United have started campaigns at this level slowly before, and this was certainly a performance in that category. There’s no question there’s a lot of quality in the side – Januzaj, Keane and Lingard all started, fresh from their experiences with the senior team in pre-season – but this was a sloppy, undisciplined performance that made a fairly ordinary Liverpool side look far better than they really are and got the young Reds’ defence of their title off to the worst possible start.
I’ll admit that, having opened the scoring through Cole early on, I fully expected United to win this at a canter. I didn’t anticipate the centre of United’s team opening up like Jeremy Kyle’s gob and showing equal levels of sophistication. Thorpe and Keane are unquestionably fine central defenders at this level but during the first half they looked as if they’d never met and a highly creative midfield set-up too often left Charni trying gamely but too often unsuccessfully to shut the door that all too frequently gaped open behind him.
Charni limped off injured just before half-time and was replaced by Tyler Blackett, who filled in at left back to allow Marnick Vermijl to replace the Belgian in midfield. With Petrucci falling back, United began to dominate possession as, buoyed by Lingard pulling a goal back before the break, they chased the game. The second half featured a series of near misses and corners but, as is so often the case, a careless error was all it took for the good work to prove fruitless. A back pass let in Borini, the one player of genuine class in the Liverpool side, and he wasn’t going to pass up such a gift of an opportunity.
Liverpool walked out 4-2 winners, having made far more of their chances than United had. In previous encounters between the two clubs, our opponents had suffered sendings off and it could be pointed out that there were several challenges in this game that a less lenient ref might have penalised more severely. But the other side of that coin was, faced with such an approach, United lacked the fight in midfield to counter it.
There were, however, some positives to take from this defeat. Varela, as expected, looks a very promising acquisition at right back. Vermijl impressed when switched to an emergency midfield position and put in a fair few challenges that belied the apparent frailness of his frame. Tom Lawrence replaced Henriquez in the second half and, as is so often the case, the options he gave the always creative Januzaj improved considerably. But this was a generally careless performance with which to start United’s regular occupancy of the Salford City Stadium and it can only be hoped that the emotion of a result like this against this opposition will spark something a bit more substantial at West Brom on Friday.