Is a river a collection of stars?

It’s fair to wonder sometimes if single events are isolated unto themselves or indications of a larger trend. You can see this in almost any situation and with any person or group of people. Is Ole Gunnar Solskjær the inspirational club icon who led Manchester United to glory in Paris three years ago or is he the overmatched bystander who led them to an historic defeat yesterday? Does he have to be either/or? Is that 5-0 defeat at Old Trafford a further indicator of the inadequacies that many ManU fans (including the ones leaving the game at halftime) say are dragging their club down or is it just a single point (well, a single three points for Liverpool, anyway)? As frequently noted here, football is the Most Random Game™, so it’s not outrageous to suggest that this could be just an isolated event, especially since there are two sides involved in the result. I’ve seen tweets recently suggesting that Porto “had a bad game” and that Watford “is just really poor” and that Atleti “just played a bad first half”, as if all of those points are just rogue stars and not connected to the galaxy of football. But all of those points have a connecting theme, which is “Liverpool are really good” which you didn’t often see mentioned until yesterday’s thrashing of the club that, despite not having won the Premier League (or much of anything else) in almost a decade, are still often the media bellwether of if things are good or normal in football. You can see that in the number of astonished stat points that spilled from many mouths and keyboards, both during and after the match.

Liverpool’s fifth goal was the completion of Mo Salah’s hat trick; the first by an opposing player since Ronaldo (the original) for Real Madrid, 18 years ago. It was also the largest margin of victory in the Liverpool-ManU derby since 1925 (another 5-0 win for LFC); the first time ManU have lost by 5+ at home since 1955; Liverpool’s largest ever victory at Old Trafford; and the fastest opening goal for Liverpool in the series (Naby Keita, 4:42.) LFC also continue their goalscoring trends, becoming the first English side to score 3+ in 9 straight away matches; the first to score 4+ in back-to-back visits to Old Trafford in the PL; only the second side in English top flight history to score 5+ while conceding none in back-to-back league games (after (ahem) ManU in 1960); and the first time we’ve had successive hat trick scorers in league matches since 1987, when Steve Nicol and John Aldridge managed it against Newcastle and Derby, respectively. And we are, of course, leading the league in goals. It also made Jürgen Klopp the fastest manager in club history to 200 wins, needing only 331 matches to do so; just slipping in ahead of King Kenny, on 333. He also became the first manager in club history to go seven consecutive matches against ManU without defeat. On the other side, with 6 yellow cards and a straight red, it’s the most cards ManU has gotten in a single PL match since 2008, when they did it twice. They’ve also only won one of the last 12 vs Liverpool.

Most of those statistical citations means something. The question is: Do they form a river of information or are they just groups of stars that people look at it in the sky and identify as a pattern, even if they may look completely differently from somewhere else in the galaxy or may not appear at all? That “collection of stars” idea also applies to yesterday’s match, given the ridiculous amount of talent stockpiled at ManU that doesn’t seem to be paying off in the way that was expected. (Ole’s fault or a recruitment problem? Both?) The players for that side seem to be rogue stars, each glittering in their own way but not flowing in the same direction. Liverpool, OTOH, are a fine definition of the concept of team. Clearly, we have massive amounts of talent in our own right, but all of it works together in a fashion designed and led by the manager that points toward a singular vision of how to play the game and win a lot of matches while doing it. There are a few post-match assessments of Liverpool’s form that, again, try to frame the issue in the context of ManU; suggesting that we were actually sloppy in our control of the ball and simply benefited from the ineptitude on the Mancunian side. Again, is it just because the last five opponents we played all had a “bad day” or is it because we made them have a bad day? Is it possible that our “sloppy” play was actually a reflection of the individual talent on hand for ManU and that it was our cohesion as a team and application of strategy that overcame that talent and led us to an historic win? Then we come back to whether any single point is an “historic” win. Are events notable for their singular nature or because they’re part of a trend? This is an actual field of study by historians and it probably should be by football historians. (Jonathan Wilson on line 2…)

One thing is certain, though. It seems evident on its face that this squad has more focus on a singular goal than United’s does. After that fifth goal, we could hear Andy Robertson shouting: “Keep going! Be ruthless!” That’s a reflection not only of Robbo’s intensity but also the squad’s eagerness to stamp its collective name on the reality that Jürgen has created; to write themselves into the history of the club, as he noted after the match. I think they’ve done that already, as we look at a collection of players that may have the greatest forward to ever play for the club, alongside others who clearly rank among the best at centerback, fullback, and in midfield. But there’s always more history to achieve because there’s always another game to play. Time, as it were, does not stop flowing and this match was just one more in a series of points, even if it is a point to be remembered and reveled in for years.

Manchester United 0 – 5 Liverpool

One glance at that diagram tells you a couple things: Most of our best chances came right down the middle of the box, most of them were quite good chances (i.e. the large squares), and we converted almost all of those good chances. In that respect, it makes one think that a rating of 3.6 might actually be a little low, but that’s an averaged total and the collection of shots outside that pink cluster is what forms part of the picture, as well. It feels unusual to not have a longer-range goal, as those have been pretty frequent this season, but it certainly creates a comfortable image in having all five of the goals come from inside the box and being almost open looks. The contrast is ManU’s side of the diagram, where the majority of their shots also came inside the box but were usually in a cluster of bodies that made them unlikely to convert. The one big box on their side was from Edinson Cavani chasing the Scott McTominay shot that actually bounced off Robbo’s thigh before connecting with the crossbar and Cavani probably would’ve been called offside if it had actually gone in. So, a pretty spectacular performance on both ends of the pitch.

Connecting those two ends was Roberto Firmino. Yes, the stars of the game were Mo and Naby, but it’s really hard to overlook Bob’s performance, as he basically fulfilled the old cliché of “leaving no blade of grass untouched.” He was everywhere and making things happen in his usual manner. Part of United’s problem is that they’re attempting to run a 4-2-3-1 (to emphasize Ronaldo; great signing!) with two guys who are unsuited to the role of a double pivot. That midfield structure requires a lot of movement and a deep understanding of positioning without ready support and neither McTominay nor Fred are particularly good at that. What it also leaves them exposed to is being dragged out of position and then left for dead as the play goes past them, which is something that Bob excels at. He was constantly making runs that not only exposed United’s misunderstanding of the formation but exposed their inability to function as a team and cover the gaps that Bob was forcing them to make. That performance included a great through ball to set up the first goal and some excellent footwork to keep possession to set up the fourth. The ultimate team player exposing the non-team? Yeah. That’s pretty much it. Jürgen was talking about how “people will write books about how he interprets the false 9.” That’s writing yourself into history.

And because I questioned his overall ability in Madrid, I certainly can’t fail to point out that Naby was among my MotM candidates before he was stretchered off due to Paul Pogba’s tackle. He was brilliant. This was the Naby Keita we were all hoping to see when we first paid for him and then waited another year while the Leipzig chapter of Bayern’s academy tried to extract everything they could from him. This was one of those matches (Single point?) that showed what could be extracted, as his passing was excellent, he was in control on his side of the pitch, and he pointed the offense straight at David de Gea and buried ManU with it in the early going. It’s the harshest of situations that, in the middle of one of the best games he’s played for us in four years, he got taken out by someone who was on the pitch for 15 minutes. It was that moment that led Jürgen to shift to game-maintenance mode with 25 minutes left in the match, as opposed to our usual 10 or so, as he rightly didn’t want to get into many more contested situations where even more of our players might get injured. With Naby going down for an uncertain amount of time, on top of James Milner Robot Warrior malfunctioning, we’re now down to three senior midfielders: Captain Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Curtis Jones, although Fabinho’s knee problem that kept him out of this match isn’t supposed to be serious.

Speaking of Hendo, I also expressed my mild misgivings about his play at the 6 in Madrid because, as a natural 8, he has a tendency to push forward. But, yeah, there were no problems whatsoever. 144 touches is the most by a single player in a PL game this season. Those numbers are mildly ridiculous because a lot of them were created in that game-maintenance mode when we were just trying to keep possession and burn the clock. But it’s a measure of just how assured he is on the ball that he also was second on the squad in terms of chances created while playing as the 6, including the pass of the day in a game replete with them:

Unfortunately, that clip cuts off just before Arlo White bellowing “What a pass by Jordan Henderson!” because… yeah, what a pass by Jordan Henderson. It’s as good as the one Mo laid on a plate for Sadio Mané for the first goal against Watford, if not better. But speaking of Mo…

Still the best player in the world. Mo is officially a one-season wonder, every season. His numbers are bordering on the unreal, with 15 goals in 12 games already. He’s only failed to score in one game (vs Burnley) and when he set the record for goals scored in a PL season in 2017-18, it took him 13 games to reach double figures. He has 10 in only 9 games this season. I’m running out of superlatives to describe his play because… what can you keep saying about the guy that proves he’s the best every match of every week? I’ll just let the numbers talk.

Yeah, man. The line is: “Best player in the world.”

But let’s not overlook the guy whom all the transfer window warriors are happy to overlook. Ibrahima Konaté, in just his second start of the season, showed exactly why we were willing to pay €35 million for him. He was calm on the ball, always in the right spot, and even showed off the pace we’d been hearing about when he ran down Ronaldo on a break in the second half. Adding him to the mix of Virgil Van Dijk (once again, masterful), Joel Matip, and Joe Gomez was a great step forward in terms of roster security. Now, about those midfielders…

Have to give a shoutout to the traveling Kop here, as well. They were, understandably, the loudest section of Old Trafford during most of the game (except when the booing started at halftime) and some of the chants and songs showed them to be in good form. Alongside that booing, right after our goal in extra time that made it 4-0, the chant was: “Liverpool, taking the piss!” But you could clearly hear them throughout, including belting out YNWA even in the first couple minutes of the match. Obviously, this was a day for them to revel in alongside a somber and then absent crowd at Old Trafford, but it was still a great showing.

Now we prepare for what may be the sterner test: Preston North End in the WITSBP Cup on Wednesday, before returning to our PL exploits on Saturday vs surging (and fifth place!) Brighton. More shining points to come.

Bye, Fergie,.

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