EPL

Why still him? Liverpool obliteration leaves Solskjaer with nowhere left to hide

By Sports Desk October 24, 2021

Manchester City's 6-1 demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford, 10 years and one day ago, was probably the worst defeat ever endured by Alex Ferguson.

In the club's modern history, even in the post-Fergie wilderness, there had never quite been an occasion to match it, even accounting for Tottenham's victory by the same scoreline last year.

There has now.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the hero of Barcelona 1999, knew a thing or two about creating spectacles as a player. As a manager, he still has the knack.

Manchester United 0, Liverpool 5. Has there ever been a more abject, visceral demolition of the 20-time English champions in the Premier League era? Has it ever looked this bad?

A goal down after five minutes and a missed Bruno Fernandes sitter. A hat-trick for Mohamed Salah, the first in the league away to United since QPR's Dennis Bailey in 1992. A disallowed goal for Cristiano Ronaldo. A 15-minute cameo for Paul Pogba that ended in a red card. A total of 35 home goals conceded in 2021, their worst such return for 60 years. The biggest win for Liverpool over their rivals since 1925. And hardly a whiff of surprise about the whole sordid thing.

As former midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger tweeted at full-time: "A devastating day for all Man Utd supporters and the club but it didn't come out of nowhere. It was not a surprise."

City's 6-1 win in October 2011 was a watershed moment; a giant step on the way to their first Premier League title. But it was still an aberration: after all, United finished level on points that season and responded by winning the trophy back a year later.

This was more in keeping with Liverpool and City's 3-0 wins over David Moyes' United. Those games, too, were barely contests, barely surprising given United's problems, and barely left the manager anywhere to hide.

The Glazers have stood by Solskjaer, resolutely, perhaps misguidedly. Watching United lose 3-1 at Anfield was enough for them to sack Jose Mourinho three years ago. If they tuned in to Sunday's match, if they saw homecoming hero Ronaldo eclipsed by Salah and 'legacy fans' leaving in droves at half-time, can they afford not to act?

United have played nine games since the fanfare of Ronaldo's goalscoring return against Newcastle United. They have won three of those, drawn one and lost five.

That's bad enough, but consider the circumstances. Only a last-second penalty save from David de Gea ensured the 2-1 win at West Ham; only Ronaldo's injury-time intervention salvaged an undeserved victory over Villarreal; only Tom Davies' strange decision to pass to the offside Yerry Mina, rather than shoot, meant Everton left Old Trafford with only a 1-1 draw.

Fine margins have been the difference between United's form being considered merely unacceptable, and the alarms this embarrassment will sound. Nobody who has watched them across those nine matches could seriously claim what happened against Liverpool could not have been foreseen.

The rain-soaked turf was a glistening canvas depiction of everything wrong about Solskjaer's team – if we needed reminding.

There are the collective tactical concerns, as seen for Naby Keita's opening goal, when Mason Greenwood and Aaron Wan-Bissaka gave up their positions to press Liverpool with all the ferocity and endeavour of an apathetic tortoise.

There are the individual mistakes, some of which would be incomprehensible for amateurs, never mind those playing for the world's most supported football club. Keita and Salah each scored with the United back five blocking not their route to de Gea's goal, but back to the halfway line. Before Diogo Jota's tap-in, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, defenders who cost a combined £110million, shied away from a loose ball as though under duress to keep dirt off the sponsor logos on their shirts.

United have committed eight errors leading to shots this season, the joint-most in the Premier League along with Wolves. But where Bruno Lage's men counter that through tackling – only eight sides have won more – United have won a league-low 61. When it comes to making amends for these mistakes, the Red Devils right now are either not interested or not capable.

Salah completed his hat-trick early in the second half, Ronaldo had a fine goal of his own disallowed by VAR, but many United fans were no longer in the stadium to watch. The loyalty to Solskjaer's legacy as a player has kept him immune to the kind of vitriol seen in the final days of Moyes, or Louis van Gaal, or Mourinho, but little served up by any of Fergie's successors was quite as horrifying as this.

United's daunting run of games since the October international break has yielded one win, two defeats, five goals scored and 11 conceded. With Tottenham, Atalanta and City to come next, you'd expect them to lose all three.

This is Manchester United's new normal: a total, shameful mess.

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    United battled to a point away at the Premier League leaders, following up a 2-0 win at Villarreal in Carrick's first game as interim manager.

    The former midfielder is set to be replaced by Ralf Rangnick – another interim appointment – but was encouraged by their display, even as they attempted just three shots. United last had as few as three attempts against Manchester City in April 2017.

    There was certainly a shift in United's approach from their previous league game at Watford, the 4-1 defeat that spelled the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seeing only three high turnovers in an extremely passive performance.

    Starting on the path to the more aggressive set-up Rangnick is likely to employ, United had a season-high 14 high turnovers at Stamford Bridge.

    But ex-United captain Keane was irked by the change under Carrick, who previously formed part of Solskjaer's staff.

    Following a Sky Sports interview in which Carrick took issue with the penalty awarded against Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the pundit was asked for his opinion.

    "I disagree with everything he said in that interview," Keane said. "Everything he said – he's talking about a plan, he's talking about the penalty.

    "Of course it was a penalty. We've all looked at it, it's a penalty.

    "He's talking about the players' efforts, he's proud of them... He's been working with the players for the last few months. He was working alongside Ole, he was in the dugout with Ole, and now all of a sudden he's proud of them this week and they had a plan?

    "What about all the other games they had? Why aren't they making effort in the other games? Why aren't they closing down people in the other games?

    "He's talking about the high press – we've seen all the stats before the match, and they're the worst in the league at closing people down, winning the ball back.

    "He's praising players, praising players for doing their jobs. He mentioned the three midfielders... It's ridiculous.

    "He was sitting in the dugout for the last few months with Ole, the last few years – he was sitting with Mourinho, as well. Now, all of a sudden, he's proud of the players this week? He's working with the same players."

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    Carrick was put in charge after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's sacking last weekend and has overseen a win and a draw in his two matches at the helm.

    The tussle with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge came amid reports suggesting United have agreed a deal to appoint Rangnick as interim manager until the end of the season, at which point he will move into a consultancy role.

    Rangnick has a fine reputation both as a coach and director, with the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel considering him an inspiration, while he helped transform German clubs Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig.

    While no announcement has been made yet by United, it was widely speculated that Rangnick's famed style of play – based on aggressive pressing and attacking – was being looked to by Carrick at Stamford Bridge.

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    "To come away disappointed and to feel like you have left something out there is a positive," Carrick said. "That intent and that hunger summed us up today. We knew it wasn't going to be free-flowing football at times, but we were prepared to dig in."

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    "I don't think it was a penalty at all," Carrick said. "They have had a lot of shots, David [De Gea] had [some] saves, which we knew before the game he would have to make one or two.

    "Other than that, I have felt quite comfortable in the game. Of course, we want to be better. I'm not getting carried away, but I thought we defended well. I cannot fault the boys one bit."

    While Carrick might have felt Chelsea did not offer much, expected goals (xG) data suggests the Blues would have been worthy winners, creating chances worth 2.54 xG to United's 0.82.

    This was not lost on De Gea, who made four of his five saves in the first half, though the in-form Spanish goalkeeper considered the bigger picture.

    "On the pitch, in the goal, I was feeling danger for nearly the whole game," De Gea told Sky Sports. "We defended well, they missed big chances as well, and then once they gave us a chance and we score.

    "It is not enough to draw but, at the moment, with the way we are, it is a big point. The last games before, we were conceding three or four goals.

    "Now we concede one from a penalty, and a clean sheet against Villarreal. We are improving, but this is just two games. We need to show it in the games that are coming.

    "We were playing very poor. At least now we are defending well. We are fighting for every ball. I think that's good. Like I say, I'm proud of the team, we are fighting for every ball, but that's the minimum for Manchester United players."

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    Jadon Sancho pounced on a Jorginho error to score his first Premier League goal, before the Chelsea midfielder responded by converting an equalising penalty.

    This was a second consecutive home game in which Chelsea have failed to deliver maximum points, also drawing 1-1 with Burnley.

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    "They defended deep and you need maybe the first goal to open it a bit and to gain the last per cent of maybe freedom and confidence to have follow-ups and goals and big chances.

    "If you don't score, you always run a bit behind, because you feel that you're the stronger team, you play in the opponents' half.

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    Chelsea are now winless in eight against United in the Premier League, their second-longest such league sequence in this fixture.

    It was the fifth time the Blues have hosted United as the Premier League leaders, winning three and losing one of the previous four. The three victories were followed by title triumphs.

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