There are few things harder in football management than the dismantling of one side and the construction of another. As Jürgen Klopp’s first Liverpool team has aged, it has been reasonable to ask whether he was equipped to build another. One game, even a record victory over Manchester United, is nowhere near enough to assert that a new Liverpool is being born, but it felt a lot closer at the final whistle than it had at kick-off.
Cody Gakpo, Darwin Núñez and Mohamed Salah all scored twice but the goals were only part of it. The front three had a coherence and a zip that has been rare this season. There is clearly still work to be done. The midfield is not what it was, an awkward combination of the ageing and the developing with not much in between, but, perhaps for the first time, there is the sense that a front three of Salah, Núñez and Gakpo could represent a viable future.
The signing of Gakpo for an initial fee of £35m was widely questioned. Had Liverpool just picked him up because he was available and relatively cheap? Given the state of the midfield, was the forward line really the priority? And how did he fit in? For a large part of the season, it felt as though Liverpool were waiting for Diogo Jota to get fit, but his inclusion would have meant either Núñez or Gakpo missing out.
Neither Gakpo nor Núñez has had the easiest start to life at Anfield. Both are slightly unusual footballers, players who confound expectation. Gakpo is rather more technically gifted and not quite as good in the air than his height would suggest he should be. Núñez rarely seems to strike a ball cleanly on the ground and yet is a supreme volleyer. Both require a mental adjustment from those watching them, a recalibration of expectation.
Salah, who against Manchester Unitted outstripped Robbie Fowler as Liverpool’s leading Premier League scorer, has seemed out of sorts since the Cup of Nations a little over a year ago and yet somehow now has 22 goals this season. He has had to change his game with a more orthodox central striker than Roberto Firmino or Jota, but the adaptation perhaps is coming.
Gakpo’s first was key. It had been a largely even game until then: bitty, occasionally spiteful, engaging more for the sense of menace and potential that lurked below the surface that for anything that had actually happened. But then Andy Robertson was allowed to advance and, as Diogo Dalot went to him, Fred found himself floating awkwardly, half-picking up Gakpo who had stayed wide but unwilling entirely to desert his central role. The result was that a channel opened between him and Raphaël Varane, which was gleefully exploited by Robertson. Gakpo’s first touch opened up a shooting opportunity; his second deposited the ball clinically in the bottom corner.
That was a very fine finish, but his second, Liverpool’s third, was even better, deftly whipped in from a tight angle after a run from Salah. Characteristically, Núñez’s goals were both headers. Salah took both of his goals exceptionally well. More than a third of Liverpool’s 47 league goals this season have come in two games: when they are good they are still very, very good.
Well as Liverpool’s front three played, though, United’s collapse was pitiful. They contributed to their own downfall, setting up in a 4-2-3-1 with Wout Weghorst behind Marcus Rashford, and Bruno Fernandes and Antony wide. Weghorst, it’s fair to say, is not an orthodox No 10. He has a curious gait, leaning backwards constantly as though his shirt is being held by an invisible opponent. If there is something of Paul Gascoigne in the way he struts, pigeon-like, there is very little of Gascoigne in the way he then uses the ball. Slide-rule through-passes are not a forte.
What he does bring is diligence in the press. It has worked before, but here United offered very little threat from the flanks, which in turn allowed Liverpool’s full-backs to get forward, largely unchecked by either of the wide players who had none of that diligence.
Far worse was that the basics simply deserted them, most notably for the second goal, when at least three opportunities to clear were missed before Harvey Elliott finally cross for Núñez to head in. The way Fernandes effectively gave up after Stefan Bajcetic had gone past him in the buildup to the sixth will have infuriated many and Antony was no better when he let Salah run off him in the build-up to the third. Luke Shaw perhaps will feel he did not have much protection, but nor will this be a game the full-back looks on with much pride. The thought that United might still mount a title challenge can now be discarded.
A lot of thoughts about United can probably be discarded. The way heads dropped, the lack of basic professionalism in the final half hour, was shocking. The culture at Old Trafford has perhaps not been changed to the extent it had seemed. Liverpool, similarly, can perhaps believe things have not changed as much as it had appeared. A new team is perhaps beginning to emerge.