The Reds Reclaiming their Place Atop the Perch? A Deep-Dive Preview of Manchester United – Liverpool

By Fernando Acevedo (Quibbl’s resident Manchester United supporter) and Ryan Cluett (Quibbl’s resident Liverpool blow-hard)

 

Fernando: This Sunday, Manchester United and Liverpool will renew their bitter rivalry when they meet in another highly anticipated English Premier League match. Manchester United began the season hoping to improve on last season’s second place finish, but the campaign did not begin as planned. Jose Mourinho was sacked after United’s 3-1 loss to Liverpool and has since been replaced by interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Red Devils have since improved, and are once again in the exciting race for the top four spots. Liverpool, on the other hand, strengthened during the summer transfer window and have built on last season’s remarkable run to the Champions League Final and their fourth-place finish in the league. The Reds are currently battling Manchester City for the Premier League title, a feat that seemed unimaginable only a few seasons ago.

Looking at the remaining matches in this Premier League season, United – Liverpool may be the defining moment for determining who will win the league. Manchester City is currently first place, tied on points with Liverpool, who have a game at hand. With home fixtures against Tottenham and Chelsea left, this match at Old Trafford will be their last away match to a top tix rival. City are in the unique position where they need Liverpool to slip up (pun 100% intended because after all “…he gave it to Demba Ba, Steve Gerrard Gerrard!”) (Ryan: I hate you so much right now…), and potentially would have to rely on their city rivals to help them…

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Old Trafford, the site of Sunday’s big match

Manchester United vs Liverpool- Contrasting Fortunes?

F: Manchester United is a club with success largely built upon the longevity of their previous manager Sir Alex Ferguson. However, since his departure, three appointment managers have come and gone. The direction of the club has changed with each one and the level of prosperity has varied. Louis van Gaal won the FA Cup and Mourinho won the Europa League as well as the EFL Cup. However, the club expects to challenge for the Premier League and UCL after the numerous trophies under Ferguson. With that being said, United have begun an early trend of getting rid of their managers rather than showing faith in them as they had previously done.

The last three managers at Manchester United have been removed from their positions, mainly because they strayed from the path set by Sir Alex.

It could be said that the decision making the Red Devils have made has been poor and led to those appointments, which also included David Moyes, that ultimately didn’t work out. The same can be said for the club’s handling of the transfer windows these coaches have had. Moyes purchased Marouane Fellaini who never truly won over the fans at Old Trafford. The Belgian became the epitome of the shift at United as various times throughout his stay, he was used as a target man to get a late equalizer or winner.

Sir Alex Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson

Yes, he was vital at times for the team (truly a sad time in United’s history), but he was never a “Manchester United player”. Instead, he represented the desperation and lack of creativity within the Manchester-based outfit.

Looking at van Gaal’s signings there are a few candidates that can be used to portray the misguided nature of the club’s signings. Angel Di Maria was never given license to be the attacking threat that he was at Real Madrid, and now at Paris Saint-Germain. Morgan Schneiderlin never convinced in midfield and ended up becoming another poor signing.

Lastly, Mourinho hasn’t made the best choices in the transfer market either as the signings of Alexis Sanchez and Fred can attest to.

Stating the obvious, all of these signings lacked a cohesive strategy. Namely, this was due to three different managers adding to the squad these transfer windows in question, but nonetheless, portray a part of the issue within Manchester United as a result of their recent practice of sacking their managers.

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Marouane Fellaini

F: When Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge (the good times, happier times), he once famously said, “knocking Liverpool right off their f***ing perch” was his biggest challenge. He did that through the dominance United sustained under the Scotsman which led to the club overcoming Liverpool’s record of most league titles. During this period, the Reds’s ability to challenge the Red Devils began to dwindle until winning a trophy seemed more and more unlikely, let alone a league title. Liverpool’s glory days from the 1970s and 1980s seemed like a distant memory during the 1990s and early 2000s.

R: Growing up, I absolutely despised Fergie and United. Just the mere image of his red-tinged face, chomping gum in his black overcoat would make me seeth. I hated how his United teams always rose to the occasion against Liverpool, and how his massive influence on English soccer seemed to permeate into nearly every aspect of the rivalry. The crazy conspiracist in me would accuse Fergie of influencing the referee and the FA (cue the Rafa Benitez “facts” rant), receiving favorable calls and excessive amounts of injury time. The real fact of the matter was that Liverpool simply wasn’t good enough on several occasions to compete with United, and were late bloomers to modernizing to the “new money” influence of the Premier League era.

I think right now, it’s a bit early to say whether or not Liverpool are knocking United off their perch, especially given that the footballing landscape has changed completely. Managers rarely get the time to implement new players and system while the financial gulf between the top clubs is ballooning out of control. Ferguson dealt with the rise of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea and the early stages of City’s transformation under Sheikh Mansour, and was able to win titles during a period of upheaval at the top of the Premier League.

However, I’ve always suspected that he squeezed every last bit of talent out of the 2012-13 title-winning squad, and didn’t really fancy the prospect of trying to rebuild, reinforce, and recapture the title the following season. That said, I don’t think we’ll see another managerial reign as long or successful as Ferguson at United. It’s nearly impossible given the public outcry and impatience that has developed in soccer fandom in correlation with the rise of social media.

From the Liverpool perspective, I genuinely thought Rafa Benitez would’ve have been the man to lead the Reds to their first Premier League title, especially after leading us to that famous night in 2005, where Liverpool won their English-record Fifth European Cup. Liverpool’s European success seems to be the one feat that United can’t quite seem to overtake.

When Rafa left in 2010, Liverpool were plunged into chaos. They were in the midst of a nasty takeover battle that nearly bankrupted the club, and Roy Hodgson languished as manager. After FSG took over in October of 2008, things have improved drastically. Brendan Rodgers, after arriving in 2012, was massive in stabilizing the club, and to this day, gave me and other Liverpool supporters one of the most entertaining sides in Premier League history.

Despite the ultimate failure of losing the title in 2014, I think Rodgers came in and did a nearly impossible job. He turned Luis Suarez into one of the world’s deadliest strikers, began to blood young talents (Raheem Sterling), and had to deal with the no-win conundrum of an aging Steven Gerrard. He definitely wasn’t perfect, as evidenced by the mediocre 2014-15 season, but I think he stabilized the club to the point where they could actively court Jurgen Klopp.

 

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Jurgen Klopp, current Liverpool manager

 

That said, Jurgen Norbert Klopp has been the single greatest thing to happen to Liverpool FC in the last twenty years. Yes, he hasn’t won anything yet, but the remarkable bond  between the club and supporters has rarely been seen since the days of Ferguson at United, Wenger at Arsenal, Clough at Nottingham Forest, and going way back, to Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley at Liverpool. There were growing pains of course, as the big German adapted to English soccer and implemented his trademark gengenpress onto the Liverpool side, but the players and club soon bought into his methodology and have returned to the upper echelon of the Premier League clubs

His methods and attitudes have seemingly calmed the players and staff, and the supporters have been rewarded with the magical runs to the Europa League Final in 2016 and the Champions League Final in 2018. Simply put, he has begun to turn “doubters into believers”. His confidence exudes across the club to the point where even losing doesn’t quite feel like the end of the world, a sharp contrast to the mentality from the final days of the Brendan Rodgers era.

Klopp has shown a remarkable patience in developing his players,  and while he hasn’t always been convinced by dipping into the transfer market, his signings have been made with a clear strategic vision in mind. Working hand-in-hand with Sporting Director Michael Edwards, Klopp and Liverpool have developed a transfer strategy that blends between world-class talent and financial prudence, becoming a destination for top players across the globe. This strategic cohesion marks  a far-cry from the days of Brendan Rodgers’ Transfer Committee and Damien Comolli’s ill-fated “Moneyball-inspired” time as Liverpool’s Director of Football. Signings such as Gini Wijnaldum, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Andrew Robertson, and Fabinho have developed into massive roles at the club, despite early questions over their initial quality.

The exceptional signings of Sadio Mane and of course, Mohamed Salah, have seen Klopp take two rather underappreciated players and developed them into a deadly triumvirate with Brazilian Roberto Firmino. Klopp was one of the major factors in the world-record signings of Virgil Van Dijk and Allison, and firmly announced Liverpool’s return to the top.

I could definitely ramble for hours, but simply put, It’s certainly an exciting time to be a Liverpool supporter, that’s for sure. My body is ready for the impending wild ride over the course of the next few months.

 

Thoughts on the Title Race and those “noisy neighbors”, Manchester City

F: Manchester United fans are in a conflict of interest this season, and even more so for Sunday’s match. Pick your poison – our “noisy neighbors” winning the league or our bitter rivals Liverpool winning their first Premier League title (cute) and their first league since the 89/90 season (ooooof almost a decade before I was born)?

It’s a question many fans disagree on. Some say they would rather see Liverpool win because City winning would cement their status as one of the Premier League’s greatest sides considering only two clubs have won it back-to-back (United multiple times and Chelsea once). Others argue they’d rather see City win again than see Liverpool, their bigger rivals win.

Personally, I side with the latter. Manchester City has clearly become a bigger rival in recent years for United, but it only came about because of money. The large investments into the club is the major reason why they have had success over the last few seasons.

Meanwhile (and it pains me to say it), Liverpool is a more respectable club with a rich history and loyal supporters. If there is any club that can truly challenge United to be the best club in all of England, it would have to be Liverpool. Therefore, as a fan, I don’t mind City winning the league again. That’s great you won the league again, but have you won it three times in a row? Have you won it eight times out of a stretch of eleven seasons? United have and can stake a claim (if you can even call it a claim because I think it clearly shows which club has been the best in the Premier League era) as the best Premier League club in history.

However, Liverpool winning the league again is more threatening shall we say. United have 21 league trophies while Liverpool have 19. If the Scousers win again, they can very well tie it up in the following season. I don’t want to live in a world where Liverpool (ugh scouse scum, it irks me just to think about it) have equal or more league titles than United again. They can already boast about their UCL titles, so us having league titles is essential. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see the Reds choke AGAIN!? I know I’d enjoy it even if I have to watch Vincent Kompany lift another Premier League trophy.

Looking to Sunday’s game against Liverpool, I’ve decided I want Manchester to win. By that I mean United and City because it would very likely be enough for City to go on and win the league. However, I dream of Tottenham Hotspur sneaking up behind both City and Liverpool and somehow winning the Premier League. Will it happen? I doubt it. Even if they did,  would it then close off the possibility of signing Mauricio Pochettino? I’m not sure, but I’d like to keep my options open despite Solskjaer’s phenomenal job so far…

R:  This season has been awfully strange for me as a Liverpool supporter. During the last couple of title runs (‘09, ‘14), I was all in to the point where my sanity and happiness began to revolve around Liverpool matches (something I would not recommend doing).  I think the nature of the situation has only recently started to set in for me, especially after Liverpool topped the league at Christmas. I guess from here on out as a supporter, it’s about managing expectations, and honestly, enjoying the ride, an idea that Klopp has instilled since the very start of his Liverpool career. You definitely don’t want to be thinking that Liverpool could potentially be the first side to top the league at Christmas and not win the league.

On paper, this is definitely one of the more complete Liverpool sides that I’ve witnessed. The inspired signings of defender Virgil Van Dijk and Goalkeeper Allison have been life-changing as a supporter. Given Liverpool’s calamity goalkeeping and defending in recent years, the two signings have been a breath of fresh-air. While it may seem hyperbolic given the fact that Liverpool and Klopp haven’t won anything yet, Virgil Van Dijk has become perhaps become the club’s most important player in recent times. His fatherly influence at the back has calmed a nervy backline and has seen the side drastically improve their defensive efforts. While it seems silly to note the financial prudence of the world’s most expensive defender, Virgil is worth every single penny.  The Front Three (Salah, Mane, Firmino) are simply amazing, while the midfield has begun to stabilize following the development of Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum, and Jordan Henderson.

 

F: My preference for City winning the league should not be mistaken for a soft spot for the Cityzens. City is one of the clubs that I deeply dislike (hatred is reserved for Liverpool) and I just dread anytime they win a trophy. The Manchester derby was never a fixture I really cared about before City began to challenge for trophies and now it feels like an absolute necessity to beat them. Their first Premier League title win, the 11/12 last minute title win, was probably one of my worst memories as a United fan and well and truly cemented my negative view towards the blue side of Manchester.

The following season, I remembered just hoping Wigan would beat them in the FA Cup final the following season and celebrating Ben Watson’s winner as if I was a Latics fan. From then on I took delight in seeing City lose and fail in their title bids.

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Vincent Kompany and Manchester City. Clearly a touchy subject for our authors…

R: I actually don’t really care for the idea of Manchester City, not so much from a footballing/rivalry perspective (spoiler, Liverpool-City isn’t a rivalry…yet), but rather from the financial and political perspective. Like Chelsea, City has been propelled from relative obscurity to sitting at the table of soccer’s elite, based on the extensive backing of the Abu Dhabi royal family. While, I do enjoy watching several of their players (Bernardo and David Silva, I’m looking at you), and Pep Guardiola is the leading tactical voice of his generation, I can’t help but feel dirty heaping praise on their style of play.  

In terms of City-United, like you Fernando, I have to make a tough decision. While I can’t stand for United to increase their trophy haul over Liverpool, I absolutely hate how successful City have become under Sheikh Mansour. While it’s not organic in the same way that United or Liverpool have built success, those days are officially over, with financial power and influence now dominating the sport to the extent where, unless you’re backed by an intergalactic billionaire, it seems nearly impossible (with the exception of Leicester, of course) for a smaller club to achieve success.

I definitely will admit to strong feelings of jealousy watching Vincent Kompany lift three Premier League titles. It seems very cruel as a Liverpool fan watching Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, etc. give everything for the club, only to come up short, while City has been so capable of winning three titles in 10 years. This lack of success in the league really speaks to the mismanagement that Liverpool as a club experienced throughout much of the last thirty years or so, in addition to the power and influence wealthy owners now have on today’s game.

I would love nothing more than to beat Pep’s City to the title (especially after the “bad-blood” between the two sides in last year’s UCL Quarterfinal tie), but I do think that City are still the favorites. Meanwhile, the idea of watching an incredibly wealthy club backed by an oppressive regime win another trophy doesn’t really sit well with me…

How we became fans + best and worse derby moments

R: I’m a little older than you are Fernando (god, I can’t believe I’ve written that). Some of my first real clear soccer memories stem from the 1998 World Cup. My Dad had already introduced me to the sport and Liverpool of course, but I was essentially mad for hockey at that age. Watching Michael Owen, and his ridiculous goal against Argentina changed that. From there, my interest in the sport began to intensify, and I began to follow Liverpool and Owen through magazines, the internet, and whatever soccer highlights/matches they’d manage to show on tv (which as we all know, was pretty sparse in the early 2000s). I vaguely remember Steven Gerrard’s development from a hot-headed youngster to becoming the captain in 2003, which became a turning point in my fandom.

In terms of my favorite derby moments? Oh man, where to begin? The 4-1 in 2009 has to be up there. Fernando Torres in his prime repeatedly destroying Nemanja Vidic, along with Steven Gerrard ripping apart United’s defense was simply amazing. I thought for sure Liverpool would win the title that year. More importantly, Stevie G kissing the Old Trafford camera has to be one of my all-time favorite moments in the derby, and has become one of the ICONIC images of the derby. I thoroughly enjoyed the demolishing David Moyes’ demoralized squad in 2014, with Stevie G and Luis Suarez delivering the knockout blows.  This Stevie G goal brings back great memories, and while he’s a snake, I absolutely adore this Europa League goal from Philippe Coutinho.

 

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Steven Gerrard, Simon Mignolet, and Jordan Henderson

In terms of worst derby moments, there have been several I’m afraid. United always seem to have this bizarre habit of unconventional goalscorers popping up and killing us off. A struggling Diego Forlan scored twice in 2002, any time John O’Shea or Wes Brown scored. Javier Mascherano’s red card in 2008 was confusing and certainly something that made little sense at the time, especially given the modern referee’s aversion to carding players who surround and belittle them.  In recent years, Dimitar Berbatov’s hattrick in 2010 marked an incredibly low point for the club, who were struggling under the impending sale to FSG, in addition to the managerial nightmare that was Roy Hodgson. Essentially, if you can’t tell already, I’m frequently haunted by defeats to United haha. Definitely, the lowest moment in the last five years (which I suspect is probably one of Fernando’s favorite moments…) has to be that horrible, good-for-nothing, rotten 2-1 defeat at Anfield in 2015. Not only did that derail our bid for fourth place, but will forever be known for Steven Gerrard’s 38-second dismissal.

Essentially, that match epitomized the 2014-2015 season, with Steven Gerrard providing the only bit of passion in his last derby appearance, while the club meagerly limped to defeat, and later, to a sixth-place finish.

And now I’m sad again…

F: I became a Manchester United fan when I was eight-years-old. My dad is a huge soccer fan and so I would often watch games with him and he was watching a game between a red team and a red team. My brother was a fan of the blue team, but I was just enjoying the match as a neutral. The game eventually went to penalties and this guy in blue slipped taking his penalty. A player in red scored and his team started running to him looking so happy. In contrast, the blue team seemed so sad and some players even started crying. Since then I decided to be a fan of the red team which turned out to be United. The match was their UEFA Champions League triumph in 2008 against Chelsea, but I had no idea at the time.

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As a Mexican, the signing of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez really made sure I stuck with the club and I haven’t looked back since.

Looking at my memories of the derby with Liverpool, I have a few that jump out to me. A painful one was United’s elimination in the Europa League against Liverpool in the quarterfinals. Liverpool brag about their European record, so getting one over the Red in Europe would have been amazing. Yet, even with the second leg at Old Trafford, we couldn’t manage to go through and that was a tough loss to take.

A more enjoyable memory was United’s win at Anfield 14/15 season. Steven Gerrard, Mr. Liverpool, got a red card in less than a minute from coming on as a halftime substitute which was just a such an incredible thing to witness. The mere idea of someone being sent off that quick is astonishing, but the fact it was Gerrard at Anfield against United was just all the more fun for me to watch. Not to mention Juan Mata’s stunning scissor kick which ended up being the winner in a 2-1 win, the fixture has always just been one I recall between the two sides.

 

FINALLY…Predictions:

F: I foresee a 3-2 United win. The Red Devils will be at home and although Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial won’t be able to play due to their respective injuries. Despite that and a few other injuries in the squad, the team has been in good form since the arrival of Solskjaer. Defensively, they are still not as strong as they should be so I fully expect Liverpool to score at some point. However, with the likes of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba playing exceptionally well, I think United have enough to outscore Liverpool. At the Theatre of Dreams, Liverpool’s dream of winning the league will end.

R: Hmmmm. Now you’re asking for trouble. My heart is clearly screaming 10-0 Liverpool, with three United players sent off, and for the recently departed Marouane Fellaini to make a triumphant goodbye to Old Trafford, only to earn a dubious red card as well.

Realistically, I can see the match finishing 2-1 in Liverpool’s favor. Every Liverpool title-charge in the last ten years has featured a defining victory at Old Trafford. This game is absolutely massive for Liverpool, and will serve as perhaps the defining moment for this season. Win, and they’ve got momentum needed to fuel the remainder of the season.

I do think United’s defense is a massive weak point, kind of where Liverpool were at developmentally a few seasons back. Sensational up front, amateur hour in the back. I think Mo Salah will get his first goal against United, and…. we’ll say Gini Wijnaldum grabs the other. I’m absolutely terrified of Marcus Rashford and suspect he’ll score. Both keepers will be incredibly busy on Sunday.

Who will win on Sunday?

Will there be a red card?

Will either side record a clean sheet?

Will Mohamed Salah score against United?

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