If there is one great truth about football, it’s that everything – success, failure, and everything in-between – is transitory. Even the biggest clubs can experience slumps, and the most unlikely of teams can triumph. Some of the most recognisable players in the world can go through dips in form, and clubs can go from dizzying highs to miserable lows.
If there is another great football truth, it’s that standing still is the same as going backwards. Resting on one’s laurels can sink a club as surely as anything else.
Finally, a failure to move on and adapt will never yield results.
For decades – virtually the entire time I have been a Liverpool supporter – I watched as our fierce rivals Manchester United, guided by Sir Alex Ferguson, conquered English football. They developed generation after generation of talented player and made the right signings at the right time. Ferguson made certain everyone knew he was in charge, and complacency of any kind was not tolerated. Man Utd seemed untouchable, whilst Liverpool languished on the fringes, occasionally winning a trophy and occasionally challenging for the title, but never looking especially like a force that could topple United.
In 2013 Sir Alex retired, and the pendulum swung. His replacement David Moyes inherited a team of reigning champions, and squandered them. United failed to qualify for the Champions League, whilst Liverpool had one of their rare title challenges, but missed out to Manchester City. It would be a few years until Liverpool began to put together a coherent, cohesive side, but for United inconsistency beckoned. Moyes did not complete even a single season as manager, and successive replacements in the form of Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho – both experienced and successful – could not muster any title challenges of their own.
For Liverpool things began to change with Jurgen Klopp. Klopp arrived from German side Borussia Dortmund, with whom he had won league titles, and with whom he had introduced a ferocious, intense pressing game. His ‘gegenpress’ philosophy and expectation of a high workrate immediately won him admirers, and from 2015 onward he began to reshape the squad. Perhaps most importantly, Klopp was in charge of identifying areas to improve, and the club’s hierarchy worked closely with him to bring in the players he wanted. At Manchester United, directors of football and the club’s owners were getting the big decisions wrong, and their interference was starting to hurt the team.
Fast forward to now. Since Klopp arrived at Anfield the Reds have finally won a league title after a 30 year wait. The Champions League trophy has returned to Anfield. Klopp has developed his style and Liverpool’s approach. The Reds have triumphed at Wembley to win the Carabao Cup. They can still win the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League, though it is entirely possible they won’t win another trophy this season. That would be disappointing, but I can take pride in the attempt. The players and manager are doing the club proud, and they are clearly committed and passionate about the cause. Klopp enthusiastically pumped his fist in his now-familiar gesture with the Anfield faithful, and his relationship with his players is one of the reasons why he is one of the best managers in the world right now. In contrast, United sacked the impotent Ole Gunnar Solskjær in November, after a dismal run of form, and his interim replacement has not been able to muster any sort of fight from his players. Ralf Rangnick looks like a man who doesn’t want to be there, and half his team don’t deserve to be there.
The different approaches to the transfer market have yielded vastly different results. Klopp, working in tandem with the club, brought in the likes of Mané, Matip, Salah, Van Dijk and Alisson, along with Keita, Fabinho and Thiago. He has guided players previously considered as merely good to greatness. He has taken the players and moulded them into a team capable of beating anybody. His signings have addressed vulnerabilities (Alisson in goal and Van Dijk in defence look so much assured than their predecessors, and Mané and Salah score goals for fun), and we have depth in the squad. Manchester United have spent huge sums of money yet their side is more disjointed now than at any point since Ferguson retired. Paul Pogba is a very talented midfielder but often cannot be bothered. Fernandes is ineffective as a forward force, Fred and McTominay are next to useless as a screening element in midfield. Maguire is increasingly hopeless as a central defender. Lindelöf is not good enough. Lingard is not good enough. Rashford’s form has deserted him. Sancho was more or less ignored by Solskjær despite his expensive transfer fee. Wan-bissaka and Shaw want to compete for England places but they are ineffective wingbacks. Only the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo has anything to be proud of this season, but at times he has cut a frustrated figure.
Ronaldo was absent from Tuesday’s game at Anfield, on compassionate grounds. He had lost his new-born baby son the day before, and understandably could not play. In truth, it would have made no difference. In the earlier fixture at Old Trafford Ronaldo was on the periphery of a 5-0 defeat, as Liverpool ran unchecked over United on their own turf. At Anfield Liverpool were leading within the first five minutes, and once both sets of fans had applauded on the seventh minute in honour of Ronaldo, the Reds exerted their authority.
Diaz, Salah, Mané, then Salah again, provided what was in the end a very comfortable 4-0 victory, with only one brief spell in the second half where United looked vaguely dangerous. This was probably more to do with Liverpool being too relaxed – and Klopp made his displeasure known from the touchline. The Reds did not need to get into top gear to overcome a United side that barely pressed and barely ran. Maguire, the returning Phil Jones and Lindelöf were easily overwhelmed in defence. Liverpool exerted total control in midfield.
The Reds are pushing for further glory. United are waiting for the season to end. This latest game demonstrated this in spades.