It flies in the face of an established narrative, but yesterday’s victory at Anfield was actually Manchester United’s eleventh at Liverpool’s home since the Premier League began. No other club has won more often at this ground in this era, but due to United’s relatively poor record there in the last decade, confidence that last Sunday’s surging victory over Tottenham Hotspur would be repeated was sparse. Liverpool, before yesterday’s game, were in possession of an incredible habit of reserving their best for these meetings, and always seemed to understand how important it was to attack this fixture with purpose when United were in town. This was only the second time in seven years that United had recorded victories against their greatest rival both home and away, and doesn’t represent a sea change. But with the remaining aspirations for both clubs purely centred on a top four finish and a return to the Champions League, the result, and the way in which it was assured, felt hugely significant.
It wasn’t just the goals, or the individual performances, or the impressive start that caught the eye, although the sight of all three at Anfield yesterday was hugely welcome with last season’s limp defeats in this fixture still a little too fresh in the memory. It was that United had essentially provoked something of a meltdown in their opponents. Admittedly, the home side played with renewed purpose after Steven Gerrard’s swift exit, and came uncomfortably close to overturning that two-goal deficit, even with ten men. That will provide Brendan Rodgers with some comfort as he attempts to plot a course past Arsenal after the international break, but that will be vastly outweighed by the sight of the self-destructive tendencies that his side showed.
Whilst United failed to maintain their edge for the entire 90 minutes, the opening third of the game belonged to them, and it seemingly set the tone for what followed. It helped that the visitors looked assured on the ball, passing well and bristling with energy, but this wasn’t a mere stifling of Liverpool’s greatest gifts, even with Raheem Sterling’s relegation to wing-back after he had caused so many problems at Old Trafford in December certainly aiding the visitors; United outworked their opponents. Marouane Fellaini dominated in the air, appearing a metre taller than Emre Can on more than one occasion, and the energy and poise respectively offered by Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick behind him negated Liverpool’s attempts to swarm forward. The sight of Daley Blind sending Can flying with the meekest of disguised touches as if blown away by an invisible force-field was a first half highlight from a comedic perspective, but it also perfectly illustrated how uncomfortable the home side were. Each flank looked vulnerable, with Herrera’s pass to Mata for the opening goal exposing Alberto Moreno and Can constantly unsettled by Fellaini. Having spent a large chunk of United’s season utilising three at the back, Louis van Gaal had clearly advised his players where the holes in Liverpool’s defence would be, and it left the home side in a near-permanent state of discomfort in the opening half.
By the time Gerrard entered the fray to a rousing reception at the start of the second half, his side were only a goal down, but had been noticeably outplayed, something the club captain is unused to seeing during his time at the club in this fixture. Maybe that, alongside the baying chants from the away end during his warm-up or the ignominy of having to settle for a place on the bench as opposed to the starting XI….who knows what it was, perhaps all three, but Gerrard’s swansong in this fixture was a supernova that ended in the most explosively unpredictable fashion. The puzzled look etched into his face when Martin Atkinson brandished a red card after his reactionary stamp on Herrera was a definitive snapshot that has soured, not tainted his record in this fixture, but it left his team with a mountain to climb. It was an exit of incredible distinction, having frequently tormented United over the years, and given the increasing liability that Gerrard poses to Rodgers’ plans, the Liverpool manager must seriously weigh up whether or not he can be trusted for the remainder of this term’s biggest moments once he returns from suspension.
Gerrard wasn’t the only one who resorted to lashing out; Mario Balotelli owes at least a drink, maybe several to those few fans who quickly decided that holding the Italian striker back after a touchline tussle with Chris Smalling was prudent. Had he been left to react, then a second booking would have been tough to avoid having earned a first by kicking out needlessly at Phil Jones shortly after his second half entrance. Balotelli’s petulance wasn’t a huge surprise, even within the context of his Liverpool career, but Skrtel shortly outdid him with a stamp of his own on David de Gea in stoppage time. A retrospective suspension will likely arrive in the coming days, ruling the Slovakian out of games with Arsenal, an FA Cup replay with Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle. At a time when Rodgers has to preach togetherness with a five-point gap now present between these two sides, the loss of an influential defender is incredibly bad timing.
Manchester United, on the other hand, appear to have found a new lease of life, with the suspension of Angel Di Maria against Tottenham Hotspur an unlikely catalyst. It’s forced a change to a formation that has breathed a sense of purpose and poise that many had assumed had gone AWOL. A switch to 4-3-3 has worked wonders for nigh-on every aspect of the team, from front to back; Fellaini looks a new man in his disruptive midfield role, Mata looks menacing to Wayne Rooney’s right and De Gea has had less to do in these last two matches than he has at perhaps any point season. His defence, whilst harbouring imperfections, look quite coherent. It’s…..strange.
United fans are weary of false dawns in the post-Ferguson landscape; David Moyes’ reign offered a few of its own, and Van Gaal watched his players throw away a 1-3 lead at the KC Stadium to lose 5-3 to Leicester a week after thrashing QPR at home after a poor start to the league. But this past week or so has been a rebirth of sorts. The football has been purposeful, more deliberate and far more dangerous. Where chances had been created through sheer force of will in previous games, as with Ashley Young’s late strike against Newcastle after Tim Krul’s unfortunate spill, now they appear as a result of well thought-out build ups and incisive passing. It leaves United with the distinct possibility of leapfrogging their dear old neighbours in April’s Manchester derby should they beat Aston Villa after the international break; to merely consider that, not so much given City’s stuttering form, but United’s lack of it after the Arsenal defeat is a testament to how quickly fortunes can turn, and how deeply useful Van Gaal’s changes have been.
Daniel Sturridge’s goal and Wayne Rooney’s late penalty miss matter little, now; the latter always fails to perform on Merseyside in general, let alone Anfield, and Mata had already made himself the afternoon’s hero. It’s a shame that qualifiers for Euro 2016 are now the focus, as United would be a match for any team in the country on this sort of form. But that allows time to reflect upon and savour a most satisfying victory, be that in the form of watching replays of Emre Can’s fall, Gerrard’s dismissal, or, most likely a replay of what is quite probably the best goal scored by a United player at Anfield. Simply put, that volley, scored in United’s most hated environment, was the stuff of legend, and in a week where Diego Forlan spoke lovingly of the continued chants of his name for his own Anfield brace, another player joined him in club folklore. For Mata, his colleagues, his manager and the club’s spectacular away fans, this was a special afternoon; the task now, with eight games to go and meetings with the three teams sitting above them in the league table, is to make the most of it.