Manchester United picked up a vital three points as they defeated rivals Liverpool 2-1 at Anfield. Juan Mata scored a brace, including a fantastic overhead kick to fire Louis van Gaal’s men into pole position to make it into the top four. Steven Gerrard came on as a half time substitute for the hosts but was sent off after just 38 seconds for a stamp on Ander Herrera.

Here are five key thoughts from United’s most important win of the season so far.

1) Steven Gerrard’s stupidity helped but United were dominant before the red

He was given a huge build-up. Despite not starting the match, Steven Gerrard was talked up both before and at half time of the clash. According to the Sky Sport pundits, the former England captain has a great knowledge and experience of this fixture. When he was sent off, there was complete and utter shock at what he had just done. Gerrard’s petulant stamp on Herrera was a disgraceful act and left Liverpool with a mountain to climb.

However, there is an argument to suggest that it did not have a huge bearing on the final result. United’s first half performance was magnificent as they stifled Liverpool’s pacey attackers with sustained periods of possession. The high wingers and making the pitch as wide as possible worked as it meant Ashley Young and Mata found space in behind the wing-backs. Obviously the red card made it harder for Liverpool but United probably would have won even if it hadn’t happened. If anything, the hosts were better with ten men.

2) Juan Mata was absolutely sensational

Van Gaal opted to name an unchanged side from the impressive victory over Tottenham last week. It worked a treat. Mata remained on the right wing and was a constant threat throughout the game. It was the Spaniard most impressive display in a United shirt by some distance and he was rewarded with two fine goals. He more than justified the manager’s faith to leave him in the side and it left most of us questioning why he hadn’t started more often in 2015.

His first goal was a neat finish but his second goal was out of this world. To get your body into a position to perform an overhead kick was one thing but to execute it with such accuracy and power was something else. Mata proved that he is a difference maker and that he is more than capable of playing in a wide position in the 4-3-3. The Spaniard is a world class footballer.

3) Rooney’s record shows he should not be taking penalties

Wayne Rooney should not be taking United’s penalties. His record from the spot is terrible and his technique is predictable. Rooney is a superb footballer but he is just not a very good penalty taker. The miss today was at a perfect height for Simon Mignolet to save and was not in the corner.

The late miss may not have mattered too much but if Liverpool had gone up the other end of the pitch and nicked a point afterwards, we would not be sat here making jokes about Gerrard’s red. It would be all about how Rooney’s miss would have cost us.

4) Fellaini is in superb form and his height is proving to be very useful

Marouane Fellaini has been a highly debated topic this season. Many think he encourages more direct football and should just be used as an impact substitute rather as a regular starter. I’ll admit, until the last couple of matches, I did think this too. However, in the last couple of games, he has proved that he is a very useful weapon to have because not only does he give defences constant problems in the final third with his excellent control but his height gives United extra cover on set pieces. There were countless times in the second half when Fellaini headed away Liverpool’s balls into the box.

The direct option has been used too readily at times this season but in the last two games, United are picking the right moment to play a long pass to Fellaini. In the main, United play neat and intricate football and rarely hoof the ball aimlessly. The Fellaini tactic is perfectly viable. If you have such a useful weapon then why not use it? Having taken a lot of criticism for his use of Fellaini, Van Gaal’s faith in the Belgian is finally paying off.

5) United now in pole position for a top four spot

This was a huge result in so many ways. Not only does it give United the bragging rights but more importantly, they have opened up a five-point gap over Liverpool and put themselves in pole position to finish in the top four. If the Reds had won, they would have been ahead of United in the table. It means Van Gaal’s men are just one point behind Arsenal and two behind Man City, meaning the race for second place is in their hands, with both clubs still to come to Old Trafford.

It was the latest positive result in a big game under Van Gaal. Since he took over, United have done the double over Liverpool, taken four points against Spurs, beaten Arsenal, gained a creditable draw with Chelsea and lost to City despite being the better team with just ten men on the pitch. If United had picked up more points against the teams in the bottom half, then they would be challenging Chelsea for the title.