Liverpool’s win over rivals Manchester United on Sunday afternoon highlighted the growing gap between the two clubs – both on and off the pitch.
Jurgen Klopp’s side had a plan, purpose, hunger, desire and an understanding of what was expected of each and every single one of them. While Jose Mourinho’s United team looked like a group of players who had barely played with each other before the game. The Reds absolutely dominated the game with 65% possession, 36 shots to 6 and 13 corners to 2. It was as one-sided a game between the two most successful clubs English football has produced that you are likely to see. Such was Liverpool’s dominance that the 3-1 scoreline ultimately flattered the visitors, as a 5-1 or 6-1 outcome would have been a much fairer reflection of the balance of play seen at Anfield.
The three points claimed by Klopp’s side moved them back above champions Manchester City to the summit of the Premier League table and kept the record of being the only unbeaten team left in the division. United barely looked capable of changing that, with their goal a touch of luck thanks to a poor bit of goalkeeping from the usually reliable Alisson Becker handing them an undeserved equaliser in the first-half. Few would have expected them to take the lead after Jesse Lingard’s bundled strike, despite Andrew Robertson denying substitute Marouane Fellaini what looked like being a certain goal after the break. Liverpool looked the only side capable of claiming the spoils and duly did so when Xherdan Shaqiri came off the bench to grab two deflected goals. Mourinho called them “fortunate”, but the Portuguese can have few complaints about going away the loser from such a heavily one-sided clash. His side was setup to try and frustrate Liverpool, but such was their lack of organisation that it became clear early on that goals were on the cards.
There are parallels between the situations the two clubs find themselves in which dates back to the early nineties. Liverpool were coming to the end of a period of intense domination of English football and were reeling from the loss of manager Kenny Dalglish, who needed time away from the game following the emotional turmoil and toll of Hillsborough. His compatriot, Alex Ferguson, was finally beginning to find his feet as United boss after taking over from Ron Atkinson in 1986. He made the claim that he set out to “knock Liverpool off their f**king perch”, but the truth of that matter was that his United side simply filled the space left behind by a club in decline. Anfield legend Graeme Souness arrived from Rangers to replace Dalglish in April 1991 and tried to change too much, too soon. He moved on too many experienced and successful members of the squad and replaced them with players who should never have been given the chance to play for the club. His first full season in charge saw him steer the club to a mediocre sixth place in the First Division, but they did claim the FA Cup at Wembley thanks to a 2-0 win over Sunderland. Another sixth place finish followed in the 1992/93 season – the year in which Ferguson won his first title with United. The following year saw United collect a second successive Premier League title, while Liverpool languished down in eighth place behind clubs like Wimbledon and Sheffield Wednesday. It hardly backs up Ferguson’s claim that he had “knocked Liverpool off their f**king perch”.
Roll forward to 2013 and the Scot was calling it a day as United boss. He was replaced by Everton boss David Moyes, who didn’t manage to see out the season at Old Trafford. Dutchman Louis Van Gaal replaced him following a short caretaker stint by Ryan Giggs to finish off the 2013/14 campaign. Liverpool had challenged for the title that season while United finished a lowly seventh and didn’t manage to qualify for European competition. Van Gaal managed to steer them into fourth place in the 2014/15 campaign, while Liverpool missed out in sixth place. Neither qualified in the 2015/16 season with United opting to sack Van Gaal, despite him winning the FA Cup. Few were surprised when they decided to appoint former Chelsea manager Mourinho that Summer – but they should have been. The mouthy manager has a proven track record of short-term success wherever he has been and that is proving to be the case yet again at Old Trafford. He managed to win the League Cup and Europa League trophies in 2016/17, but things have declined since and United now find themselves with a squad that lacks cohesion, a board without a plan and a manager predictably reverting to self-preservation mode as he prepares himself for another sacking.
While Liverpool have a squad carefully put together by a strong and cohesive off-field team, United have got a team in disarray. Their best player is still goalkeeper David De Gea, who was at Old Trafford when Mourinho took over, and the Spanish remains unchallenged by any signings made by the former Inter Milan and Real Madrid boss. His inability to get anything like the best out of club record signing Paul Pogba continues to grab headlines, while this past Summer yielded only deals for Brazilian midfielder Fred and young defender Diogo Dalot. It was not what United needed after their second place finish last season failed to paper over the glaring cracks in their squad. Mourinho would have cast several jealous glances in the direction of Anfield as the likes of Naby Keita, Alisson Becker, Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri arrived – with the latter pair reportedly rejecting interest from United to move to Anfield. Klopp had got his business done early and was preparing his carefully assembled squad for the difficult task of beating Manchester City to the title. Meanwhile, Mourinho was busy preparing his excuses for failure during preseason – and it set the tone for the start of the season.
Sunday’s win meant that Liverpool moved a remarkable nineteen points clear of United – whose goal was only the seventh conceded by Klopp’s team in the league so far this season. United’s goal difference is balanced at zero, with the twenty-nine goals conceded already eclipsing the total they let in last season by one. There have only been seventeen games played so far. It is another microcosmic representation of the different directions in which these two clubs are travelling. Another marker of the gulf in class between these two sides is highlighted when you consider that Shaqiri came off the bench to score two goals against United – Liverpool haven’t conceded twice in a single Premier League game so far this season. United are seventeen points clear of Fulham, who are bottom of the table, which is two points less than the gap up to Liverpool at the summit.
Liverpool supporters can empathise, but not sympathise, with United supporters. The nineties saw the club descend into being a shadow of what it was, with mediocre and poor signings made by managers who weren’t cut out to lead the team back to the glory days. David Moores and Rick Parry had the best of intentions during their time overseeing things at the club, but they couldn’t match the nous on display over at Old Trafford. Their stranglehold on English football under Ferguson was only tightened when David Gill was appointed as chief executive in 1997. The duo oversaw a period of dominance only tested by Arsenal before Roman Abramovich changed the game with his billions at Chelsea. Manchester City followed suit and had their place at the top table paid for by incredibly wealthy new ownership. Liverpool were seen by many as yesterday’s news and an also-ran, despite winning the European Cup for the fifth time in 2005. Opportunities weren’t taken to build on that remarkable success and Rafa Benitez was always left with the deck stacked against him as he tried to beat United, Chelsea and Arsenal domestically – especially under the woefully inept ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
Klopp is working under a much brighter set of American owners, however, and can rely on the innovative skills of Michael Edwards behind the scenes to get the kind of deals that were well out of Liverpool’s reach in years gone by. There would have been little chance the club could have beaten our rivals to the likes of Virgil Van Dijk, Alisson Becker, Sadio Mane etc a decade ago. But the charm and charisma of the German is backed up with a genuine plan for success at executive level and the club has been able to see off rival bids on offer both domestically and on the continent. Klopp has the final say on the players that are signed by the club and he is being given every chance to get the names at the top of his list. He is also backed up by a group of superb coaches, physios and medical staff – some of which have been lured away from the likes of Bayern Munich and Manchester City. There is a young, bright and hungry dynamic both on and off the pitch at Anfield and the collective is building something to rival even City’s financial power.
It is an exciting time to be a Liverpool supporter – while it is clearly a very depressing time to be a fan of Manchester United.