The problem with remembering Bill Shankly – as Liverpool did yesterday ahead of today's centenary of his birth – is the sense it creates of how far they have fallen from the years when he ruled with enough impunity to laughingly dish out toilet rolls to the opposition and telephone Don Revie with a warning on nights before Leeds United were in town.
But an occasion befitting a man for whom a mosaic was lifted up and a piper’s Amazing Grace sounded out offered a sense that fortunes can change quickly in football. The latest man to carry the torch which Shankly laid down – Brendan Rodgers – had said before the game that Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure provided grounds for optimism and the chasm which has come to divide these two clubs really was not so apparent. There will be many who point to David Moyes record here – no wins in 13 league visits; four wins and 19 goals in 26 games in all competitions – but it was his inheritance which looked like the problem today. Liverpool were busier, bolder, better, and in a way which called to mind Shankly’s old mantra about football being a collegiate business. The team ethic was written through their afternoon’s work.
As Rodgers wrote in his programme notes, Shankly wanted to be the man remembered for building “a family of people who could hold their heads up high and say… We are Liverpool.” That’s why their Luis Suarez dependency - so desperate that they had to introduce that half-cock get-out clause in his contract - has run so much against the grain of the club. Well, they haven’t looked to be in such great need of him after all. They’ve won six and drawn one since that biting incident here took him out of the picture. Very early days, of course, but this win, which sealed Liverpoool’s their first three-game winning start to a season since 1994 and only their second of the Premier League era, provides more fragile evidence that Liverpool have bought wisely enough to find a way back, after the profligacy of the Kenny Dalgish years. United were bereft of any legal means of containing the Brazilian Philippe Coutinho while the matchwinner, Daniel Sturridge, hammered on Roy Hodgson’s door on this, his 24 birthday - becoming only the second Liverpool player, after Robbie Fowler, to score in each of the opening three Premier League games of a season. Only Iago Aspas looks in need of acclimatisation to the physicality of this competition.
For United, there was evidence of why David Moyes, whose last minute arrival up the tunnel and brief left-handed wave to his supporters which did not look like a call to arms, wants to break with United’s custom and buy a 30-year-old Daniele de Rossi to hold the club’s midfield. The midfielder Moyes is most likely to bring in by the time the transfer window closes tonight is Marouane Fellaini – whose agent was seen in conversation with United chief executive Woodward after the game – though events outside had suggested that an individual capable of winning and keeping possession and driving the side forward is United’s prime requirement – not a physical midfielder with aerial presence.
Moyes didn’t appear to see things that way, insisting last night that his midfield had performed in a way which had not demanded reinforcements, that after the concession of a goal it was “the best we’ve played all season” and that “I can see why they’re champions.” Note the shift between ‘we’ and they’ - characteristic of Moyes in these early weeks, as if he‘s not quite got hold of the idea that they’re his team now. The strategy of total denial is familiar to those who have witnessed his press conferences after defeat at Everton, though that strategy will be subject to far closer scrutiny, now. It just didn’t bare scrutiny last night and was no reflection of what had just unfolded on the pitch.
Out there, Liverpool’s midfield was undeniably superior, especially during in a first half during which Tom Cleverley was profligate in possession, Robin van Persie hopelessly isolated and no-one capable of providing a game-affecting contribution. Luis Nani offered the only flicker of menace, with a 25-yard shot 15 minutes after arriving around the hour mark which launched Simon Mignolet into his only exertion of the afternoon. But with Shinji Kagawa in the stands, rendering Sir Alex Ferguson’s old claim that he was as good a Number 10 bet as Wayne Rooney rather dubious, there seemed few options.
Liverpool’s more defensive approach after the interval mirrored the way they clung on to what they had t Aston Villa a week ago. But they were first and fastest to everything before then in a period which wound up with three Manchester United players – Tom Cleverley, Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie -booked in the space of seven minutes and Van Persie flirting with a red card as his frustration drew him to push out at Daniel Agger.
Their flat tone was set in the way they fell behind inside three minutes – Michael Carrick’s slack ball out of defence, Ashley Young’s failure to hold it against the intensity of Jordan Henderson’s challenge and a moment of panic as Henderson fed Daniel Sturridge to release a shot deflected wide off Rio Ferdinand. It was the resulting Steven Gerrard corner that Daniel Agger stepped forward to deposit a header which Sturridge navigated in off the back of his own head.
The same concession of the ball was evident in the second half. David de Gea was forced to block Glen Johnson when Carrick and Nemanja Vidic feebly ferried the ball back to him and gave the Liverpool player a half chance. And the game’s last act was Raheem Sterling’s shot, parried over by De Gea. The United fans, who had earlier sung: “We’re shit and we’re champions,” chanted: “23 years” as the teams processed off, reminding Liverpool of their long wait for old title glory. But for once, that song rang hollow.