If you were to chart Manchester United’s post-Sir Alex Ferguson malaise against Liverpool’s long and hard fall off their perch from dominance during the 1970s and 1980s, Old Trafford finds itself at the same point as Anfield did in 2001.
That year, Liverpool were — like United today — 11 years without a league title. They were still the best part of two decades away from being crowned champions of English football again. As both clubs know from different points in their histories, it can be a long way back to the top.
But 2001 was also a year when signs of recovery began to emerge at Anfield. Gerard Houllier’s young, talented side won the FA Cup, the League Cup and the UEFA Cup — their own unique, if inferior, treble — and through a third-place finish, returned to playing in Europe’s top-tier competition for the first time in 16 years.
OK, so the parallels with today’s United are not all that strong. Erik ten Hag’s side will be lucky to come away with the FA Cup, the only trophy they can still win. Qualifying for the Champions League looks a long way off, let alone a nosebleed-inducing third-place finish.
Yet for the last 60 years or so, the fates of English football’s two greatest rivals have been broadly intertwined. And should the tectonic plates separating them shift again over the coming years, then perhaps Friday morning’s news could be remembered as the first rumble on the Richter scale.
Jurgen Klopp’s departure from Liverpool at the end of the season will have corks popping in boardrooms up and down the Premier League but surely the most excitable celebrations of all will be in Manchester.
There will be delight at the Etihad to see the back of Pep Guardiola’s most formidable rival. But the sense of relief should be felt even more keenly at Old Trafford and not simply because of the greater depth of United and Liverpool’s rivalry, either.
For starters, they might start consistently beating them again. United have only defeated Liverpool four times in the eight and a half years Klopp has been in charge, with their only Anfield win coming in 2016, their first encounter with his team. On the other side of the ledger are seven defeats, some of the most chastening coming recently. The aggregate score over the last six meetings is 21-4 to Liverpool.
The trophy cabinets over the same period tell their own story. Since Klopp’s arrival, United have an FA Cup, a Europa League and two League Cups to their name. Some might argue that is a respectable enough haul but it is dwarfed by Liverpool winning every major honour possible.
However, Klopp’s exit throws this steady, sustained era of success at Anfield into serious doubt and will have some of their fellow pretenders to City’s throne believing they can take advantage and scramble to the front of the chasing pack.
Can United feel confident of capitalising on any regression at Anfield? Some at Old Trafford will ask, “Why not?” Despite the sense of there being a chasm between the two clubs in recent years, United have finished above a below-par Liverpool twice in the last three seasons.
United are going through a turbulent period of transition, with far more questions than answers over what the future holds, but while those questions are answered, the weakening of a rival could at least offer more breathing space than expected. It might allow new investor INEOS more latitude to get the necessary decisions right.
Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Sir Dave Brailsford and the rest of United’s new minority owners will be licking their lips at the news, which sees one of United’s great rivals diminished in a week when United struck a blow to another.
Klopp is a fundamentally greater loss to Liverpool than United’s incoming chief executive Omar Berrada could ever be to City, by several orders of magnitude. But the title holders and the league leaders are at least a little weaker than they were seven days ago. For United, that can only be a good thing.
Yet, crucially, what might be a mortal wound to some clubs can be but a scratch to others. Berrada’s resignation and defection to United was met with disappointment but also a calm composure at City, who are confident they have the structure in place to carry on with business as usual until he is replaced.
And following Klopp’s announcement, it is not hard to imagine officials at Anfield consoling themselves with the same logic espoused at the Etihad.
If anything, Liverpool’s internal structure and organisation have been even more impressive than City’s during their duopoly at the top of the Premier League. Through intelligent recruitment on and off the pitch, often without the same level of spending, they have successfully and consistently challenged for trophies.
Replacing Klopp will be that structure’s greatest challenge of all. Given not only his success but his connection with the supporters and his place in the club’s history, it is arguably as great a task as replacing Ferguson was for United.
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United, meanwhile, have still not managed to successfully and convincingly replace their own managerial great more than a decade on. And, based on each club’s recent track records, despite an 11-year head start, many would also expect Liverpool to land on the right succession plan before United do.
During the Klopp era, and arguably just before it too, Liverpool have been run in a broadly intelligent, responsible and successful way by owners Fenway Sports Group that has been the antithesis to United’s years of waste under the Glazers.
If anything, any new uncertainty at Anfield should only give Ratcliffe and INEOS even greater impetus to press ahead with their internal reforms and use this opportunity to reshape United in the mould of a modern-day club, one that allows modern-day managers like Klopp to succeed.
Klopp’s departure from Liverpool may or may not open the door to a shift in the balance of power between English football’s great rivals. And even if it does, it will be up to United to prove they can walk through it.
(Top photo: David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)