Manchester United were unrecognisable on Sunday. Which is to say that for most of the time they played like Manchester United rather than the dispirited rabble written off by many commentators in the noisy lead-up to their meeting with Liverpool, the European champions and Premier League leaders, at Old Trafford.
The weekend papers would have made Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s players feel as though they were reading their own obituaries. Their tactics were “muddled”. The club had “decayed”. Their performance in their previous match, a bedraggled defeat at St James’ Park just before the recent international break, had been “historically bad”. They were described as “shorn of authority and confidence” and “the last cuts of offal” compared to the prime steak offered in the glory years. Two former international players, in separate columns in different papers, reached the same conclusion: only one current United player – Harry Maguire – would be good enough to join 10 from Liverpool in a combined XI.
Even the efforts of the club’s management to explain their long-term strategy were derided as a piece of spin-doctoring transparently intended to cheer up the home fans before a fixture with so much history and emotion built into it. Everything was being dissected and anatomised to the club’s discredit, all the way up to the owning family’s habit of taking dividends from a company they bought by loading it with debt before relocating the corporate HQ to a tax haven.
Much of the criticism was justified, based on the events of the six and a quarter seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson left. It is perfectly easy to draw comparisons between the progress made by his successors, of whom Solskjær is already the fourth, to the obstacle course that brought down Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson as they tried to fill Matt Busby’s shoes.
But on Sunday the 11 players chosen by Solskjær to start the match ran out as if none of that mattered and all they had to do was trust their own talent and treat their opponents as if they were just another team who happened to be in the same league. And to keep to the shape carefully designed by their manager to counter Liverpool’s known threats. As they did so, the lights came back on at Old Trafford.
Recreating the form they found after Solskjær’s arrival at the beginning of the year, the players showed speed, skill and dynamism in exploiting the manager’s unusual 3-4-1-2 formation, using it as a platform on which to express themselves. They were lucky when Roberto Firmino hit an uncharacteristically weak shot straight at David de Gea and Sadio Mané had a goal disallowed for a handball offence that would not have been spotted in the pre-VAR era, and when Martin Atkinson was persuaded by the extravagance of Divock Origi’s fall not to blow up for a foul at the start of the move that gave United their goal. The way they were playing, however, would permit them to claim the luck was deserved.
When Scott McTominay sent the ball lost by Origi instantly out to Daniel James on the right and the young winger crossed for Marcus Rashford to stab the ball home, the stadium seemed like itself again. This was not cagey counterattacking football. This was the pure attacking style that is in the genes of Manchester United and Real Madrid: not a rebuke to the obsessive intricacy of Barcelona and Manchester City but a genuine riposte.
At the heart of their best work in attack, so effective it forced Jürgen Klopp to adjust his team’s formation twice in their second-half search for an equaliser, was Andreas Pereira, the Belgium-born Brazil international whose five years at Old Trafford have included two loan periods. Pereira’s difficulties in finding a place in the United side evoked memories of Ferguson dithering over the possibility of signing Zinedine Zidane from Bordeaux because he couldn’t decide which was the Frenchman’s best position.
Pereira settled that question on Sunday. A couple of days after Juan Mata had given an interview in which he lamented the death of the “classic No 10”, Pereira demonstrated there is still a powerful role for a No 10 to play, as long as he can adapt to the different conditions of the modern game. Now 23, he played behind Rashford and James, both of whom will turn 22 within the next month, to provide United with an attack that, on the day, lived up to the fans’ hopes. The sight of Rashford bullying Virgil van Dijk on the right-hand touchline before feeding Pereira during another exhilarating move will not quickly be forgotten.
Over at Villa Park 24 hours earlier, Jack Grealish had played similarly to Pereira, giving a demonstration of the all-round art of the modern No 10 as he made one goal and scored the other in the 2-1 win over Brighton. The watching Gareth Southgate would have been given something to think about as he waits for Phil Foden to succeed David Silva and gain experience in the same still-vital role.
At Old Trafford a late equaliser reminded Solskjær that his forwards had failed to take opportunities to close out the game and his defenders had tired under Liverpool’s late assault. They are still lying in the bottom half of the table but there had been unmistakable signs of better times to come. Now his biggest problem may be how to restore Paul Pogba, expected to return soon from a foot injury, to the side without sacrificing the pace and fluency he glimpsed on Sunday.