Manchester United’s painful defeat by Liverpool is a testament to a decade of decay

Manchester United: a correction. When we, the Premier League’s mass responsive media hacks, wrote about a major culture shift, about the healing hands, the shining eyes of an ascetic bald-headed Dutchman, about ripping out the rot at the source, what we really meant was, steadfast as it goes, still quite an old bit of moisture in there, mate, you might want to give it a while.

Headlines like Banana Bread, Bikram Yoga and Shostakovich: a 10,000-Word Deep Dive Into Total Ten Hag; or it’s all good, it’s the 90s again; or Casemiro: How He, Like, Totally Carried Modric For Years may have given the impression that we, the football media, are simply trying to graft some sort of meaning onto an ever-changing set of pieces. Or that it’s just more fun to watch a history of progression and major chords than a time of indefinite change.

Related: Ten Hag accuses Manchester United of being ‘unprofessional’ in Liverpool defeat

But there are times when you just have to appreciate football’s primal humor. From a narrative point of view, Liverpool’s 7-0 win over Manchester United is, above all, a very funny result. After Real Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Carabao Cup final, there were some certainties here. The new red dawn. The end of the Jürgen age. OK. A 7-0 defeat. Not four or five. Seven. Zero. Now. You said?

Most of the fallout, of course, focused on sudden gear changes and the howl of high-speed reverse. We’re now hearing that Bruno Fernandes – United’s best player in the last difficult few years – is actually at the root of this sick and failing culture. It now appears that arguing on the pitch is the ultimate humiliation and not, as was a week earlier at Wembley, a sign of Nelson’s leadership.

There have been rumors about Erik ten Hag’s allegedly muddled substitutions. And even some hints from the deluded periphery that this defeat is a delayed karmic consequence of a toxic 37-year-old celebrity being removed from the payroll.

With the benefit of a little post-game reflection, there are a few things worth saying about the result so far this season. All involve an unfashionable degree of moderation. No panic. Because very little actually changes.

Firstly, and at the risk of stating the very obvious, Manchester United’s problem isn’t Ten Hag or Fernandes or a combination of those. That’s the good side of this thing. And secondly, the Sunday afternoon for Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool FC was much more instructive and much more straightforward in class.

As Klopp will point out, this is just a way station. There are still many edges to be sewn. But there was an undeniable cohesion to Liverpool’s attack, a chemistry unseen to this extent in the speed, mobility and ruthlessness of Cody Gakpo and Darwin Núñez; combined with one of those imperial Mo Salah games where he just seems like playing on the moon, having fun and absolutely not scared.

Klopp has asked for signs that it’s possible to create a second iteration of this team. Well, here it was: life, heat and the feeling of something germinating. It may or may not come to full bloom. But there’s a spark of something really potent in there.

For United, the lessons are more diffuse. There will be fresh bruises from that loss and the base weight of that score to digest. But it is necessary to consider not only the evidence from Sunday, but also the evidence of progress already made and indeed the evidence of internal decay over the last 10 years. Viewed from the lap, it feels more like a black swan goal line. The sudden reappearance of certain key weaknesses at a disaster level, but also with its own random elements.

This was at least a surprise and less profound than, say, the 5-0 draw between those two teams at Old Trafford last season, when United fell apart from the first minute to the last, a game that perfectly captured the feeling of the decaying interior architecture .

It was also a strange game. Liverpool were great in the second half. But they also had eight shots on target, scoring out of seven. For United, 11 days had brought Barcelona, ​​the Carabao Cup final, the FA Cup and Liverpool at Anfield. They won the first three of those and kept pace for the first 43 minutes of that race. From there, they delivered seven goals over the next 47 minutes, falling apart on basically every metric.

Why now? It was an unusually tough season for everyone. Strange results have become less strange. Liverpool have won 9-0, 7-1 and 7-0 but also suffered a 5-2 defeat two weeks ago that felt like its own kind of irretrievable misfortune. Newcastle couldn’t lose and then win. Spurs seem to have lost every single game but are still fourth somehow. Manchester City is temporary/irresistible or a combination of these.

Amidst that tight schedule, United have played slightly more games than any other team. Did Ten Hag get that right? Marcus Rashford has played 20 games in 69 days. Most of the same starting XI have appeared in the last four. This is no excuse for their extreme brittleness. But maybe it should explain it a bit.

There is also a feeling that big losses have become more common in general. Maybe that has a tactical element. When a rigorously rehearsed system team like Liverpool or United clicks, they click in an irresistible way. But high-spec parts and complex electrical systems can growl just as spectacularly.

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So we seem to be seeing more of this stuff. Two seasons ago, Liverpool lost 7-2 to Aston Villa, then won 5-0 and 7-0, then lost six straight home games, all following the same model of high-pressure football.

This is not to excuse United’s pathetic mistakes at Anfield. It’s really rare to see an elite team of 10 players signed for £40m or more fall short to this degree. But the real truth of Anfield, 7-0 and all that, is that the rot runs deep here.

The past decade of decline and dilution has not been a mirage. Its impact will remain until time and best practice can erase them: the bizarre recruitment, the football-club-as-a-marketing-tool dynamic, the self-interest in the dressing room, the creation of a team with a hole in it. In 18 league games from March to October last year, Manchester United lost 4-1, 4-0, 4-0 and 6-3. And of course, that dilution is just as difficult to eradicate, ready to be reignited by mistake, fatigue — or an opponent’s excellence.

Ten Hag has done some footwork over the past six months. But it is worth remembering that even in victory he remained cautious. In the face of disastrous defeats, Anfield feels more like a warning from the past, a reminder that decay runs deep; and that despite all the attention to detail and hard love among players, it’s a long and treacherous road.

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