Are Manchester United the old Liverpool of the 1990s?
The biggest fear inside Old Trafford is that United may be in danger of being what they have mocked, ridiculed and taunted for the last 30 years
Last Updated: 20/10/19 3:31pm
The past, present and future will be colliding when the two behemoths of the north-west, arguably the football capital of England, clash on Super Sunday.
Liverpool's present is crystal clear: eight points clear at the top of the Premier League and the reigning champions of Europe, they are in their pomp - a position they haven't occupied for 30 years.
The contrast with Manchester United is stark. Their present circumstance is an all-time low in the Premier League era. But what will worry the United support the most isn't perhaps the present. It's the future. How long will the slump last?
The biggest fear inside Old Trafford is that Manchester United may be in danger of enduring what they have mocked, ridiculed and taunted for the last 30 years.
Simply put, are Manchester United in danger of becoming the old Liverpool of the 1990s?
Ahead of Manchester United vs Liverpool on Super Sunday, live on Sky Sports Premier League from 3pm, we look at the similarities between the United of today and the Liverpool of the 90s, and what they can learn…
Fergie leaves. What next?
Wednesday May 8, 2013. Amid the tributes, the timelines, the top 10s, the trophy haul graphics, the re-runs of '99 and the picture specials, there's intrigue among Manchester United fans. What happens next?
Sir Alex Ferguson has announced his retirement, shortly after securing United's 20th league title, his 13th in a period of dominance spanning two decades.
Some felt a fresh start. David Moyes was the successor, approved by Ferguson. Others saw an ageing team, winning one of the least competitive Premier League divisions in years.
Of course, it would take time for United to adjust. A year for sure, two years maybe, five years max. But six years and five months on, United are struggling. Their lowest ebb? No, there have been plenty to rival this moment for the four managers since Ferguson.
On Sunday they face a Liverpool side who have won 17 Premier League games in a row, with a European Cup wedged in the middle. It's painful, but the more United remember Liverpool's struggles throughout the nineties and noughties, the more parallels they can draw with the post-Fergie era.
In 1991, the English champions replaced a legendary Scot in Kenny Dalglish with a manager cut from the same cloth in Graeme Souness. Like Paul Scholes, Alan Hansen retired. They replaced established names with expensive names. The Bootroom, the fulcrum of Liverpool's success, was eventually demolished to make way for a press room.
Rivals improved. Training changed. Players changed. Football changed.
And having won 11 league titles in 18 years, the 1990 triumph was to be their last for a while. They're still waiting, but it feels more like a matter of 'when' than 'if'.
The plan was accepted: continue the dynasty by bringing in a younger Scot in the same mould. Moyes for Fergie, Souness for Dalglish.
"For two decades, Liverpool changed managers without building their own identity," said Ferguson in 2016.
Identity comes from the top down, but that 'top' doesn't necessarily have to be the manager. In fact, it doesn't have to be any one individual. As Sky Sports' Adam Bate wrote last week, culture creation at a club is essential, but the continuation of it should not depend on the boss. But the pull of freshening up and stamping your mark heading into a new era is an attractive one.
"I thought I would go in there and change it," Souness said on Monday Night Football last October. "I made many mistakes and my biggest crime was trying to make the changes too quickly."
Souness took over at Anfield in April 1991, and though a title race continued, two defeats in three days against Chelsea and Nottingham Forest meant Liverpool fell short to Arsenal.
"I was at Liverpool in 1991 and if I didn't think we would win another league title, you would have had to put me in a straitjacket," Jamie Redknapp, who signed from Bournemouth that year, recently said.
The FA Cup victory in 1992 was Souness' only trophy; a run of four wins in 16 matches ended in a sixth-place finish. It was unprecedented. Liverpool had finished outside of the top two just once in the previous 19 seasons.
But the rot had set in: It was sixth again in 1993, while Fergie was lifting his first Premier League trophy, and Souness was gone by January 1994.
"There are things that happened there when I was manager which I deeply regret," Souness added on MNF. "But I can't turn back the clock. How I wish I could, but I can't, and that hurts me badly."
Liverpool in the 1990s post-Dalglish
Liverpool then went back to the Bootroom in Roy Evans. He led them to a League Cup and through the Spice Boys era, well remembered for its glamorous anecdotes but pickled in unrealised potential. Front page stories don't win you league titles.
And by the time Gerard Houllier took sole charge following a brief experiment as co-manager with Evans, Liverpool weren't considered challengers.
Up until Klopp's appointment in 2015, Liverpool, like United, tried it all. Houllier brought new European methods - who knew steak and chips weren't a suitable pre-match meal? - and a few trophies. Rafa Benitez brought the same, plus that night in Istanbul and a strong title challenge, but Roy Hodgson lasted six months, the return of King Kenny brought as many defeats as wins, and Brendan Rodgers struggled to recover after falling inches short in 2014. Identity was only ever formed in spurts.
The worry inside and outside of Old Trafford is that, 30 years and 30 miles away, a similar story may be developed at Manchester United.
The post-Fergie formula
Moyes was the 'Chosen One' to bring a fresh feel to Old Trafford in 2013, but that Stretford End banner had barely weathered by the time it came down 11 months and 15 defeats later.
Man Utd since Sir Alex Ferguson left
|2015/16||Van Gaal||5th||FA Cup|
|2016/17||Mourinho||6th||League Cup, Europa League|
It was time for experience.
Louis van Gaal was the man to bring order back to Old Trafford in 2014, but as he lifted his first trophy, the FA Cup in 2016, United had already lined up his replacement. A fourth- and fifth-place finish, paired with a poor return to Europe in 2015/16, spelled the end.
It was time for Jose.
Mourinho was the man to bring trophies back to Old Trafford in 2016, and he did in his first season, claiming the League Cup and Europa League, meaning a sixth-place finish was excused. He was eventually dismissed last December, via a second-place finish to Manchester City and criticism for a pragmatic style of play.
It was time for a familiar face.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the man to bring the 90s back to Old Trafford this year, and though he is repeatedly referencing culture-building, the talk of progression needs the walk of results.
The two clubs' chronologies have strong parallels; two immediate dips in form, a slight reprieve and some trophies, before another drop. But rivals have gotten stronger. The Leeds, Blackburns, Uniteds and Arsenals of the 90s are the Liverpools, Tottenhams, Chelseas and Manchester Citys of today.
Out with the old, in with the new
In the years after Dalglish, Liverpool replaced established players with young potential.
Out went Hansen, Steve McMahon, Bruce Grobbelaar, Ronnie Whelan, Steve Nicol and Ian Rush. In came Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp, Robbie Fowler, Phil Babb and Jason McAteer.
There was talent, but there were expensive flops, too. Dean Saunders, Paul Stewart, Nigel Clough, Julian Dicks, Babb and John Scales all failed to live up to their price tag at Anfield.
Liverpool's expensive flops post-Dalglish
Liverpool's key departures post-Dalglish
|Steve McMahon||1991/92||Man City|
|Steve Staunton||1991/92||Aston Villa|
|Ray Houghton||1992/93||Aston Villa|
And United? In the years after Ferguson, United have replaced established players with young potential. Or, if not, players with hefty prices.
The spending traits of Fergie - hefty yet considered - were buried by 2014. There were more misses than hits.
Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind, Radamel Falcao, Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Anthony Martial, Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, and Fred. It's hard to say many of these players lived up to their price tag and wages. Solskjaer's three summer signings - Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire - have looked promising, but time will tell.
Beyond the personnel, things changed on the training ground for both clubs after the departures of Dalglish and Fergie.
Souness later acknowledged he tried to change too much about training and coaching, got rid of the Bootroom and brought tactics from abroad.
He said on MNF: "The one thing I learnt going to Italy was there's no real change in how the game should be played, but how players look after themselves. I was one of the chaps when it came to enjoying myself, and I tried to change that, and it was very easy when I went to Rangers to change that because that was a team that hadn't won the league in nine years.
"I was saying 'this is what we are going to do and this is what we will do after the game'. At Rangers they bought into it because they were young boys, so then when I go to Liverpool and say 'I don't want to see fish and chips after the game' and 'I don't want to see lager under the seats on the bus for the way back', the response you would get would be 'we have always done that'. It was very hard for me to argue that because I had been part of that culture."
Though football ultimately did change in the way Souness had predicted, it was the likes of Arsene Wenger and Houllier who caught the shift at the right time. Had Souness been successful in changing that culture, Liverpool may have succeeded sooner. The culture was still there long after he left.
"When we came through there was still a drinking culture Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday, every club was doing it," said Gary Neville in the summer. "We stopped, we didn't do it, and we won four out of our first five league titles purely based on fitness because the rest of the clubs were still drinking. Think of Liverpool and the Spice Boys, they didn't get that nickname for nothing. They were still going out and drinking. We weren't."
Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho were similarly meticulous and intense in their training sessions, whereas Fergie delegated sessions to assistants. When Mourinho's famed assistant Rui Faria left United in 2018, it ultimately spelled the beginning of the end.
The question of 'identity'
What can United learn from Liverpool?
It's easy to say patience. It's easy to say keep spending until you get it right. It's harder to say 'build an identity'.
The truth is that identity, culture, structure, whatever you want to call it, are hard to get on board with because they are so hard to see. There is no 'culture' column next to win, drawn, lost and points. There is no 'identity' column next to net spend. There must be an element of trust.
Many forget Klopp's early struggles at Liverpool; he picked up just 23 points from his first 17 games, losing against Palace, Newcastle, Watford, West Ham, Leicester and United. Through the challenges - the fan expectation in particular - Klopp routinely said he was building something.
He wasn't the only believer.
"You can see Jurgen Klopp's dedication on the sideline, I'm convinced his work in training is similar," Ferguson added in 2016. "He's a strong personality. That's absolutely vital at a big club. I'm worried about him because the one thing United don't want is Liverpool to get above us."
His concern was warranted. Bear in mind, Ferguson was talking in October 2016, months after Klopp had finished eighth in the Premier League, lost a League Cup and Europa League final, and the German was being branded a nearly-man.
Klopp's first Liverpool line-up vs Spurs, October 2015
Mignolet, Clyne, Skrtel, Sakho, Moreno, Lucas, Can, Milner, Lallana, Coutinho, Origi
Subs: Bogdan, K Toure, Allen, Ibe, Sinclair, Teixeira, Randall
So, are United the new Liverpool? Not yet. 18 months after Fergie's warning, Liverpool were in a Champions League final. They're now flying, eight points clear after eight games, and but for a freakishly good Manchester City last term, they'd already have a Premier League title.
It's possible, if Solskjaer and United get it right, that United could become the new 'new Liverpool' - just have a look at the squad Klopp inherited at Anfield. But the immediate fear is of becoming the team they had mocked for so long. In that search for identity, United are at a crossroads.