Some football fixtures are so insane, so hard to explain, that the conflicting emotions of hate and admiration can combine even though they look to be mutually exclusive.
Right now, Liverpool appear to have all the things that United want: a higher spot in the Premier League table, recent titles in the Premier League and Champions League and a genuine chance of winning both trophies this season, something that – the Atalanta win apart – looks to be well beyond United’s reach.
United can only covet the assurance that Alisson and Virgil van Dijk give to the defence, the consistency in midfield and the effortless delivery of top-class goals from Mo Salah.
At Liverpool, the manager’s future and his ability to do the job is a debate five years away at least. Around Old Trafford, it’s a weekly, even daily, discussion.
Liverpool also appear to have some things United had but lost. That drive to win, intolerance of low standards, a manager who stands tall instead of shrinking under the burden of the post.
Does the white shirt worn last year by United’s players in their unloved zebra-like away strip now mirror the off-white suits worn by the Liverpool side of the mid-1990s Spice Boys era, a rudderless Liverpool side lacking desire and hunger? Are United now feeding off the same trophy-less mixture of celebrity and mediocrity which made Liverpool weak before they became strong again?
Liverpool fans suffered greatly during their long wait for a Premier League crown, every title-less season seen as another chapter in the book of failures. United fans may recoil every time the Premier League trophy goes to another club but does Manchester United plc ache at that trophy’s absence from Old Trafford?
Fans would not agree they have given up, but United, as a club, do appear, to outsiders at least, to be content with their lot; the occasional trophy in a cup, a run in what used to be the UEFA Cup, qualifying for the Champions League without the ambition of winning it.
Marquee signings are more helpful to the club’s social media profile than the team itself, and a scouting network where the best young players in England no longer yearn to be offered the chance to sign for United.
In the past, when United could sign 16-year-olds, if they feared losing out on a prospective recruit for their academy from Ireland, it often took no more than a phone call from Alex Ferguson to the family, or an invite for the finest steak in Dublin with him, to seal the deal.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer offering an evening out on United’s credit card lost its appeal long before Brexit rules banned those kids from moving at 16. Would any budding talent, or his parents, have faith in Solskjaer being in charge two years from now, let alone five? If the rules permitted it, a simple Zoom call from Klopp would convince any prospective signing where to go. The same conditions can be applied when signing an elite player. Will Jurgen Klopp make me a better player and help me win things? Will Solskjaer even be there to manage me by the time the deal goes through?
Roy Keane is someone who tasted both of those emotions, hate and admiration. He repeatedly compared the success in Europe of his United team to the serial winners from Anfield of the past. In summary, good teams win a European Cup, but great teams win multiple European Cups.
“To complete a double was essential for all kinds of reasons, one being that the great Liverpool sides of the recent past had set standards, domestically and in Europe, by which greatness could be measured,” Keane once said.
“Although we had dominated the Premiership for years, there was no denying that we’d failed in Europe. When you consider what Liverpool achieved in Europe in the 1980s, our failure was significant.”
He saw not winning the Champions League as a major failure – for half a decade now, getting to the Europa League final is seen as a success for the United board, a view most supporters would not share. Liverpool know how hard it is to win the Champions League but go back to the well every year to try and make it happen. Only a brave, or foolhardy, United supporter would take a bet at 16/1 for them to become European champions this season.
Keane claims the decline started to set in at Old Trafford around 2001 when players were – in his eyes – content to gorge on past glories instead of demanding new standards. In that season, 2001/’02, Liverpool played United three times and beat them three times. “They had closed the gap a little,” Keane said of the season-opener, a 2-1 win for Liverpool over United in the Charity Shield.
“But the game that really told a story was at Anfield. Liverpool won 3-1, it could have been six. We surrendered, Liverpool now glowed with the kind of purpose we’d shown when we really wanted it. Owen, Gerrard, Murphy, Carragher, all Liverpool lads. They tackled with real venom, we went through the motions and the gap closed that day.”
That’s a sort of revisionism on Keane’s part. Yes, Liverpool did finish ahead of United that season (by three points), for the first time since the Premier League was born, but United would win six more league titles, Liverpool would wait 19 years to win one.
For some Liverpool fans, the club’s standards lowered to an alarming level with the signings of the Graeme Souness era, names like Dean Saunders, Julian Dicks and Torben Piechnik the subject of ridicule now. Later teams would win cups and push for the league, but it took the arrival of Klopp’s steely gaze and his demand for high standards to make that happen. United dispense with managers, not knowing what they want from the coach or his team, while leadership at the board level is poor.
For the last five years, Liverpool have spent but rarely misspent. United seem to be always late in the race when it comes to signings. Liverpool did not compete for Jadon Sancho, their manager unconvinced by his ability to fit in and his cost. United, once again, threw more money away. If Klopp has €150m to spend, he’ll find a better use for it than on Sancho and Fred.
Re-signing Cristiano Ronaldo was a nod to nostalgia, and despite his age, he underlined his worth again with that midweek salvage job away to Atalanta. But as he scours the United dressing-room, he can only see players whose talents and standards dip well below his own. He would relish being in a side that has a Van Dijk at the back.
United are no longer trying to knock Liverpool off their perch. They can’t even see it. And until MUFC plc go back to ground zero, they will remain stuck. United’s white/black shirt of last year is no longer in use, but the white flag of defeat was thrown up long ago, with no sign of its lowering.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp dismissed Paul Scholes’ assertion that he was sat at home “rubbing his hands together” at the prospect of facing Manchester United as he watched their performance against Atalanta.