Before his desperately out-of-form Manchester United side took on Liverpool today, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer explained the wisdom of keeping faith with the same starting XI that fell two goals behind to Atalanta in midweek.
They had “played well”, Solskjaer insisted, adding that he wanted them to “start on the front foot” and “dominate the game” against Liverpool, opponents currently enjoying their best form since winning the Premier League a couple of seasons ago.
If those words came across as optimistic before kick-off then they sounded utterly delusional two hours later, as United tried to come to terms with their heaviest defeat since 1925 to their biggest rivals in English football.
This was a humiliation. Four down at half-time and five behind early in the second half, this could have been even worse for Solskjaer’s team, especially after substitute Paul Pogba was sent off with almost half an hour left on the clock.
Fortunately for them, Liverpool had already had their fun by then, and Mohamed Salah his hat-trick. He set up Naby Keita to slot the first and saw Diogo Jota slide in the second before tearing into United’s dysfunctional defence.
Still, United’s hierarchy now faces a decision over Solskjaer that it appears reluctant to make. Can results like this ever be acceptable? If not, he will have to go. With the title surely already gone, is a top-four finish enough? If not, he’ll have to go.
There are bigger questions, such as: what are this United team meant to be? If they are a counter-attacking team why did the manager say he wanted them to dominate? And if he wanted them to press, why didn’t they do it to any real effect?
Whichever way you cut it, the explanation is not a flattering one for Solskjaer.
And this wasn’t a one-off. United were exposed by Leicester City eight days earlier, shipping four goals at the King Power Stadium. On Wednesday, Atalanta then took them to the brink of defeat at Old Trafford before buckling late on. There have been many others.
This particular embarrassment was more a crystallising of something that most people have long since come to terms with: Solskjaer can take United so far, but getting them to compete with the best seems to be beyond him.
Liverpool show up ill discipline of Solskjaer’s Man Utd
And Liverpool truly are among the best. They might trail Chelsea by a point at the head of the Premier League, and Manchester City are in the discussion too, but on this form it is hard to dispute that they are the best team in the division.
They knew United would be there for the taking – albeit perhaps not quite so easily – and mercilessly punished every ragged offside trap and failure to clear, at least until they were completely out of sight and the contest over.
Salah’s return to the peak of his power has mirrored Liverpool’s. This was the 10th consecutive game in which he had scored and saw him become the first visiting player to get a hat-trick at Old Trafford in the Premier League era.
Is he the best player in the world right now? That’s a fairly meaningless debate best left to the Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi fanboys. More relevant is that he fits Liverpool like a glove. There is no one else that they would want.
Salah is the golden cog in Jurgen Klopp’s perfectly calibrated machine, in which every piece does what it is meant to. Similarly, Thomas Tuchel has Chelsea very well drilled in less than a year, while Pep Guardiola’s City play with the precision he demands.
Solskjaer’s United, by contrast, are ragged and ill disciplined, as evidenced by six yellow cards and one red. He has survived this far on the immense good will his status affords him but it is increasingly hard to see the argument for not looking elsewhere.