Jurgen Klopp's modern football sending balance of power back to Liverpool
Jonathan Wilson previews the first ever European meeting between Liverpool and Manchester United, and charts the direction of the two English giants.
Fifty years ago, Liverpool won the league title and Manchester United finished fourth. The following season, United won the league and Liverpool finished fifth. The year after that, 1967-68, as United won the European Cup, they finished second in the league, a point ahead of Liverpool. That was the last time the clubs could be said realistically to have existed at the same level. For half a century when one has been good, the other has existed in their shadow.
As United entered their post-Matt Busby slump, Liverpool began what was, at the time, an unprecedented period of dominance in English football, under Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish. It lasted until 1990. By 1993, the period of Manchester United’s Alex-Ferguson led domination had begun. It may be that the pendulum is beginning to swing back westward along the M62.
Manchester United's manager Louis van Gaal at half time as Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp looks onAFP
That may seem a strange thing to say given United have beaten Liverpool on the four occasions they’ve met them under Louis van Gaal, given the financial advantages they still enjoy over their Lancashire rivals, but this has begun to feel like one of football’s periods of flux when new paradigms are shaped.
In the seven seasons from 1967 to 1973, when Liverpool’s period of real domination began, there were seven different English league champions. The four seasons between 1990 and 1993, when the United hegemony began, brought four different champions. Unless Manchester City put together an unlikely charge, this season will bring a fourth champion in four years, something that hasn’t happened since 1993.
Sir Alex Ferguson: Knocked Liverpool off their f****** perchReuters
Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United, the four richest clubs, will probably begin next season as favourites for the title, but Tottenham, with a fine young side under a highly impressive manager, are rising. Liverpool, the fifth-richest club, will have an expanded stadium to go with their charismatic and exciting manager. West Ham, moving into the Olympic Stadium, may be in the Champions League. Everton have a wealthy new owner. And even then, the defending champions may be Leicester. The rigid stratification that seemed to have been brought out by the financial structure of the Premier League has been broken.
For Liverpool, that represents an opportunity (and for United, a risk). Thursday’s meeting and the tie as a whole will not in itself determine which club emerges pre-eminent from this period of chaos – and for neutrals it may be desirable that no club does – but it may give an indication of the directions in which Liverpool and United are headed.
Both have had seasons characterised by inconsistency and both can, legitimately, point to spates of injuries as a partial cause. Liverpool’s mass hamstring-twang of January has eased, which gives them a clear advantage. But there are other reasons for optimism on Merseyside.
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp and Daniel Sturridge during a press conferenceReuters
Most obviously, Liverpool, having been alarmingly lax for much of the season, have conceded only twice in their past six games. That’s despite fielding four different centre-back pairings in those games, which suggests that the overall structures of pressing Jurgen Klopp has instituted are beginning to take effect. Further improvement can be expected after a summer in which Klopp has reshaped the squad to his own ideas and had time to drill his players on the training ground, rather than hopping from match to match.
United, meanwhile, have fallen into a habit of playing in fits and starts. Every now and then there’ll be a burst of three or four good performances in a row and optimism will grow – and then something will go wrong. The last two weeks have been typical: a run-of-the-mill win at Shrewsbury in the FA Cup, followed by a cathartic second half against Midtjylland in which Marcus Rashford announced himself, followed by two more goals for Rashford in a gleeful victory over Arsenal, followed by a fortuitous win over Watford that just about kept belief alive, followed by a flat defeat at West Brom.
The injuries haven’t helped but sympathy for Van Gaal can only go so far: almost two seasons after taking over, United have still never hit a patch of sustained form that has made them look even close to being title-winners, while their transfer policy is bafflingly scattergun.
But there’s something deeper rooted than that. Van Gaal’s football is rooted in possession. There has perhaps been a loosening of the straitjacket recently, but fundamentally he believes that risks should be minimised: have the ball and the opposition won’t score. That’s what’s led to the endless sideways passing that has characterised his United at their most anaemic.
Manchester Uniteds Louis van GaalAFP
Combined with a rigorous pressing game, that was revolutionary in the nineties. That style of football, an evolution of the Total Football of the seventies, shaped a generation. It was the foundations he laid at Barcelona that led to Pep Guardiola’s great sides, although they played at a far higher tempo. The football of five years ago was the football of radical possession.
It turned out the best way to counter that was with even more rigorous pressing and rapid counter-attacks, as practised by Klopp’s Dortmund. As pressing has improved across the elite clubs, so the capacity to counter at pace has become more vital. Even Barcelona have modified their approach; Guardiola’s Bayern also play far more long balls than his Barca ever did. Van Gaal himself dabbled with a counter-attacking approach with Netherlands during the World Cup and briefly, at United, before reverting to his old philosophy.
That’s not to say his football will necessarily fail, but Klopp is more flexible, more modern. While Van Gaal’s is the football of the past, Klopp’s is the football of the present – and perhaps the future.