It came to many fans surprise when the team sheets were put out before the massive fixture between Manchester United and Liverpool on Monday when they saw two glaring holes in the lineup.
Both Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo would both start the game on the bench just a week after a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Brentford.
For Maguire, he has been captain of the club since taking over from Ashley Young in 2020, but has been under constant scrutiny by fans and members of the media alike since putting on the armband.
While most criticism against the English centerback can be considered rather harsh, on occasion however it should be warranted, and after a dismal showing the previous game against Brentford where he once again became a lightning rod of criticism, Erik Ten Hag had seen enough and dropped his skipper to the bench.
Maguire definitely would not have imagined that seated next to him would be one of football’s greatest goal scorers in Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s attitude towards the club has been soured over the past few months as it was revealed he is unhappy with his standing and has been looking for a way out.
It shouldn’t be a complete shock that the Portuguese machine was left on the bench as was the same during the opening day loss to Brighton, where he was made to come off the bench and try to rescue a result for the last half hour of the game.
For both of these men it has been a very tumultuous time over the past 12 months and this dropping seemed to highlight the sentiment that until something changes, their time in the starting squad for the foreseeable future might be over.
New manager Erik Ten Hag made a massive gamble by making these two changes, as well as dropping longtime fullback Luke Shaw to the bench for new arrival Tyrell Malacia, but after the 90 minutes it was Ten Hag who came out looking like a genius after an inspired win over their longtime rivals.
The Red Devil’s game plan for their win was simple, work harder and smarter than their counterparts, a sentiment in which Liverpool under manager Jurgen Klopp has instilled in his squad since his arrival at Merseyside.
United conceded a massive share of the possession (70.5% for Liverpool to 29.5% for United) but they managed to make it work with a tenacious defensive display from new signings Lisandro Martinez and Malacia which were able to keep the likes of Luis Diaz, Roberto Firmino and Mohammed Salah at bay (at least until Salah found the back of the net in the 81st minute).
While definitely not the prettiest display for United or their new Dutch boss they managed to get the job done with an attack filled with blistering pace as Marcus Rashford, Anthony Elanga, Jadon Sancho and later Anthony Martial gave the Liverpool backline multiple fits throughout the 90.
Pressing Liverpool’s fullbacks was the name of the game for United as they targeted both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson with balls in behind, and while Robertson did his best to stave off the attack down his flank, for TAA he was caught out multiple times leading to both United goals.
The passage of play between Tyrell Malacia, Christian Eriksen and Elanga had the Liverpool defenders scrambling around the box leaving Jadon Sancho with plenty of time and space at the Liverpool penalty spot before slotting the ball past an outstretched James Milner and Alisson.
Fluid movement from midfield into attack with an overlap from their fullbacks was something United under previous managers could never maintain and seemingly always caught them by surprise, but now only three games into the Ten Hag era and it seems like United are starting to gel into a more well rounded team, playing some beautiful passages of play.
Constant pressure on defence must certainly have been a majority of the talk that Ten Hag had with his team over the past week as they pounced on Liverpool at every turn, finally being rewarded when an errant Jordan Henderson pass ended up at the feet of Martial before he sprung Rashford through on goal for his first since January.
There were some nervy moments for the Old Trafford faithful as Liverpool cut the United lead in half through Salah but as the minutes went on United smothered the Liverpool attack and came out victorious over their rivals for the first time in the Premier League since 2018 and only their second win in their last 11 meetings.
As a result this leaves Liverpool sitting in 16th with two points three games, as United jump from 19th to 14th with the win.
Jurgen Klopp has some nerves to settle in Liverpool as his team’s title push has gone limp out of the gate and he will need to get his team ready to pick up points on Saturday where they will face a newly promoted Bournemouth.
Here’s what the German had to say after the final whistle:
For Manchester United, Erik Ten Hag should hope that this massive victory over their rivals is a stepping stone to play a better style of football and in-turn help United start picking up more wins as the schedule will start to pick up from here on out as they travel to St. Mary’s Stadium to take on Southhampton on Saturday.