It is a familiar post-match scene. The manager sits up on a little stage, the press down in front of him, and attempts to explain it all away, to make his excuses. And so there we were at Anfield on Tuesday night, in the aftermath of Manchester United’s 4-0 hiding by Liverpool, a result that raised many questions, including whether it had been more or less humiliating for the visitors than the previous installation. That was last October, when Liverpool won 5-0 at Old Trafford.
How had it happened again? The club is “obviously in a difficult situation”, came the response, a line that touched on United’s myriad problems, taking in the fan fury towards the ownership and even some of the players, the lack of joined-up thinking, the dismal form , a selection crisis.
“Look at the lineup tonight,” he continued, before pointing out that the central midfielders Scott McTominay and Fred were among those missing because of injury. Well, McTominay was on the substitutes’ bench but he was not able to come on. “McTominay was only here to show up. I don’t think he was ready.”
When it rains, it pours and Paul Pogba would be forced off in the 10th minute with a calf strain. In the 5-0, the midfielder had been sent off 15 minutes after his introduction as a half-time substitute. “When you are already in a difficult situation, very often in life you get another knock and that’s what [happened] … In the game, Paul has to go off.”
At least, there was a note of optimism about the future. “I know it will not last for ever,” he said. United, he added, “will strike back … be there again. The club is too powerful.”
The words there, ladies and gentlemen, not of the United interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, but of his Liverpool counterpart, Jürgen Klopp. Rangnick, for the record, would go hard in the opposite direction, criticizing his players for the dreadful defending on the opening goal, scored by Luis Díaz in the fifth minute, and various other mistakes, such as playing loose passes into the jaws of the Liverpool press, which is what happened for the third goal, finished off by Sadio Mané on 68 minutes. Rangnick said it had been “extremely embarrassing”.
If we are looking for an indictment on where United find themselves, which is at the lowest ebb for decades, then being on the receiving end of sympathy from the Liverpool manager – pity, even – is surely the most damning.
It is possible that Klopp trod carefully because of the respect he has for Rangnick, his fellow German, the so-called Godfather of the Gegenpress, who has influenced his own approach. Klopp, who had been overtly non-inflammatory before the game when asked about United’s situation, would talk in glowing terms about Rangnick’s tactical switch at half-time from a back five to a system that was either 4-3-3 or 4-2 -3-1, depending on where you had the attacking midfielder, Jesse Lingard, who had come on for Pogba.
“We had to adjust to the different high-press system, lineup, organization of the opponent,” Klopp said. “It’s really difficult. They take off [Phil] Jones and bring [Jadon] Sancho. The pressing is different. You are just used to specific spaces from the first half and then, OK, that doesn’t work any more. We didn’t start moving immediately again. We didn’t drop in the right [moments] and, all of a sudden, we cannot pass the balls through.”
The weird thing was that for 20 minutes or so, United looked vaguely comfortable and the home crowd started to betray a bit of anxiety. After the first-half procession, there was finally a note of tension about English football’s classic game. So all hail Rangnick, the tactical genius? Hardly. After how badly he got it wrong at the start.
It quickly passed because Liverpool adapted, found a way back through the lines and when Mané made it 3-0 it was the prompt for a powerful last quarter – and for United to wilt. Again. For Klopp to be well placed to show his magnanimous side. And for United to be reduced to a trawl through the thinnest of gruel for anything that might have gone right. These kind of morsels are all they seem to have at present.
Where Klopp solves problems and has a clear vision, Rangnick cannot escape them or align his players with how he wants to play. Which is not a huge surprise. Rangnick is a manager who likes intensity, non-stop running without the ball; to win it back high up, to use the counter-press as a tool to attack and defend. He also favors a longer-term rebuilding project. So what better than to give him this squad and a six-month deal? Still, it will soon be time for that sweet, sweet consultancy gig. Nobody seems quite clear about what this will entail but, certainly, he will be on the mobile if needed.
Rangnick said Bruno Fernandes was forthright with his views in the dressing room at Anfield and the question concerns whether United can somehow rouse themselves at Arsenal on Saturday.
The club were horrified to learn that their Old Trafford fixture against Chelsea has been rearranged for next Thursday, meaning a third big game in nine days, potentially undermining their fight for a top-four finish. Never mind that they could have freed themselves from such worry by, say, beating Watford at home or not slumping at Everton. It will not matter when they face Thomas Tuchel’s side if they were to lose again on Saturday.