Three games in and winless, the team looking lacklustre and an inquest into what is going wrong. Few would be shocked that this was the outcome of events at Old Trafford on Monday evening. Not many would have picked that team to be Liverpool.
Manchester United outran them and outworked them, playing with the sort of energy and endeavour that Jurgen Klopp loves to see from his team and Erik ten Hag had yet to coax from his. Right from the start, this was a different United. Ten Hag’s United?
Perhaps the turning point came with his team selection for this game. Harry Maguire, the captain, dropped. Cristiano Ronaldo, club icon and highest earner, dropped. “It does not mean anything for the future,” said Ten Hag beforehand. But it meant plenty on the night.
Lisandro Martinez had been mocked for his part in the 4-0 defeat to Brentford, hooked at half-time by the man who had just bought him. There was speculation that he would make way for Raphael Varane, perhaps even be moved to left-back or midfield.
Ten Hag doubled down in support of the Argentine. Maguire and Luke Shaw, the two England internationals who had played either side of him in west London, were gone instead. Martinez? Magnificent. Tyrell Malacia, on full debut, was a joy too.
There was a theory that this game might suit some of these players, less long ball to deal with and the presence of the old enemy galvanising the ground. There were protests against the ownership but the support for the players was steadfast. It had that derby feel.
And United went at Liverpool with gusto.
“It is a game where it was 100 per cent clear what United would do,” said Jurgen Klopp. “Were they more aggressive than us at the beginning? Probably, yes. It was exactly the game that United wanted to play. In the beginning, it was wild. Up and down.”
In short, United were up for it. Though Elanga was only involved for the opening 45 minutes, his influence in shaping the direction of the game should not be forgotten. He set up one and was the width of a post away from scoring another. His energy was infectious.
It was too hot for Trent Alexander-Arnold to handle and if Elanga brought the heat it was Jadon Sancho who brought the light. The calmest man in Manchester when sending James Milner and Alisson for a hot dog on Sir Matt Busby Way for the opening goal.
Even Klopp admitted that created a “special atmosphere” inside Old Trafford and the fact that it was Marcus Rashford who scored what turned out to be the winning goal for United was fitting. He deserved it. This was a man who was running himself into form.
“Sometimes strikers think they cannot do it because they have to save their energy for offensive actions,” Ten Hag told Sky Sports. “Nowadays it is a demand and that is what you saw. It makes me happy that Rashford and Sancho scored the goals.”
In the press conference, he added: “The performances of Sancho and Rashford, they bring so much power to the game, but still at the same time can be all the time a threat to the opposition defence.” Working hard without the ball and being decisive with it.
It fully vindicated the decision to drop Ronaldo.
Ten Hag stressed that there is a squad and different matches will demand different qualities from his team, rejecting the idea that Ronaldo cannot be part of that. But this is surely the template now. In fact, he might regret that he ever deviated away from it.
When Anthony Martial was injured late in pre-season, his response was to go with Christian Eriksen as a false nine against Brighton and then draft in Ronaldo at Brentford. The inclusion of Elanga meant straying less from the idea. This was surely closer to what he wants?
There were a tense finish as the home crowd willed for the whistle but what was striking was the desire and togetherness of the players. This needs to be the standard now not just a reaction to the visit of their rivals or a gathering crisis. So many stood up.
Bruno Fernandes even surprised some. Captain for the night but maybe longer, he roared at the crowd when closing down near the touchline late in the first half. Towards the end, he was working back to prevent Alexander-Arnold from finishing at the far post.
There was the sight of Malacia receiving a standing ovation for a tackle in the corner. Varane geeing up the crowd behind the goal as the clock counted down. Martinez throwing himself in front of shots. Even Ronaldo helped see out the win.
But it was David de Gea whose celebrations seemed to sum up the strange game that is football. Here he was, fists pumping as he was cheered off by the ecstatic supporters in the Stretford End. Nine days after his nightmare at Brentford, the mood is transformed.
“We have a long way to go. We are in a process,” said Ten Hag.
“You have setbacks and highlights. Today was a highlight. There is still a lot of room for improvement. But I hope the players understand the basis now. I want to see a team. I want to see fight. You have to invest in runs. We have seen that today all over the pitch.”