It’s not easy to explain what exactly happened at Anfield on Sunday, apart from the obvious: Liverpool destroyed Manchester United, with Cody Gakpo, Darwin Nunez and Mohamed scoring twice each, and Roberto Firmino coming on from the bench to add insult to injury.
United were on the back foot right from the start in this match, but for a while it seemed to be a part of manager Erik ten Hag’s plan. With David De Gea in goal, Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez as the centre-backs, flanked by Luke Shaw and Diogo Dalot on the right, protected by the ever-vigilant serial winner Casemiro and the admirable work-rate of Fred, they were hoping to absorb the pressure at the back and hunt the opposition through counterattacks, with the pace of Marcus Rashford and Antony, complemented by the holdup abilities of Wout Weghorst and the playmaking know-how of Bruno Fernandes, the deemed the perfect weapons for such an approach.
Meanwhile, Liverpool sought to continue their positive run in recent Premier League matches, with Alisson Becker in goal, Ibrahima Konate establishing himself as the first-choice partner for Virgi van Dijk in the heart of defence, Andy Robertson on the left and Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right, Fabinho at the base of midfield containing Jordan Henderson and Harvey Elliott too, and Gakpo attacking through the middle, flanked by Nunez and Salah.
United’s plan seemed to be working for more than 40 minutes. Liverpool did have a couple of chances, but not nearly as clear-cut as the ones Fernandes and Rashford failed to convert at the other end. Casemiro even scored a header after a free-kick Shaw had swung in from the left, but the linesman had rightly raised his flag for offside.
But it took just one moment of poor defensive awareness for everything to fall apart for the visitors, and it happened in the 43rd minute when Robertson had the ball and spotted that Gakpo had drifted to the left while Dalot, who was supposed to be covering that space, was out of position. The Scotland international slid in a fantastic pass on the inside of Fred as the Brazilian failed to cover for Dalot, and it was too easy for Gakpo to latch onto it and sell a dummy to Varane, before finishing expertly past De Gea.
Many believe the last few minutes before the halftime break are a really bad moment to concede, but it soon got much worse for United. It took about a minute into the second period for Elliott to take advantage of another questionable moment of defending from Ten Hag’s team and whip in a sharp cross inside the six yards, diverted into the back of the net by Nunez.
United have been known to overturn a two-goal deficit in recent matches, but it took only three more minutes for another set-back, which was always likely to prove too much. Martinez has been praised to high heaven this season for his defensive abilities, much doubted in the beginning due to a notable lack of height, but in the 50th minute, Salah’s superb dribbling skill had him on the ground before the Egyptian slid Gakpo in, and the Dutchman’s chipped finish was a worthy followup. 3-0.
At that point, frustration was starting to get the better of the visitors, and in a space of 11 minutes, Antony, Martinez and substitute Scott McTominay picked up bookings, but it was to get a lot worse still. In the 66th minute, it was time for Salah himself to get on the scoresheet, and he did it after another blunder by United in front of their own goal. Salah was left in just enough space practically on the penalty spot and took advantage of a kindly bounce that set the ball up perfectly, though it came to his weaker right foot. It didn’t matter; he blasted it in off the crossbar, not giving De Gea a tiniest chance for a save.
Another nine minutes later, Nunez bagged another header as Varane completely misjudged Henderson’s cross from the left, and in the 83rd, Salah took advantage of yet another scramble in United’s box to pop the sixth in from close range. But the loudest reaction from the stands came for the seventh, as substitute Roberto Firmino expertly turned and fired to humiliate De Gea from an impossible angle.
He may have come on from the bench for the final 11 minutes of regular time, but this game held a special significance for Firmino and for those in the Anfield stance who’ve been particularly fond of the Brazilian.
“Our No. 9…” rang around the ground, the loudest, of course, on the Kop. It was the first match since the 31-year-old’s decision to leave the club when his contract expires at the end of the season was announced, and it was obviously a very emotional moment for the home supporters, as well as the player who has now scored 108 goals, along with providing 79 assists, in 354 matches in all competitions for Liverpool.
Firmino’s destination is unknown at the moment. Despite the ever-present speculation, his agent has revealed being instructed by the player not to speak to any club before the end of the season. The 55-cap Brazil international is obviously determined not to risk his focus slipping as he gives his best, as always, to Liverpool.
It’s been eight blissful years of Roberto Firmino at Liverpool, a period marked by the 2019 Champions League, followed by the UEFA Super Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup which his goal in the extra-time of the final won for the Reds, the ending of a three-decade wait for the Premier League title in 2020, and the Carabao Cup – FA Cup double won last year.
A completely unique player, frequently praised by his fiercest rivals as much as his teammates and manager, Firmino has left a big imprint on the game worldwide. Even former Manchester City defender Micah Richards, writing his column for the Daily Mail, had to reflect on this magnificent footballer.
“The biggest compliment I can pay to the Brazilian is that he has been so influential since he arrived from Hoffenheim that he has developed a position that is simply known as ‘the Firmino role’ – there had been ‘false nines’ before, but he brought a different dimension to it.
“Liverpool have revamped their forward line over the last 12 months – with Darwin Nunez, Luis Diaz and Cody Gakpo joining Diogo Jota and Mo Salah – so they have plenty of options now, but the reality is, they will never be able to buy another Firmino.”
If Mane’s departure last summer marked an end of an era at Liverpool, this one will be at least as important, symbolic and emotional for the Kopites as that one.
Mohamed Salah breaks another record
When Liverpool announced Salah’s arrival in 2017, there were various opinions on the impact he would be able to deliver as the Merseysiders still sought a way to return to the top of the English game. Some said he didn’t have the quality they needed – one journalist notoriously labelled him “just another Juan Cuadrado”. Even when he broke the Premier League record for most goals scored in a 38-game season in his first season at the club, he was still doubted and referred to as a “one-season” wonder.
Almost six years have passed since. Salah has scored over 20 goals in each of the six seasons, and even his most persistent critics have realized that the Egyptian is a special player.
Apart from the fact that scoring two goals in a game against your team’s arch-rivals is always a great feeling, this particular game held a particular significance for the 30-year-old winger. His second strike on Sunday was his 129th Premier League goal for Liverpool, which means he has now surpassed Robbie Fowler as the Reds’ best-ever goalscorer in the competition.
The Jurgen Klopp era has yielded numerous Liverpool legends. Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino are certainly in that bracket.
Where do United go from here?
United have suffered their worst Premier League defeat ever, at the hands of their most-hated rival, at a moment when they really believed the time had come for them to finally take the Anfield scalp. Their last win there came under Louis van Gaal, their last goal there was the work of Jesse Lingard in a 3-1 defeat in 2017.
Everything pointed to a different outcome this time. Having won five of their last six matches in all competitions, the exception being a 2-2 draw against Barcelona at Camp Nou, it seemed they could do no wrong. Ten Hag has really put together a fine unit which delivered excellent performances and ground out results – even Klopp described them as a machine with that very purpose in his pre-match press conference.
It is now up to Ten Hag to establish what exactly went wrong for his team, particularly in the second half. Being 1-0 down at halftime is hardly a disaster, but going from there to 7-0 on the final whistle certainly is.
Navigating a tight match schedule is never easy in top-level football, but right now, it’s probably good for the 20-time English champions that they face Real Betis in the Europa League round of 16 at Old Trafford on Thursday. They won’t have too much time to feel sorry for themselves, needing to return to work so quickly. It will at least give them a chance to improve the confidence which will have been torn to shreds at Anfield.
Having won the Carabao Cup, they’re still battling for trophies in the FA Cup and the Europa League, and finishing in the top four in the Premier League surely won’t be considered a bad result come the end of the season.