When the halftime whistle sounded, with Liverpool leading 4-0 and everyone at Old Trafford well aware it could have been seven, the boos of Manchester United fans rang out.
At half-time against Atalanta in the Champions League last Wednesday night, with United 2-0, there was a volley of taunts before support for the squad and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær kicked in . United would rally to win 3-2.
Not here. The boos were sustained in intensity, anger seething, and it was certainly a long, lonely walk for Solskjær along the sideline and into the tunnel. At that moment, it felt like we were witnessing the end of a manager who was much appreciated by the die-hards of United but who had presided over a historic humiliation. Never in the Premier League era have the club lost four goals at the home break.
The second half unfolded to a soundtrack of goads from traveling Liverpool supporters. They chuckled that Ole was driving and chanted that he had to stay. Their demands for a wave on his part have gone unheeded.
Mohamed Salah scored his team’s fifth – his third from another haymaking day – and the only relief for Solskjær was that the full-time taunts weren’t so vitriolic. Most of his detractors had long left the ground. United had played the last 30 minutes with 10 men after Paul Pogba, as a halftime substitute, was sent off for jumping into a nasty tackle on Naby Keïta, who saw the Liverpool player fly away on a stretcher.
Liverpool were excellent. Again. They remain undefeated this season and statistics show they have scored a minimum of three goals in every away game, with Salah’s hat-trick continuing his record-breaking streak at club. It’s now an astonishing 10-game spin in which he found the net.
But, strange as it may sound, Liverpool didn’t have to locate their top speeds. They almost walked to victory, Solskjær’s game plan was shredded from the start and some United fans were heading for the exit in the 38th minute when Salah added to Keïta and Diogo Jota’s goals to bring the score to 3-0.
Sir Alex Ferguson could be seen in the stands, slowly shaking his head, and the only question on everyone’s lips was whether Solskjær could survive from here. United are eight points behind league leaders Chelsea; the hoped-for title challenge in tatters before the clocks go up. The faith of the club’s board of directors in Solskjær will be tested like never before.
He had gone for the double pivot from Fred and Scott McTominay, aware that he didn’t want to be too open in midfield, but United were just that. As against Atalanta in the first half, the first four – including Bruno Fernandes – seemed far away and Liverpool were able to make their extra man count in midfield.
They were able to do just about anything they wanted in a first half that made United fans tremble. Time and time again, Liverpool have been allowed to play across United lines – and it was an invitation they happily accepted. Where were the challenges, the pressure on the player in possession?
There are plenty of reasons United have kept just one clean sheet in 21 appearances and their poor organization and decision-making was marked all over the concessions in the first half. It started with the first when Luke Shaw got too deep, making United’s last line wobbly and playing Salah on the inside when Roberto Firmino looked forward to him. Salah didn’t need to produce any magic, just a simple pass around Shaw for the Keïta straddle, which passed David de Gea.
The game might have been shaped differently if Fernandes hadn’t had a glorious chance after four minutes, grabbing his shot and sending it far after United worked the ball well from left to right, with Mason Greenwood playing the last one. past.
It was the descent for them, to the rhythm, thereafter, Liverpool smelling the blood and gorging on it. The second was the worst of the field in the first half from United’s perspective, Harry Maguire found himself in a terrible tangle with Shaw at the edge of United’s box and allowed Keïta to recover and go far for Trent Alexander-Arnold. He went through low and hard; Jota, who had been preferred to Sadio Mané, slipped to the far post to score.
United had a few moments in the final third before the break. It was just that when they had to defend, their supporters were left behind. Liverpool were faster and smarter. They seemed to want more. United were increasingly gripped by fear, minimal resistance.
It almost went under the radar in the first half as Firmino missed two big chances and De Gea made a save to deny Salah. When Salah jumped into the third, following a Keïta cross and more sculptural tusk, Sir Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush could be seen almost doubled up in laughter in the posh seats.
Cristiano Ronaldo lost his head after failing to beat Alisson on a pass from Greenwood and he kicked Curtis Jones, who had come to replace injured James Milner. Ronaldo has been booked. Liverpool responded by working yet another – almost casually – opening which Salah completed on Jota’s pass.
Solskjær just wanted it to end – a grim, comedic detail coming in the 53rd minute when VAR ruled out a Ronaldo finish for a fine offside. By that point, Salah had run over Jordan Henderson’s magnificent cross-ball to score the fifth and that was too much for Pogba, who was sacked after a VAR exam. De Gea would make a nice stop to deny Alexander-Arnold. United had suffered enough.