Man United 2-1 Liverpool: Red Devils produce a fine display out of NOWHERE to earn Erik ten Hag’s first win, with Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford finishing superbly before Mo Salah’s consolation

Written by on 23 August 2022

The merest flick from Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford was away.

It had been 997 minutes since his last goal for Manchester United. January 22nd against West Ham. Rashford had only Alisson to beat but a long run in which to consider that. It is said he has lost his touch in such situations. That he doesn’t finish. That’s why he’s ended up on the wing. 

Yet this was a different United, and a different Rashford as a result, too. He looked his old self once more. And so he buried it, as he would have done as a teenager, first breaking into the team under Louis Van Gaal wjen he had the bravery of youth and anything seemed possible. Maybe it still is.

Rashford let Alisson advance and slotted it past him cool as you like. And that was enough. United then had a two goal lead and, while Liverpool pulled one back and reduced more than a few nerves to shreds during five minutes of additional time, they held. This could be a game-changing 90 minutes for the club, and its manager Erik ten Hag. The fans were still advocating insurrection against the owners but, on the pitch at least, there was harmony.

This was a Manchester United team that worked, and in more ways than one. It functioned, certainly, fully deserving its first win of the season, one that leaves Liverpool still looking for theirs. But it also tried. It ran around. Apologies for the simplification but it’s true. 

Simply by running, United were much better than against Brentford. They were better tactically and technically, too, of course. But running helps. That’s why it’s a bottom line requirement; why ten Hag made it central to what he demanded from his team after the humbling defeat at Brentford.

And of course there were hearts in mouths when Liverpool scored with nine minutes remaining, a Luis Diaz shot blocked and then converted by the head of Mo Salah. Yet United merited their three points. Ten Hag at last had a team playing as he wished, all fury and press. They shook Liverpool and mapped out the blueprint for the rest of the season, too. United cannot slip back into old ways now. This has to be what they do. 

They cannot be the only elite team in this league, maybe across the top leagues of Europe, that doesn’t press and get about opponents. Everyone looked better for it: from Lisandro Martinez at the back, to Rashford up front, taking his tally against Liverpool to five goals in 11 games. No-one can accuse him of being a flat track bully with that record. He just needs to become reacquainted with what he was.

There was a whiff of cordite in the air and a mood of revolution both inside and outside Old Trafford throughout this game. 

Beyond the walls of the stadium thousands marched against the regime of the Glazer family, while inside ten Hag named an XI that pointed the way forward for the club under his stewardship. He went without some very big beasts. 

Gone, Cristiano Ronaldo. Gone, the captain, Harry Maguire. Gone, Luke Shaw and Fred. All relegated to the bench – a reaction to a quite terrifying start to the season, culminating in a four-goal loss to Brentford in which the barest minimum of effort was missing.

This could not have been more different. Manchester United outran Liverpool, out-pressed them and, largely, outplayed them, too. They led by a goal at half-time and it was thoroughly deserved. Not until the final five minutes before half-time did Liverpool claw their way back into the game and this always looked like being United’s night. United chasing, United harrying. 

United hustling and closing and bullying Liverpool off the ball. This was all about ten Hag at last getting a tune from his players. It was the best they have played, not just this season but for the many months towards the end of the last one, too. United back then drifted as if without anchor.

Yet from the moment this match kicked off the change could be seen, and felt. The supporters still sang that they wanted the Glazers out, or worse, but it was hard for them to stay focussed on their hatred when, from nowhere, they had a team worth cheering again. Last year, United came into this fixture in similarly poor form and were swept aside. 

They tore into tackles, pressed from the first man, allowed Jurgen Klopp’s weakened team no time on the ball. And it worked. Liverpool were rattled. James Milner looked his age, Jordan Henderson lacked the invention needed in the heart of midfield, the forwards could barely get a touch.

United? They were better without Ronaldo, better without Maguire. Ten Hag may have been forced into these changes by unacceptable form but, having made them, he should have the courage of his convictions and not go back. 

In the seventh minute, Trent Alexander-Arnold made a mistake that let Marcus Rashford in, and then hauled him down. It was a sign of things to come, Alexander-Arnold’s defensive limitations always apparent against the speed of United’s forwards, particularly Anthony Elanga until Martial replaced him at half time. 

In the tenth minute, United should have scored. A fabulous break down the right flank saw Bruno Fernandes poke the ball past Joe Gomez, finding Elanga in space on the left. His shot beat Alisson, but not the post, the ball flying out with almost as much speed as it went in. Yet Liverpool were rocking and five minutes later the home side went ahead.

It was a lovely move again, quick and incisive, with Christian Eriksen finding Elanga on the left and the young man cutting the ball back for Jadon Sancho in the middle. He had the time to switch from one foot to another as Virgil Van Dijk stood off, and Milner dived in. Sancho’s touch left Milner chasing down air and Sancho had time to pick his spot. The stadium erupted, as did Milner who could be seen giving Van Dijk a rare dressing down.

At the back, United were much improved too, not least new signing Lisandro Martinez. Small he may be but he played big here, reading the play well and making some huge blocks. One was from Salah after 40 minutes, one of the few times he got in the game early on. A minute later, from a Liverpool corner, Milner headed in the direction of goal only for Fernandes to hone his accuracy with a bizarrely directed attempted clearance. On the line Martinez was equal to that, too.

By the end, songs about the Glazers had been replaced by pure celebration. The fans may hate the owners but they really hate Liverpool and this was a rare opportunity to demonstrate that without fear of cocky rebuttal – their first win in this fixture since March 2018. Attention now shifts west to the Champions League finalists with two points from three matches. For now, the heat is off United – and it will stay that way if they continue playing like this.

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