Liverpool go to Manchester United on Sunday top of the table, nearly eight months since they last dropped a league point, and knowing that another victory could leave United as low as 17th by the end of the weekend. Based on performances this season it is hard to see how this United team can hurt Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, but perhaps the worst thing about the failure they are experiencing is that I believe they have no choice but to just live with it, for now at least.
By the end of his time in Manchester José Mourinho was making everybody miserable – his players, anyone forced to regularly watch them, and even himself. United were pretty much unbearable before he was sacked last December. But though the Portuguese is not widely associated with free-flowing football there is one thing he guarantees: trophies. In sacking him United effectively announced that some things – particularly a commitment to youth and attacking football – were more important to them than trophies.
Ten months later they have a manager who puts his faith in youth and has certainly made the team less boring, but who doesn’t look at all likely to be parading silverware any time soon. In football, you always have to be careful what you wish for: you can’t abandon the single-minded pursuit of success only to change tack again a few months later because the alternative isn’t successful enough. Some might think that sacking Ole Gunnar Solskjær would help United to move forward, but it wouldn’t be real movement, just a series of kneejerk reactions.
If United now regret their decision to appoint Solskjær, before they move to replace him they must examine why they went for him in the first place, find the faults in their methodology and try to deal with them. There is no point in leaping into another rash decision before they have corrected the issues that led to all the other rash decisions they took on their way to this point, and that led to them now considering another one.
Mourinho is criticised for being a three-year manager, but that is probably about the right lifespan for most coaches at top teams. Before any appointment is made those responsible have to know what they want the team to achieve over the following few years, and they must believe that their appointment is the right one to achieve those goals.
When United first turned to Solskjær it was as a short-term fix who would be immediately welcomed by the fans, and he seemed to be a good choice for those limited ambitions. But even though he was initially successful, when they made his appointment permanent it was hard to see what they thought he could really be expected to achieve.
When Liverpool appointed Klopp, on the other hand, his record and his personality made it reasonable to expect that he might win them a league title or a Champions League within a few years. What exactly did Solskjær promise? If he had delivered more than a few more months of overachievement they would have been very lucky – and often their player recruitment has been just as shortsighted.
Researching a possible future career as a director of football in the last few months I have spoken to a variety of people who hold that position, and a lot of them say that one of the key things to building a team is being able to look three or four years in advance, both in player and managerial recruitment. It is their job to anticipate problems and have solutions prepared. What are the manager’s weaknesses and how can they be addressed? What issues are there with the make-up of the squad, and which players could be brought in to deal with them? Increasingly it looks like none of that analysis was done before United appointed Solskjær. They found themselves on a great run of form, didn’t have any better answers and took an easy nostalgic solution.
And so here they are, approaching a home game against Liverpool, one of their great historic rivals, marooned in mid-table and seemingly with little hope of winning. Even through United’s post-Ferguson slump Liverpool have struggled at Old Trafford – they have only won once in the last decade, and even that was long enough ago that Luis Suárez was on the scoresheet. But at the moment this Liverpool side know only two ways of performing: either they play exceptionally well and blast teams away or they struggle but somehow grind out a win. Either way, they keep winning.
When you compare the squads United don’t so much suffer from a lack of quality – there are some excellent players there, even if Liverpool have much greater depth – as a lack of leadership. Klopp has leaders in every line: Virgil van Dijk in defence, James Milner and Jordan Henderson in midfield, and an attack that offers consistency and quality. And, of course, the manager has the full confidence of the club. United somehow, as a team, seem to lack character.
Liverpool look certain to challenge for trophies again, but before the Champions League triumph in May they had won a single League Cup in 13 years, and it is 30 years since they last won the league. They have had to wait a long time for this, but that’s football. United are still coming to terms with the departure of literally the greatest manager of all time, and though they might find a solution sooner perhaps it will take another 15 or 20 years before they are English champions again. It will not cheer them up much but for the neutral there is beauty in the long-term unpredictability of football, in the cycles of success and failure.
Just like Liverpool, United will never get used to not winning, and their history will continue to fuel their ambition. But nostalgia is not always healthy, and if you spend too long looking to the past you risk losing control of your future. All that matters for United now is the present, the young manager in their dugout trying to rebuild, and the task of working out – better late than never – what needs to happen next.