Manchester United were seemingly starting a bright new era. Last weekend’s EFL Cup success at Wembley was their first trophy in nearly six years and provided a tangible element to the improvement inspired by Erik ten Hag.
But a week on, they have suffered their joint-heaviest competitive defeat of all time, with Liverpool dishing out a truly remarkable 7-0 defeat at Anfield in a game that Reds fans will hope provides a glimpse into their own promising future.
It’s been a difficult season for Jurgen Klopp’s side, their issues summed up by February’s 5-2 demolition at Anfield by Real Madrid, but Sunday’s victory – their biggest in the history of this fixture – is the perfect tonic.
Cody Gakpo, Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah were the stars, all three scoring twice. In the week that Roberto Firmino announced his imminent departure, it was somewhat fitting that the Reds’ new-look attack – and the Brazilian as well – produced such a dominant display.
As ridiculous as it sounds, Liverpool supporters would’ve been forgiven for seeing letting their early optimism subside, though. Let’s not forget, they were 2-0 up against Madrid during the aforementioned chastening defeat – here, they failed to make the most of their initial promise.
United grew into the game and created chances. Antony forced a good save from Alisson, Bruno Fernandes headed agonisingly off target, and Marcus Rashford – of all people – hit a tame effort straight at the goalkeeper when seemingly destined to score.
On the balance of the first half, United would probably feel they were the better side and had the bigger opportunities.
But their sloppiness in the final third provided Liverpool with the encouragement they needed, Gakpo’s impact proving especially poignant.
It was the Dutchman whom United were apparently keen on when it appeared Antony was initially unattainable last year. Ten Hag stuck to his first choice and the Red Devils ultimately paid through the teeth to get the Brazilian.
Yet his performance could not have been more contrasting to that of Gakpo. Antony’s final pass was routinely disappointing, and he created precious little given how much of the ball he had – and that’s been a recurring theme during his early months at United.
With Gakpo, however, there was ruthless purpose in almost everything he did, be it direct runs on the counter or springing breaks with his use of the ball.
Perhaps most importantly, though, was his clinical edge in front of goal.
He exploited space in behind Fred – filling in briefly at right-back for Diogo Dalot – and latched on to Andrew Robertson’s incisive pass. One touch knocked the ball inside Raphael Varane, who became unbalanced, and his next was a gorgeous finish into the bottom-far corner.
The goal could not have come at a much better time for the Reds, who were under pressure in that moment just before half-time, and they carried that momentum into what proved to be an utterly astonishing second half.
A comedy of defensive errors from United led to Liverpool doubling their lead 29 seconds into the second period, setting the tone for the next 45 minutes. After Luke Shaw’s wayward pass, Casemiro, Varane and Fred all failed to clear the ball, eventually Harvey Elliott’s pass was headed in by Nunez.
It only got worse for the visitors.
A corner of their own three minutes later turned into a 3-0 deficit. Gakpo brilliantly led a break, releasing Salah before darting into the box and receiving a return pass, which he impudently flicked past David de Gea.
A kind ricochet led to Salah hammering in number four off the crossbar, before Nunez coolly guided in a towering header as the scoreline began to take a humiliating form for the away side.
More embarrassing defending saw Salah bundle in after fine work by Firmino to become Liverpool’s record scorer in the Premier League, and the Brazil forward put the cherry on the icing on the cake, squeezing in past Dalot.
United lost their heads. Shaw and Fernandes were arguably lucky to avoid red cards, while the body language of both – and others – was appalling in the latter stages as Liverpool tried to pile on the misery.
In the end, Liverpool had to settle for seven – it could have been more.
Nevertheless, the Reds’ victory was an incredible statement of potential. Nunez has received pelters all season, Gakpo took a few games to start looking like he’d settled.
At times this season Salah has almost had to do it all himself, with injuries to others and a lack of form elsewhere robbing him of the opportunity to really build relationships and partnerships in the attack.
On Sunday it all came together with the ever-reliable Egyptian their heartbeat, providing a chilling glimpse of what could be on the horizon.
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