It’s the second-most successful team in English history against the most successful. It’s the playing out of a centuries-old rivalry between the two major cities of England’s industrial northwest. It’s one of the greatest 40-something managers in the world against one of the greatest 60-something managers in the world. On Sunday, it's ninth against sixth.
Liverpool against Manchester United is one of those fixtures that echoes back through the generations. The concentration of wealth on London, a result of Conservative economic policy of the 1980s, has changed the dynamic, but these remain the two giants. The story of their rivalry is the story of post-War English football.
First came Matt Busby, who created the modern United to dominate the fifties until the Munich air-crash of 1958. Then came Bill Shankly who lifted Liverpool to vie with United for supremacy in the 60s. United botched the succession after Busby retired in 1969; if anything Liverpool improved after Bob Paisley had replaced Shankly in 1974. The 70s and 80s belonged to Liverpool, as 26 years passed between between United wining the title in 1967 and lifting it again under Alex Ferguson in 1993. Nobody in the northwest needs reminding that it is 26 years since Liverpool last won the title, a period of United hegemony.
United’s financial position still looks the healthier. Old Trafford, with its capacity of 75,635 is a mighty resource, dwarfing Anfield with its capacity of 45,276. As Liverpool retrenched and, understandably, turned inward after the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989, United was voracious in seizing the opportunities offered by the advent of the Premier League and satellite television in 1992. But for the first time in Premier League history, more optimistic Liverpool fans wonder if the cycle is beginning to turn again.
This is not the early 90s. It’s not a question, as it was for United, of knocking Liverpool off its perch and moving into the space vacated. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City are also jockeying for primacy. Tottenham isn’t too far behind, and Spurs' new stadium will give them enhanced economic heft. West Ham’s move into the Olympic Stadium may make it more of a force. But the Liverpool name still has a cache, and Anfield is being redeveloped (not a moment too soon for those drenched as a seal in the roof of the Main Stand gave way under the onslaught of snow on Wednesday night). By the start of next season, Anfield’s capacity should be 53,000 with further plans in place to increase it to 58,000.
It’s the bench, though, that offers the most hope for Liverpool fans. Jurgen Klopp is an infectious, engaging character. His press conferences ring with laughter. He is endlessly charismatic. Wednesday’s 3-3 draw with Arsenal was a ridiculous, brilliant, end-to-end thrill-a-thon that offered signs that, despite all the injuries (for which Klopp may bear some responsibility), he is beginning to instill his vision of football.
More than that, his vision is fun. As he has said, his football is an updated version of the hard-pressing game that existed in England in the 80s–when Liverpool was last great. He wants his side to run further than the opposition, to fight harder. It may take time to get his players to a pitch of fitness where they can do that–a full Klopp pre-season would clearly help – and it may even be that the Premier League, with its love of high-tempo, endlessly percussive football cannot be won, as the Bundesliga was, by energy, but these are principles that are readily understandable (even if there is an irony that Liverpool’s great European successes in the seventies and eighties came after adopting amore possession-based approach).
Louis van Gaal’s method, by contrast, is neither fun nor understandable. In public he is dour or prickly. Calling a journalist “fat man” after Wednesday’s 3-3 draw against Newcastle–a game that suggested he cannot let his attacking forces off the leash without risking defensive vulnerability–suggested the pressure under which he finds himself. When former United player Paul Scholes described United as “boring” earlier in week, he was articulating what many United fans, who have chanted "attack, attack, attack," at Old Trafford, feel.
But Van Gaal believes in possession above all else. He believes his side should have the ball and protect the ball, should eschew risk to keep the ball, because the side with the ball never concedes. It’s a very un-English way of playing, which in part explains the discussion over the past few months of “United’s natural style.” But most worrying of all for United is that Van Gaal has come to seem old-fashioned. His is the football of the late 90s, whereas Klopp’s is the football of now. It may work–old ideas aren’t necessarily bad ideas or new ones always applicable–but it lacks the radical energy of Liverpool at the moment.
The transition from a long-term manager is never easy–only three managers have ever won the league with United. There has been a whiff of desperation about its transfer spending, huge sums spent despite little apparent plan. Liverpool’s own recent transfer activity has been far from beyond reproach, but in United’s struggles Liverpool's fans can perhaps see hope. With a more modern force in the dugout, the balance of power between the two great northwest powers might perhaps be ready to swing back to the Reds.
The concern for both is that other forces have risen and, this season at least, their rivalry has little to do with the title race.