Yesterday’s match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford had all the makings of a disaster for United. After losing its first two games of the Premier League season (including a shocking 4–0 defeat against tiny Brentford, which is playing its third season in England’s top flight since World War II), United would have to face not only one of the most consistently impressive clubs in the world but also its fiercest rival. The scene was tense. Outside the stadium, fans gathered to protest the Glazer family, the club’s American owners, as they’ve done many times before.
United was quicker, slicker, tougher than Liverpool. It took its goals with efficiency, playing with the sort of verve on the counter that used to characterize it on the good days under Ole Gunnar Solskjær—before the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo and his static approach to center-forward play led to an unhelpful rethink. Notably, having got into such trouble last week against Brentford trying to pass out from the back, David de Gea took every goal-kick long. Given how uncomfortable the Spanish keeper is with the ball at his feet, that was probably a necessary compromise, but it is probably not a long-term solution for Erik ten Hag if he is to have United play remotely in the same way his Ajax did.
ten Hag is in his first season as manager at United, having been hired after a successful stint at Dutch club Ajax. The first season under a new manager is always a time of transition for a club as the new boss works to find the combination of players and tactics that work. And ten Hag made two bold personnel decisions for last night’s game, removing Cristiano Ronaldo and captain Harry Maguire from the starting lineup. They paid off, though.
But one win, even over a staunch rival, isn’t enough to paper over all the things that are wrong with the club. United’s loss to Brentford last week, which Wilson called “probably its worst performance in half a century,” can’t be ignored, and neither can the questionable decisions it has made in an attempt to turn things around. The other big show at Old Trafford last night was the introduction of the club’s latest signing, the former Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro. United paid a massive fee (reportedly $60 million, plus a possible $10 million in add-ons) to sign him, the second largest ever paid for a player over 30.