During his 26-year reign at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson’s remit to his legion of scouts when they went to watch a potential new signing was to decide whether they were a player who could perform against Liverpool at Anfield.
The former United manager was not interested in players who could take part in their many regulation wins at Old Trafford, but rather individuals who could deal with the unique colour, noise and intensity of a trip to their greatest rivals.
As he wrote in his autobiography, Ferguson always had an appreciation for the atmosphere created at Anfield, the fervour of their fans, and what he called the old ground’s “closed-in volatile environment” and “intimidation factor.”
If you could deal with all of that and thrive, then you were a proper United player.
When the euphoria of Sunday afternoon’s win over Liverpool begins to fade, the stark reality is this game showed again why this United squad does not have enough players capable of passing that test.
A fortuitous three points should not blind United to their predicament.
A win at Anfield—and the visceral feelings it unleashes in both players and fans—should always be savoured, but it should not obscure what was yet another dispiriting and largely moribund United performance.
However, there were four players who proved they did belong in a United shirt, and with one exception, they are all players for the future.
David De Gea was again the difference between United winning rather than losing.
When the game was still scoreless in the second half, his wonderful one-handed save from Emre Can and follow-up save from Roberto Firmino kept United alive.
Anthony Martial was once more United’s most obvious and potent attacking threat, using his pace to trouble the Liverpool defence.
The first time he faced Liverpool, he scored a sublime winner at Old Trafford last September, but this was the first time he had faced them at Anfield, and he looked his usual calm and composed self.
Here is a player for United to cherish and build their team around.
In many ways, Van Gaal is a lucky coach, because he so nearly emerged from the summer transfer window without both Martial and De Gea.
If Real Madrid had made their move before the final day of the window—and made sure their fax machine was working—De Gea would now be in the Spanish capital, while Martial was only prised out of Monaco with hours to spare.
Without this pair, United would have no hope of forcing their way into the top four and would instead be languishing nearer to the middle of the table.
Now finally enjoying his best form of the season, Wayne Rooney showed he can still produce in the big games, with his first goal at Anfield for more than a decade, but this could still be his final season as a United player.
A young player that Ferguson would have enjoyed watching on Sunday—and who impressively passed the Anfield test—was Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.
The 18-year-old Mancunian came on as a substitute for Ashley Young and looked utterly at ease at left-back, where he exuded class and confidence, both in defence and pushing forward to join the attack. Here is a proper United player.
But too many problems persist in this United squad for Van Gaal to get too carried away.
The bigger picture is this was only United's seventh win in their last 21 games.
The performance on Sunday showed yet again that Marouane Fellaini is not a United player, and he should only ever be used sparingly as an impact substitute.
The Belgian is certainly not a central midfielder, where his passing against Liverpool was slow and too often misplaced.
Ander Herrera continues to be an enigma; he's popular with United fans and full of potential, but as a No. 10, he has to impose himself on games far more.
Other than Martial, United’s front four at Anfield lacked any real spark or imagination. For the most part, they struggled to test the Liverpool defence.
At the back, United were fortunate to get away with fielding a midfielder at right-back, a left-back at right-back, and a midfielder at centre-back.
It can’t be beyond United to employ defensive specialists in their proper positions.
If Van Gaal can address these glaringly obvious problems—and so far he has only exacerbated them—then United could enjoy a better second half to the season, even if the Dutchman’s suggestion that they remain in the title race appears detached from reality.
Overall, the feeling persists that this was a victory to enjoy for its symbolic value over Liverpool rather than as a glimpse of better things to come for United.