Van Dijk becomes problem, Joe Gomez had waited an awful long time for this moment.
The 25-year-old hadn’t featured as a Premier League starting centre-back since suffering a serious knee injury mere days after featuring in the 2-2 draw at Manchester City in November 2020.
And after an untimely knock restricted him to a half-hour run-out against Crystal Palace last Monday, injuries meant opportunity arrived quicker than perhaps even the player could have expected with this start at Old Trafford.
Gomez has a shocker when he last partnered Virgil van Dijk in a league game as Liverpool slumped 7-2 at Aston Villa in October 2020.
This time, though, as Gomez largely grasped his chance, it was the Dutchman who produced an alarming display as, not for the first time this season, his standards slipped considerably.
Van Dijk’s static attempts to stop Jadon Sancho’s opener served only to block Alisson Becker and rightly earn a rebuke from an infuriated James Milner, who had been put on his backside by the United winger. Matters didn’t get much better for Van Dijk second half, with Gomez remaining reasonably calm among the storm.
With Joel Matip and Ibrahima Konate injured, Liverpool have little wriggle room in defence. But who could have envisaged it would be Van Dijk deserving of the chop?
It summed up Roberto Firmino’s evening. Shortly after the hour, Harvey Elliott floated a cross to the far post towards the unmarked Brazilian that was begging to be volleyed home.
Instead, Firmino swung his boot, missed the connection and instead swooshed a thin air as the home crowd jeered in delight.
That he was in such an advanced position was at least an improvement on his first-half display, when the striker was guilty of dropping far too deep and muddling further a midfield that simply couldn’t get to grips with United’s straightforward approach.
While it would be unfair to single out Firmino for an all-round dismal attacking display – even if United were fortunate not to twice put into their own goal – it has exposed how the Brazilian doesn’t possess the forward threat of past seasons, his skillset still impressive but not what Liverpool needed here.
How they miss the single-mindedness of Diogo Jota, while Nunez would certainly have given the diminutive Lisandro Martinez a different problem.
At least Mohamed Salah remains reliable, his late goal a 10th against United and making him the club’s record scorer in this fixture.
And while Luis Diaz put in a shift with little reward, the impact of Fabio Carvalho late on suggests the summer signing could be close to a first start. Certainly, Liverpool need more in the final third.
Reality bites for Liverpool
When Jurgen Klopp suggested in May this was a Liverpool team in “transition”, he wouldn’t have expected his view to have been underlined so graphically in such a short space of time.
But there’s no escaping the fact a bumpy few months await, regardless of the relentless absences that have severely limited the options of the Reds boss.
People will point to the absence of Sadio Mane, although the Senegalese started neither of the 4-2 or 5-0 wins Liverpool gained on their last two visits here.
Mane, though, was the essence of Klopp’s winning machine in terms of his relentless attitude and willingness to have a scrap. That can be replaced, but it will take time.
And there can be few occasions in recent years the Reds have been beaten to so many second balls and, whether intentionally or not, appear to match the desire and fight of a riled-up United team. This wasn’t good enough.