For longer than they would have thought was possible, Liverpool have been able to revel in the Manchester United misery. That shoe was finally on the other foot at Old Trafford.
An underwhelming start to the season just became an awful one. Two points from nine available already leaves them looking up at the early-season pace-setters.
A first Premier League defeat since December shouldn’t immediately sound like cause for a particularly sizable inquest at the AXA Centre this week. And with a shadow of some perspective, defeat away at Manchester United, in any era, can happen to Liverpool. On its own, it should not necessarily lead to any real serious introspection within the ranks.
But tag this damaging 2-1 setback on to successive draws against Fulham and Crystal Palace and the searching questions begin to grow for all concerned.
First, the mitigation: Injuries – and lots of them – have contributed to Liverpool’s match-day squads looking more like Under-21 team sheets at times this term. No Diogo Jota, Thiago Alcantara or Ibrahima Konate mean Klopp has been counting the cost just three games into the campaign. Further absences for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Curtis Jones and Joel Matip have hindered further. Naby Keita – more on him later – is also currently ruled out. It is a list that would disrupt any squad, there is no disputing that.
But the 11 that Liverpool were able to name at Old Trafford from the start was still packed with experience, know-how and ability. That those qualities deserted them, virtually to a man, for large swathes of this match will be concerning for Jurgen Klopp.
Before there can be any talk of what might be achievable this season, the Reds must rectify their shortcomings and fast. Should they fail to do so, their ultimate aims may be consigned to the dustbin before the summer transfer window has even closed.
This wasn’t a team having an off-night; it was one being punished for a continuation of the form they have shown all season. An injury list cannot and should not excuse that.
United’s own start saw them not only beaten but thoroughly outplayed by both Brighton and Brentford and had seen them cast as the early-season laughing stock by the wider footballing world. But Liverpool wasted a great chance to increase that deep frustration within the United ranks by turning in a performance that was startlingly below par.
Despite being handed the opportunity to stake a real claim for a prolonged run in the side by Thiago’s injury, Keita has been unable to grasp it. Having returned to the bench against Crystal Palace following illness before the Fulham game, the Guinea international once more missed out through injury here.
Club sources have indicated that Keita is indeed carrying another knock, meaning he is yet to feature this term. At a time when speculation over his future is ongoing, reports that Klopp has at least dismissed, it’s been a far from ideal opening few weeks for the £52m man.
But it would be wrong to dwell too much on a player who has not played a minute of what is an increasingly perplexing campaign. Too many actually on the pitch here did not show the kind of belief, bravery or conviction that Liverpool have made their calling card in recent years.
After a bright start from the hosts, Anthony Elanga struck the post inside 10 minutes as Liverpool looked uncharacteristically rattled by the red-hot atmosphere and quick tempo to the game.
After surviving Elanga’s chance, their luck ran out when Jadon Sancho showed superb composure to sit down James Milner and Alisson Becker before rolling it home after just 16 minutes. It marked the seventh successive time they had fallen behind in a Premier League game, dating back to the 1-1 draw with Tottenham in early May. That is something that must be aggressively addressed when Bournemouth visit on Saturday afternoon. It cannot go on any longer.
The sight of Milner involved in a terse disagreement with Virgil van Dijk following the goal indicated that perhaps all is not quite right just now at Anfield. For a team so renowned for their togetherness, the visible dissension in the ranks was striking.
The suspension of Darwin Nunez, in particular, hurt as Roberto Firmino preferred to drop so deep at times he was operating as a defensive screen. When Klopp admitted that “a new midfielder would be cool” on Friday, he would not have not envisioned it’d mean sacrificing any sort of threat down the middle of his front three.
United’s second arrived less than 10 minutes after the restart when substitute Anthony Martial sent Marcus Rashford scampering clean through after winning the ball back near the half-way line.
Klopp sent on Fabinho for Jordan Henderson but there was precious little else he could do with a bench that contained the likes of Bobby Clark, Stefan Bajcetic and Sepp van den Berg. Fabio Carvalho was again called for, replacing the flagging Milner, but it was harsh to ask a teenager with limited Premier League experience to rescue a game of this magnitude.
Already the 19-year-old is being demanded too much of when he might have anticipated a gentle introduction to life on Merseyside. It was the same routine last week against Crystal Palace as the Reds chased a late winner. Such are the paucity of Klopp’s forward options, however, the manager has little to no choice. Nunez’s decision to flick a head at Joachim Andersen last week looks worse by the hour. Jota’s comeback cannot come soon enough, either.
To his immense credit, Carvalho made himself useful and forced David de Gea into a save inside the final 10 minutes that allowed Mohamed Salah to nod home and set up a big end to the game.