“Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said it would be this hard” The Scientist – Coldplay
Liverpool and Manchester United are arch rivals on the football pitch and both teams have large, global and extremely passionate fan bases. In addition, both teams dominated English football for an extended period of time (Liverpool in the late 70’s and 80’s and Manchester United in the modern football era).
The other key similarity both clubs share is how life has changed following the end of their respective dynasties.
It was always going to be difficult for Manchester United to continue the dominance of the 90’s and 00’s, where the club won every trophy there was to win. Let’s remember that not only did Manchester United win silverware on a consistent basis – they did it in a swashbuckling style that most neutrals (and even the Anybody But United [ABU] brigade) admired.
Liverpool’s story is well-documented and familiar to most.
The club won their last league title (the old 1st division as it was then called) in 1989-90 and the faithful supporters have been waiting ever since (a quarter of a century and counting) for the next one. Silverware has found its way into the Anfield cabinet during that time, including an improbable and unforgettable Champions League in 2005, but not the trophy that matters the most. The club has seen Graeme Souness, Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier, Rafael Benitez, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, Brendan Rodgers and currently Jurgen Klopp all try to regain the lofty heights of yesteryear.
With all the changes in management at Anfield has come significant changes in the playing personnel – each manager has his own vision for the club and typically brings in the players he thinks will be suited to that long term vision. All well and good, except that this means there is pretty limited continuity when it comes to the team – Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia are exceptions to the rule as a host of players (the majority forgettable and some more memorable ones) have come and gone from the club over the years.
Arguably the most important factor in Liverpool’s decline was the failure to harness the financial benefits of the commercialised game in the early 90’s. As Harry Gray noted in his article on “The dethroning of Liverpool and lessons for today”, Liverpool failed to grasp the importance of the commercial aspects of the future of football:
Poor performances meant that it became even more important that Liverpool’s commerical arm flexed its muscles to keep pace with the sides at the top of the division. With, for want of a better term, a globally recognisable brand at their disposal, Liverpool were perfectly placed to arrest their slide into mediocrity and modernise the club ahead of the dawn of the 21st century.
Where Liverpool failed, Manchester United succeeded as they implemented a marketing and commercial drive to drive off-field success even as they were winning trophies on the pitch. The Red Devils effectively monetised their brand and used this to increase revenues and modernise their stadium at the same time.
Transition at Old Trafford
Manchester United’s start to life in the post-Ferguson era did not get off to the best of starts as his replacement, David Moyes, was clearly not the right man for the job. From the beginning, Moyes was on a hiding to nothing even with the backing of Alex Ferguson who urged the United faithful to support their new manager:
“When we had bad times here, everyone stood by me and your job now is to stand by your new manager,”
The club’s directors (and fans), however, did not share Ferguson’s sentiments and unfortunately (for Liverpool supporters) Moyes found the level of expectation too high at Manchester United and was relieved of his duties before the end of his first season in charge. It was the right decision, although taken too late in the season, as a new manager needed to be courted and put in place.
That new manager was Dutchman Louis van Gaal, and he was touted as being the right appointment for a club of United’s stature. After all, this was a man who had succeeded at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich and was someone who was used to winning, someone who the players (and the fans) would respect, someone who would bring the glory days back to Old Trafford.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite panned out that way for Louis van Gaal and Manchester United so far. The complaints have been loud about the boring playing style and van Gaal’s “win at any cost mentality”, and unfavourable comparisons have been made to United’s former playing style under Ferguson.
There are certain Red Devils supporters, drunk off a twenty-year supply of breathtaking attacking and silverware-laden football, who find it incredibly difficult to adjust to the new transitory regime. They are the ones who lament that the football is not being played “the Manchester United way” and want van Gaal to be shown the exit door. Football managers in the current environment are required to deliver results, and to deliver them quickly – there is minimal time given to a manager to implement his football philosophy and find the right personnel to fit in his system.
It must be noted that Manchester United’s current crop of players are not a team of world beaters – there are talented individuals in the squad, there are mediocre players and there is Wayne Rooney but this team is not one that would have opposition players quaking in their boots. The challenge for United is to ensure that they are still able to attract and retain world class players to ensure that the team can continue to win silverware and maintain on-pitch success. As soon as players like David De Gea start to depart from the club (and are replaced with lower quality individuals) this could signal the start of the decline at Manchester United.
It’s too early to speak of a crisis at Manchester United as the club is on a sound financial footing and has a massive global brand which can lure potential managers and players alike.
There is a famous quote that says “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The warning signs are there and Manchester United would do well to avoid the mistakes of the team they knocked off their perch.