As the two most successful clubs in the history of English football met at Old Trafford, a Portuguese forward scored twice in 2021. It rather summed Manchester United’s fortunes that it wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo; admittedly, he was still a Juventus player when Diogo Jota scored Liverpool’s first goal in May’s 4-2 win. He was an ever more disgruntled presence when his compatriot got their second in October’s 5-0 thrashing.
In their own way, however, each was a success story of his time. Ronaldo joined United as a teenage talent with five career goals to his name. Five years later, he was rewarded for a 42-goal season with the Ballon d’Or; such progress, as his contemporary Ricardo Quaresma’s career showed, was not inevitable. Ronaldo was in the right place to realise his considerable potential.
Jota, meanwhile, will be deprived of the chance to complete a hat-trick of scoring trips to Old Trafford by injury. However, his prolific streak is such that he has been given a pay rise and an extended contract. Jurgen Klopp confessed the former Wolves winger was a better player than he realised when he signed him; to put it another way, however, Jota has improved from the time he was an inconsistent, sporadically deadly, presence for a team who finished seventh. Last week, Klopp noted that Sadio Mane did not always start for Southampton when they played Liverpool. The Senegalese ended his Anfield career touting himself for the Ballon d’Or.
They reflect trends across different generations. Footballers kick on at Anfield now. They stagnate or regress, they go forwards but then backwards at Old Trafford. It is a failure of development and of planning when it is a moot point which squad has more talent and yet Liverpool got 34 more points last season. The combination of coaching and culture, of the environment and astute recruitment means a host of players have reached a new level under Klopp. They used to do likewise under Sir Alex Ferguson. Dwight Yorke joined from an Aston Villa side who had just finished seventh and when Ferguson’s assistant Brian Kidd infamously thought they should sign John Hartson instead; he scored 29 goals in his debut year, when he was one of the outstanding players in Europe.
Mane and Mohamed Salah sustained an impact for longer than Yorke but there are similarities. United rarely recruited anyone already established as the continent’s best; instead they elevated them to that bracket. They would often buy brilliantly from the second or third tier of continental clubs – Patrice Evra from Monaco, Nemanja Vidic from Spartak Moscow, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ji-sung Park from PSV Eindhoven, Ronaldo from Sporting Lisbon – whereas since Ferguson’s retirement, they have directed more bids to bigger names at Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus. Meanwhile, Liverpool have first-rate players acquired from second-rank clubs, in Roma and Monaco and Porto.
And now Liverpool have the emblematic successes: Andy Robertson, relegated with Hull, has played in three Champions League finals in four years and ranks as one of the finest left-backs in world football, as Evra did a decade earlier. Virgil van Dijk, signed for a supersized fee but, like Ferguson success stories such as Michael Carrick, Teddy Sheringham, Rio Ferdinand and Yorke, from a club between fifth and 10th in the Premier League, one of its best centre-backs. There is a comparison with Harry Maguire – for Southampton, read Leicester, for £75 million, read £80 million – but in profile, not performance.
That inability to improve players is why United have arguably only had one unqualified success in the transfer market since Ferguson retired, in Bruno Fernandes, and even he has declined in the last year. There have been short-term triumphs, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and qualified successes, such as Ander Herrera, and players whose best spells, such as Anthony Martial, have at least been very good but who have not maintained that high level for several seasons. But perhaps only Fernandes belongs in the category of a coup, whereas the majority of Ferguson’s definitive teams did and most of many a Klopp side – Van Dijk, Robertson, Alisson, Fabinho, Salah, Mane, Jota, Roberto Firmino – have done.
One disturbing trend for United is that players have deteriorated; for several, their best form came initially, before United got to them. Romelu Lukaku, Angel di Maria, Dan James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Matteo Darmian had deceptively good beginnings. Others, like Lisandro Martinez now, like Donny van de Beek and Marouane Fellaini before, face questions about whether they can recover from false starts.
If part of the contrast between the clubs in recent years comes from United signing some players – the overpaid and over the hill, the slow or the mismatched – who would not have been found in a Klopp team, there are some members of the Old Trafford squad that have the characteristics the German likes. Marcus Rashford has been in the deepest slump of his career but – apart from his support of United and Mancunian upbringing – has the attributes of a Klopp winger. Liverpool were probably priced out of a move for Jadon Sancho but, last October, Klopp said: “Jadon Sancho is a world-class talent, definitely. He has all the things you need to become really one of the best players in the world in the future.”
Now that feels further away than ever. In a different framework, with a structure that worked and a style of play that suited them, perhaps Sancho and Rashford would appear a more dangerous pair of wingers than Salah and Diaz, especially if the latter duo had declined at Anfield. But then rewind a few years and Louis van Gaal described another young attacker United had recruited, Memphis Depay, as “the greatest talent of his age”. Depay scored seven goals for United. Sancho has five. Maybe Erik ten Hag will enable the Englishman to realise his potential. Maybe he will remain an emblem of the current United, sometimes showing his ability, sometimes not, while players elsewhere progress exponentially and those at Old Trafford look for still more signings as a solution instead. Because if one of United’s greatest problems in the last nine years has been their record in the transfer market, another has been that so few players get better at Old Trafford and so many have got worse. And as long as that is the case, they will remain mired in malaise.