool. A new regime at United was kickstarted by the ineptitude of the tormentors of the old. A first league defeat of 2022 leaves them below United in the table. A stuttering start to the season has become a sorry one.

There were emblematic moments, snapshots of an awful evening. Roberto Firmino missed the ball completely when he could have directed a volley at goal. Trent Alexander-Arnold, often the supplier supreme, volleyed a cross way over everyone waiting in the penalty area. James Milner and Virgil van Dijk, normally unflappable characters, seemed to be conducting a running argument. When Jadon Sancho opened the scoring, a feint immediately before sent Milner sliding and Alisson diving in the wrong direction. It rather summed up how Liverpool lost their compass. This was a role reversal.

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United turned Liverpool’s strengths into weaknesses. Or maybe Liverpool did. Alexander-Arnold was left exposed, looking a weak link defensively. If it emphasised how Jordan Henderson can excel at the unflashy, selflessly protecting the full-back when used as the right-sided No 8, he was instead anchoring a much-changed midfield. In the biggest game of his career, Harvey Elliott offered less protection, if more quality on the ball. First Anthony Elanga and then Marcus Rashford got away from Alexander-Arnold with ease.

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And long before the Mancunian sprang the offside trap to score the second goal, it was apparent United’s speedsters were exploiting the space behind Liverpool’s back four. A flagship tactic became a cause of their undoing, but the strategy of deploying a high defensive line relies on fractional judgments, on the authority of Van Dijk and on everything working in sync. And on a night when Liverpool’s mislaid the chemistry that propelled them to greatness, on-field relationships broke down.

It made for a miserable reunion for Van Dijk and Joe Gomez. They brought unparalleled frugality to a high-risk policy when, in Liverpool’s title-winning season, they were only breached once in an 11-game spell. Yet they can testify that when it goes wrong, it can be a fraught affair. The previous time they were the two centre-backs, Liverpool lost 7-2 to Aston Villa. The scoreline was smaller here; the pain may have been greater.

James Milner and Virgil van Dijk argue on the pitch

They spent too much time on the turn, chasing United attackers, but then Liverpool find themselves playing catch-up all too frequently. This was a seventh successive league game when they had conceded first. They lost none of the previous six but draws against Fulham and Crystal Palace were signs they cannot always repair the early damage. At Old Trafford, as at Craven Cottage, the first half was wretched. This time, there were no acts of escapology.

Identities can evolve, just as teams mature or age but Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool used to be specialists at flying starts. Opponents had to ready themselves for an early assault. But for some of that time, they were personified by Firmino. Now the scurrier in chief chugs around in slow motion. When Klopp ran down the tunnel at half-time, it felt his top speed is now greater than the Brazilian’s. Perhaps his efforts have taken a toll and Firmino has gegenpressed himself into anonymity. Age is catching up with him, even if Milner, five years his senior, popped up everywhere, seeking to set a record as the world’s oldest box-to-box midfielder. Milner is the exception to many a rule but if it was a match to suggest six thirty-somethings is too many, the man closest to his 40th birthday was one of their more vibrant performers.

There was too little competition for that accolade and if Liverpool had beat United in the summer scramble for the man who should be the future of their attack, he had to watch on mournfully. Perhaps Darwin Nunez’s foolish assault on Joachim Andersen was the headbutt that changed Ten Hag’s United career; maybe Lisandro Martinez’s, too, as the centre-back with the most famous height in football – all 5ft 9in of him – was spared a meeting with a giant. Substituted at half-time at Brentford, he was superb against Liverpool.

A new-look back four, with none of the quartet from the 5-0 starting, were denied a clean sheet. Mohamed Salah’s goal was his sixth in three games against United, a 10th in total, overhauling Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool record. Yet if last season, Liverpool could savour the statistics their meetings with United produced, now they were just a footnote to a failure.

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