The manager's defiant claims after defeat by Liverpool may be emulating Sir Alex Ferguson's tactics but they sounded hollow
It was the classic diversion tactic, once favoured by Sir Alex Ferguson and now gladly taken up by his successor in the Manchester United chair. "I could see why we were champions today," David Moyes said, fixing his eyes on his audience as if daring anyone to disagree. "I thought we played really well."
He acclaimed it as their outstanding performance so far of his brief reign, even better than putting four past Swansea on the opening weekend of the season. He described himself – several times, in fact – as "more than happy", so contented indeed he went on to say he would not be at all concerned if the club's deadline-day attempts to flesh out their squad came to nothing. "After that performance, I wouldn't be worried," he said. And, no, there was no sign of his fingers being crossed beneath the table.
Ferguson often did this after a bad performance to try to manipulate the headlines and project the sense there was nothing wrong other than sheer misfortune or injustice. Moyes, unfortunately for him, does not have the same force of personality. Not yet, anyway. "I thought we were really good today," he continued. Nobody was taken in.
His team had lost because for long spells they reminded us why they are scrabbling around trying to bring in a couple of central midfielders and how perplexing it is they have left it so late when this has been their priority in the transfer market for years rather than months.
Brendan Rodgers flashed those brand-new teeth, accompanied with a snort of happy incredulity, when he was asked whether Liverpool could reassess their targets, on the back of their best start to a season since 1994, and actually try to win the title. His laughter recognised the knee-jerk element to the question but he did point out that since the last time these sides met in January, they had both played 19 times in the league – and Liverpool were two points better off.
They were quicker to the ball, stronger in the challenge. More than anything, they seemed to have a superior understanding of this fixture, especially in the opening 45 minutes, and of how to balance all the energy and drive and togetherness that accompanies these occasions with a sense of control.
Moyes would have been perfectly entitled if he had come out and mentioned the improvement of his team in the second half, when Liverpool started defending too deeply. Yet, however he dressed it up, a team cannot be this sloppy and expect to get away with it. Even in that period of late pressure, with the home crowd increasingly agitated, United did not have enough wit or know-how to take advantage. Nani applied a seven iron, when a pitching wedge was needed, and a free-kick in a promising area went out for a throw-in.
Rio Ferdinand and David de Gea tried to play a one-two and the ball finished out of play again. This was not, as Moyes tried to claim, a team that "played very well".
For a good proportion of the match, United were vapid, strangely inhibited, unable to get any real momentum and it has become something of a recurring theme in their visits to Anfield over recent seasons. They have now lost six of their last seven visits and, in just about every one of those matches, United have demonstrated similar flaws.
The longer it goes on, the greater the sense there are players from Old Trafford who do not fully appreciate the United-Liverpool rivalry and what it takes to beat a side that will give everything, as the team from Anfield invariably do.
Ryan Giggs did at least show for the ball. The problem for United was that he did not treat it with enough care. Patrice Evra played with distinction but, all around him, colleagues were making elementary mistakes. Nemanja Vidic under-hit a back-pass and was grateful De Gea beat Glen Johnson to the ball. Michael Carrick passed the ball straight to Daniel Sturridge at one point and Ashley Young should be far too streetwise to make the mistake that led to the corner for Liverpool's goal. Young is now in his third season as a United player and, to put it bluntly, they need an upgrade.
Maybe United would have made a better fist of it if Wayne Rooney's forehead had not been split open by the outstretched boot of Phil Jones in training the previous day. That, however, ignores Rooney's history of rarely playing well at Anfield. The more pertinent issue, perhaps, is why Moyes could not even find a place on the bench for Shinji Kagawa when, above everything else, the team needed someone with the guile and creativity to play the killer pass.
As it was, Moyes talked about a bad defeat in the way a manager usually addresses a fine win. Ferguson would do this and, like a conjuror, the deception would be complete. Yet the bottom line, as Liverpool made it three 1-0 wins in a row, is that there was nothing unjust about the first defeat of Moyes's time in charge.
He, one suspects, will be more aware of that than he wants to admit.