Liverpool and United are England’s two greatest clubs – so why don’t they compete with each other?
When the red half of Manchester has been up, their great rivals have been down and vice versa, but may soon compete at the top as equals
The day will come when Manchester United and Liverpool teams peak at the same time. It is a quirk of English football history that has not happened since Matt Busby and Bill Shankly were in charge.
Since the 1970s, the excellence of one has tended to coincide with the rebuilding process of the other. The same applies this weekend. United are flying as Erik ten Hag leads his rejuvenated team to Merseyside, while Jurgen Klopp already has an eye on how he will revive a wounded Liverpool this summer.
There have been plenty of overlaps in terms of United or Liverpool collecting knockout cups while their rival was challenging or winning Premier League titles, but the most successful eras at Old Trafford and Anfield have not required either club to knock the other ‘off their perch’.
I have always believed that famous phrase uttered by Alex Ferguson has done some heavy lifting, anyway. History suggests Ferguson came down from Aberdeen in 1986 and made the vow there and then to end Kenny Dalglish’s domestic dominance, eventually delivering on that boast.
In fact, he stated it was his intention many years later when United were already top of the pile. It was a reflection, not a promise.
And it is not really true. The Liverpool of the 1990s, and the team I made my debut for at the end of that decade, was incomparable to that of the Seventies and Eighties. Liverpool surrendered their No 1 position with bad signings as they failed to deal with Dalglish’s resignation. If any rival contributed to that it was Arsenal, who beat a truly great Liverpool team to the title in 1989 and 1991. United barely had to land a punch on Liverpool by the time their period of superiority began in 1993.
The roles were reversed by the time Klopp restored Liverpool as a Premier League and Champions League winner, United struggling to reassert themselves post-Ferguson.
Liverpool were trying to knock Manchester City off their perch, not United. Now United must get past their city neighbours.
It raises the question as to how and why the rivalry between Liverpool and United has remained so intense over 50 years. Aside from an Anfield fixture in April, 1997, when United ended Roy Evans’ best chance of winning the title, and Rafael Benitez’s most sustained Premier League bid peaking with a 4-1 victory at Old Trafford in 2009, you will struggle to find any meetings in which both teams felt the result impacted on realistic championship hopes. And since the teams met in the 1983 Milk Cup final, Liverpool and United have faced each other in only two of the 79 domestic cup finals played. Hardly a catalogue of epic winner-takes-all battles.
The competitiveness between the clubs continues to be based on history and is more like a local derby where the respective league positions are incidental to what the fixture means to players and supporters. When the two biggest, most successful clubs in the country meet the emotions are stirred.
In the absence of immediate title aspirations, each club feels like they are playing to protect their legacies. United fans will sing about their 20 league titles as if belittling Liverpool for having ‘only’ won 19, while the Kop will raise six fingers to signify how many European Cups are on display in their trophy room.
They are neighbours squabbling about whose incredible achievements carry most weight. Liverpool and United have backstories other clubs can only dream of. Around what other game in English football – or indeed across Europe – will you get supporters arguing whether winning the Champions League with two goals in injury-time feels better than doing it by coming back from 3-0 at half-time?
During my career United were the standard by which you measured progress. Beating them renewed confidence you were on the right track, even if our generally good record against a superior team under Gerard Houllier and Benitez never brought consistency over 38 league games. Ferguson always recognised a trip to Anfield as the ultimate physical and psychological test, regardless of our league position.
In the Klopp era, some of the most meaningful Anfield wins were against United. When Mohamed Salah finished United off with a stunning counter-attacking goal in 2020, it was the cue for the Kop to sing “we’re gonna win the league” with genuine belief for the first time in years. Such wins carry more symbolism and humbling defeats are more consequential.
Meek performances against Liverpool for David Moyes, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick eroded the faith of their board that they could continue at the club.
An Old Trafford loss early in Roy Hodgson’s reign made many Liverpool fans’ mind up that he would never be the right fit at Anfield.
When the sides met at Old Trafford last August, Ten Hag was already under pressure as early doubts surfaced as to whether he had the personality for a club of United’s stature. Beating Liverpool was the reassurance the United supporters needed.
The fact it was a weakened United that Klopp enjoyed success against for five years, and has proven to be a declining Liverpool that Ten Hag defeated, was irrelevant because such wins provide belief and momentum. The size of the game means those victories are a statement.
On the flipside, while Liverpool’s players have enjoyed more understanding than criticism from the Anfield crowd this season – the worst performances have been away – there is always a different vibe when United come to town and there will be no tolerating mediocrity tomorrow afternoon.
Despite Liverpool’s recent problems, there are grounds to believe that we are on the threshold of an era in which the teams will be more closely matched.
After Liverpool’s comprehensive 4-0 win last April, the suggestion United were ‘years behind’ their rivals took hold. I said it was nonsense then, and as an ex-Liverpool player took no pleasure in being right after United’s League Cup underlined their massive progress this season.
The combination of Ten Hag’s astute management and coaching and the introduction of proven competitors with the right mentality such as Casemiro and Lisandro Martinez is proof that big clubs only need two or three top-class players to be transformed.
Klopp will be looking for his own Casemiro and Martinez this summer, a dominant central midfielder and quality centre-back to partner Virgil van Dijk.
Then we might finally see what the Premier League has generally lacked – a strong Manchester United and Liverpool facing each other as a genuine threat to title ambitions rather than a distraction to deal with twice a season.
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