- Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City? Or Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal? Over time, the two trios have become the dominant fixtures in England.
Sunday features the meeting of the two most successful teams in English history: Manchester United and Liverpool. Twenty league titles plays 19; three European Cups plays five. It’s a rivalry that has its roots in the vying of two great industrial cities in the 19th century, one made particularly acute by the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1893, opening a route to the sea and allowing Britain’s center of cotton-milling to bypass the great port of Liverpool.
Increasingly, as clubs from the North East, Yorkshire and the Midlands fall away, English football feels like a battle between what can, simplifying hugely, be described as the old industrial centers of the North West and the new money of the capital, London. The top six in the Premier League are equally divided between the two: Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool in the North West, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal in London.
So which region rules? Let's take a closer look with a side-by-side comparison:
The first professional league in England was established in 1888 but featured only teams form the Midlands and the North West. Sunderland applied to enter but was denied on the grounds it was too far away. In that sense the first truly national league didn’t begin until 1890. Of the present big three, Liverpool first won the league in 1901, United in 1908 and City in 1937 (being relegated the following season despite being the division’s highest scorers because even then, as the Times noted, “City are a most eccentric team.” United’s 20 league titles have come under only three managers: Ernest Mangnall, who won the first two; Matt Busby, who rebuilt the club after World War II and led it to five league titles and the European Cup; and Alex Ferguson, who won 13 league titles between 1993 and 2013.
Liverpool’s era of success began with Bill Shankly and the 1964 league title, but it was under his assistant and successor Bob Paisley that it really became a dominant force. Under Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool won 10 league titles and four European Cups between 1976 and 1990. There has been one Champions League title since then, the glorious night in Istanbul in 2005, but otherwise the last quarter century has been largely frustrating, with Liverpool seeing its record of 19 league titles surpassed. Pep Guardiola’s assertion that Manchester City is the Villarreal of English football is bizarre on a number of levels, but what is true is that although it is one of the grand old clubs, it has never had any sustained success. Its four leagues titles have all come under different managers.
It wasn’t until 1931 that Arsenal, under Herbert Chapman, became the first London side to win the league title. Arsenal went on to dominate the 1930s, but since then, although it won the double in 1971, its regular position at the highest table was only really secured under Arsene Wenger. Tottenham has won the league title only twice, in 1951 and 1961, and Chelsea had won it only once, in 1955, before Roman Abramovich took over in 2003. Four league titles have followed–three of them under Jose Mourinho–as well as the 2012 Champions League.
In terms of historical success, then, the North West wins out by far: 43 league titles to 20, eight European Cups to one.
The story of rivalries in English football is changing. Thirty years ago, Arsenal and Tottenham probably regarded Chelsea with a measure of disdain: why was it trying to muscle in on their derby? But recently, in part because of the way games between the teams have gone, it almost feels as though Tottenham vs. Chelsea is the most poisonous rivalry in London.
The success of Liverpool and United has meant they have always generated resentment. City has tended to live in the shadow of United; even in 1968 when it won the league under Joe Mercer, United trumped it by winning the European Cup. Recently, with the investment from Sheikh Mansour, it’s harder to tell which the preeminent club of Manchester is.
The bitterest rivalry, though, is that between United and Liverpool, partly because of the history of industrial competition and partly because, in terms of trophies and global fan base, they remain the biggest two teams in England. This is a rare period of flux in which United and Liverpool are vying for supremacy; historically one has always tended to be dominant.
One of the fascinations of the Premier League this season has been the meeting of six great coaches. The theory was that Manchester would become the world capital of football when Pep Guardiola renewed his rivalry with Jose Mourinho, but at the moment it’s Jurgen Klopp who is coming out on top there, with a sense that his high-octane football is more modern, more radical than that of his rivals (with the requisite concerns over the defense).
In London, it can feel as though Arsene Wenger has not quite adapted to the physical demands of the modern game, while both his rivals, Chelsea's Antonio Conte and Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino, are thoroughly modern advocates of a pressing philosophy.
CURRENT BEST XIs
North West: David De Gea (Manchester United); Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool), Eric Bailly (Manchester United), Phil Jones (Manchester United), James Milner (Liverpool); Adam Lallana (Liverpool), Fernandinho (Manchester City), Paul Pogba (Manchester United); Sadio Mane (Liverpool); Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool).
London: Hugo Lloris (Tottenham); Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), David Luiz (Chelsea), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal); Kyle Walker (Tottenham); N'Golo Kante (Chelsea), Dele Alli (Tottenham), Danny Rose (Tottenham); Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal), Eden Hazard (Chelsea); Diego Costa (Chelsea).