Manchester United eased their way past a risible Liverpool side with a performance that reinforced the old cliche about football being a game of two halves. Which is to say: in the first half, both teams were appalling; in the second, Liverpool were still pretty poor, but United achieved competence.
The first period ambled past in familiar fashion. Manchester United passed the ball neatly, dominated possession, and created almost nothing that even vaguely resembled a chance. Indeed, their best opportunity of the first half came when Simon Mignolet rolled the ball into Juan Mata. He poked the ball on to Marouane Fellaini who, with Mignolet stranded, hacked the ball over the crossbar and into the crowd.
But that was more or less it. Apart from the fullbacks — Luke Shaw did plenty of direct running, and Matteo Darmian got in behind the defence on one occasion, though couldn't find a cross — United were static, slow and frankly stodgy. Fellaini looked like a midfielder playing up front, and everybody around him looked like equally confused. Liverpool, meanwhile, offered nothing going forward, but their occasional shakiness at the back was allowed to pass unexamined. Half time was a welcome arrival, and Old Trafford nudged itself awake.
Just as well, too, since the second half began at quite the clip. Ashley Young, a halftime sub for the disappointing Memphis Depay, beat Nathaniel Clyne down the left and won a freekick just outside the left side of the penalty area. Two United players made runs towards the six yard box, taking all Liverpool's defenders with them, and Mata was able to roll the ball across the box to the entirely isolated Daley Blind. And whether he's a defender or not, Blind is very good at kicking a football. He curled a delightful finish into the top left corner, United had the lead, and the game was alive.
Liverpool, stung by the necessity of having to do something, decided to try attacking. The newly-restored and be-contracted David de Gea nearly ruined his big day by giving the ball away in a dangerous area — his defence managed to scramble him a corner — then shortly afterwards redeemed himself with a wonderful clawing save from Danny Ings. Up at the other end, Ashley Young clipped a freekick over the bar. Meanwhile, United's supporters were embarrassing themselves with some enthusiastic singing about unemployment.
More space doesn't always mean more quality, of course, and though the game had opened out, neither side managed to truly impose themselves. Daley Blind made himself at his own end by hacking a deflected Martin Skrtel header off the line, and then a few ragged minutes later United doubled their lead. Ander Herrera advanced into the box and gratefully accepted a rash sliding tackle from Joe Gomez, before hammering the penalty into the roof of the net.
There was still time for two moments of exceptional quality, though sadly for United the first came from the opposition. Christian Benteke, who had spent 80-odd minutes chasing long balls and lost causes, banged a ludicrous scissor-volley into the United net and briefly put the result in doubt. But then, a lovely moment. Anthony Martial, on for his debut, picked up the ball wide on the United left. Without a thought for the process, he pointed his head toward the Liverpool goal, tricked his way past two defenders and into the box, before opening his body and rolling the finish into the far corner.
In the end, a largely satisfactory day for United. Their second half performance, assisted as it was by a well-timed goal that brought Liverpool out of their shells, showed signs of the verve and intent that has been so lacking from this season so far. Anthony Martial had a debut to remember, and United's defence once again looked resilient, only beaten by a remarkable finish. Also, Liverpool were total bobbins: they came for a draw and they failed. Which is always nice.