Manchester United’s humiliations at the hands of their biggest rivals were supposed to have been confined to last season. But on an afternoon when Liverpool relocated something that has seemed lost at times, sparking what they believe can be a successful push for a top-four Premier League finish, United were reacquainted with their worst nightmares.
This was even worse than the horrors of the previous campaign mainly because they had made the short journey to Anfield on a high, having lost only once in 22 matches, collecting the Carabao Cup in the process. The 5-0 and 4-0 drubbings against Liverpool last term had come when the team were on their knees, almost expecting something terrible.
It appeared ridiculous to say but United were comfortable until the 43rd minute. It was then that the outstanding Cody Gakpo scored the opening goal. Ten Hag had wanted to sign the Netherlands forward in January only for the player to choose Anfield. Ten Hag, who ended up with Wout Weghorst on loan from Burnley, did not want to be vindicated like this.
United’s second-half capitulation was total and shameful, the senior players going missing, everybody seemingly giving up. There was no pride, no fight, no tracking back, and Liverpool tore them apart. Despite it all, Jürgen Klopp’s team have generally been good at home this season and onSunday, they were on another level. They were everything that United were not during a second period that will live forever in the hearts of their supporters – quick, committed and ruthless.
When Gakpo was substituted on 79 minutes, he was given a stirring ovation, having scored a second goal of his own – the pick of the bunch, a delicately clipped finish after Mohamed Salah had bamboozled Lisandro Martínez.
Darwin Núñez and Salah also helped themselves to two apiece and the rout was rounded off by the substitute Roberto Firmino, who fired through David de Gea’s legs after a Salah pass. A fan raced on to the pitch to join the celebrations and, with stewards in pursuit, he slipped and went into the posse of Liverpool players, almost injuring Andy Robertson and the substitute Curtis Jones. It was nowhere near to being the top slapstick moment of the contest. The fan earned a furious dressing‑down from Klopp as he was led away.
Liverpool have always finished in the Champions League places during Klopp’s full seasons with them; they cannot imagine not being in the next edition of the competition. With the title most likely out of United’s reach, there had been the argument that this showpiece was more important for the home team. They came to play as if it was.
It was a slow‑burning start, heavy on physicality, much of it directed by United at Salah, who radiated menace. Robertson almost teed up Núñez with a cross and yet it was United who flickered on the counterattack as the first half wore on, even if Ten Hag’s use of Weghorst in the No 10 role did not work. Neither did Bruno Fernandes on the left.
When Alisson swept a pass out to Robertson, Dalot was drawn towards him and Fred did not cover the space in behind which Gakpo, drifting to the left from his starting central position, saw was there to exploit. Robertson’s through-ball took out Fred and it was over to Gakpo, who sliced inside Raphaël Varane; simply too quick for him. The finish was steered unerringly into the bottom corner.
Liverpool turned the screw and the second half was a golden period for them, the memories of last season flooding back, United at sixes and sevens. It was unusual to see Martínez lose his individual battles while Shaw’s composure would desert him. Fernandes’s attitude, meanwhile, was all wrong; a remorseless stream of petulance. As an aside, it felt significant that Ten Hag did not introduce the club captain, Harry Maguire, in an attempt to stop the bleeding towards the end.
Gakpo’s second was a beauty, with Martínez slipping at the crucial point against Salah and Anfield gorged itself thereafter. Robertson and Ibrahima Konaté had blown huge chances when Liverpool countered, Núñez playing in Salah for 4-0, United’s last line all over the place.
Núñez got his second with a glancing header from Jordan Henderson’s cross and the late one‑two punch merely salted United’s gaping wounds. Salah whipped home after Shaw’s clearance had ricocheted before Firmino enjoyed his moment. For United, it was a historic embarrassment.