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Manchester United’s Delayed Collapse Finally Arrived

Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United looks dejected during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford on October 24, 2021 in Manchester, England.
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

What can I even say about Manchester United’s implosion against Liverpool that the 5–0 scoreline doesn’t say on its own? I could focus on the languid defending that helped Liverpool jump out to a 4–0 lead by halftime. I could mention Paul Pogba’s injury-causing red-card tackle against Naby Keïta, just 15 minutes after the Frenchman came on the field. I could even take a moment to appreciate Cristiano Ronaldo’s would-be goal getting called back for being millimeters offside. Nothing I could say, though, would sufficiently encapsulate the ineptitude on display at Old Trafford on Sunday.

For Liverpool, this victory doesn’t say too much. The Pool Boys have been a dominant force this season, both in England and in Europe. Mohamed Salah is playing like the best player in the world right now, and his hat trick on Sunday only solidified his case, even if the first two goals were brought about more by shambolic defending than any individual brilliance. (His third was down to a gorgeous pass from Jordan Henderson, but the chipped finish from the Egyptian was his best action on the day.)

Elsewhere, a depleted midfield missing Fabinho (a late scratch due to a pre-game injury) mostly dominated proceedings. If there’s a worry here, it’s that Keïta, scorer of the first goal after a nifty Salah pass, had to be stretchered off after the aforementioned Pogba two-footer:

Midfield depth is becoming an issue for the Reds, with Thiago, Fabinho, and now Keïta suffering from injuries. Besides that, though, everything looks perfect for Liverpool after this incredibly rewarding victory over its most hated rival. It’s United that is in the microscope now. At every level of play on Sunday, United played about as poorly as it ever has under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The attack was mostly toothless, and even Ronaldo’s comeback black magic was useless against the overwhelming score. Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford, United’s wildly talented young forward duo, were anonymous against a Liverpool defense starting new signing Ibrahima Konaté. The midfield trio of Scott McTominay, Fred, and Bruno Fernandes were similarly overrun against a Liverpool midfield consisting of Henderson, Keïta, and James Milner, which isn’t even close to being the Reds’ strongest combo there.

It was the defense that let United down the most, though, which is perhaps obvious when giving up five goals at home. The left side of the United defense in particular was victimized in the fateful first half. All four Liverpool goals in that period came down that flank. It would be easy to blame Luke Shaw, United’s left back, for this, but Harry Maguire, the left-sided center back and one of England’s heroes at the Euros this past summer, had a catastrophic performance. Look only at Diogo Jota’s second goal to see Maguire completely lose the Portuguese attacker in the box to allow for the easy tap-in:

Where does United go from here? The easy answer, and what will likely be the loudest one this week, is to fire Solskjaer. Despite his broad successes since taking over for José Mourinho in December of 2018, the Norwegian manager this season has struggled to match the renewed ambitions and expectations that accompanied the Ronaldo signing. The team has been too inconsistent this season, and especially after a humiliation of this scale, it will be hard for even the most pro-Solskjaer partisans to justify his continuation in the job.

Firing the manager won’t solve United’s more fundamental issues, though. This is a very talented side with some glaring weaknesses that even in the best of circumstances would keep them beneath the four or five clubs that make up Europe’s true elite—the likes of Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester City, and, of course, Liverpool. In a way, it is not shocking that Liverpool trounced a side currently mired in the middle of the Premier League table, and it only becomes such when you look at the jerseys.

Solskjaer could stay, or he could go, but whoever has the reins will have to figure out what to do with Paul Pogba, how to organize a defense of good-but-not-great players, and the Ronaldo of it all in attack. Against most opposition, those problems won’t arise much, and especially not at the same time. But when all three are exposed at once? That’s when you get Liverpool 5, Manchester United 0. There’s no one to blame for the entirety of this disaster, except perhaps everyone. Wherever Manchester United goes from here will have to follow that cold, hard truth, and no amount of #OleOut uproar will fix everything that ails England’s winningest club.

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