Manchester United may be enjoying a much-improved season but their Anfield humbling by Liverpool proved they are still some way off their bitter rivals, on and off the field.
“It is obviously not a team built for the next 20 years because the players they signed are for now, but for now it is really good.”
When Jurgen Klopp uttered such words on Friday morning at his pre-match press conference ahead of Liverpool welcoming Manchester United to Anfield, he was probably not anticipating his Reds to thrash the Red Devils 7-0 less than 57 hours later.
“Go through the team. How could they not be good?” the German told reporters. “They don’t have one player where you think, ‘Woah, what is he doing there?’”
Listing a number of United individuals, Klopp would go on to say: “They are really experienced, they have quality, and a good way of playing. A new way to defend. It is a good team, how they could not be successful?”
Yet perhaps on Sunday evening, as Liverpool put six goals past a shell-shocked United, in the space of 41 second-half minutes alone at Anfield, the Reds manager could have been forgiven if he had changed his mind. He wouldn’t have been alone in thinking, ‘woah, what is he doing there?’, at times when watching the Red Devils’ pathetic performance if so!
Just 11 months earlier, when United were dismantled 4-0 on their previous visit to Anfield, then-caretaker manager Ralf Rangnick infamously declared that the Red Devils were six years behind Liverpool and it would take up to 10 new signings to turn them around. Erik ten Hag would dispute such a statement following his appointment, with supporters taking great glee in the Dutchman swiftly making a mockery of such claims at Old Trafford.
But while United sit third, and are clearly enjoying a far better season than the Reds, Liverpool’s 90-minute annihilation of the Red Devils silenced all their fanciful talk of being in a Premier League title race and even potentially winning a quadruple.
Besides, scratch beneath the surface and Rangnick wasn’t wrong. While Ten Hag didn’t bring in 10 new signings, he wasn’t far off.
United spent a combined £228.5m when bringing in Tyrell Malacia (£14.7m), Lisandro Martinez (£57.5m), Casemiro (£70m), and Antony (£86.3m) in the summer, along with the acquisition of Christian Eriksen on a free transfer.
Meanwhile, such signings were complemented by the loan arrivals of Wout Weghorst and Marcel Sabitzer in January, while Jack Butland was also brought in on loan after Martin Dubravka’s own temporary deal was cut short. So that’s nine new additions to the United squad, though admittedly eight with the goalkeepers cancelling each other out, which is still a number Rangnick suggested 11 months ago.
Yet, as Klopp warned, it still isn’t a team built for 20 years. From those eight new arrivals, Eriksen and Casemiro have made the biggest impact but both are aged 31. World Cup winner Martinez has done well enough and at 25 will get better, but was still terrored by Mohamed Salah and Co at Anfield.
Malacia and Antony, both aged 23, are yet to really make their mark though, granted, time is on their side. But the Brazilian was shocking in the 7-0 thrashing and, if he doesn’t step up, will be written off as an ill-judged expensive purchase.
From the loanees, Weghorst is 30 and unlikely to join permanently from Burnley with the Dutchman only ever a short-term answer in attack. Another criticised after the Anfield humiliation, he is not ‘United quality’.
Meanwhile, Sabitzer will turn 29 later this month. On loan from Bayern Munich, there has been a suggestion United could open talks to sign him permanently but he was only ever a reactionary replacement for the injured Eriksen and is, again, hardly a long-term addition. Butland is nothing more than a back-up goalkeeper who boosts the homegrown quota.
As a result, United have not built a side for the future. Significant investment and numerous news arrivals will continue to be required if they continue to think only short-term. It might be a new era at Old Trafford, but it would seem they haven’t learned from previous failings.
Manchester United chief executive Richard Arnold was filmed slaughtering the club’s transfer approach last summer, as he bemoaned how the Red Devils had “f*****g burned through cash.”
“We spent a billion pounds on players. We have spent more than anyone in Europe,” he said. “I’m not thrilled where we are. It doesn’t sit easy with me and I worry how we get this sorted for the future. What’s happened is we have f*****g burned through cash.
“You can’t go to our training ground and say, ‘show me where the £1billion is’, because we haven’t spent money well historically. I’m not here to defend [chairman] Joel [Glazer]. He must speak for himself.
“But you have taken the time to come here and make your views known – and I respect that. We’ve blown through an enormous amount of money.”
You could argue, despite the improved performances this season, they are still burning through cash. While a takeover could offer them a potential bottomless well of riches, it still isn’t sustainable at this current time.
Liverpool owner John W. Henry would allude to such rivals’ business when talking about the Reds’ own transfer model in an exclusive interview with the ECHO earlier this week.
“Our efforts every day have been and continue to be focused on the long-term health and competitiveness of the club,” the American said. “Investment in the club is never for the short-term. This approach has been successful over the long haul with patience necessary from time to time.
“We continue building at Liverpool Football Club in a responsible manner. We’ve seen many football clubs (including LFC previously) go down unsustainable paths. We have and will continue to focus our attention on investing wisely in the transfer market and we remain incredibly proud of our squad.”
Quite clearly, Liverpool operate very differently to Manchester United and will continue to do so. Such an approach might frustrate transfer-hungry fans, but it’s at least responsible.
Last summer, Anfield sources would defend the Reds’ transfer policy after it became clear that they would not be signing a new midfielder, with plans for a revamp instead put on until 2023 after their attacking overhaul was complete. Whether critics agree with it or not, Liverpool still have a clear long-term strategy in place.
Ultimately, its success is dictated by results and the Reds’ failings this season have admittedly exposed weaknesses in such a plan. But now enjoying the fruits of their attacking overhaul, most notably in last weekend’s 7-0 thrashing of United, the evidence would suggest Klopp’s men can turn one step backwards this year into two steps forward next year. Rightly or wrongly, there is a method in the madness.
In contrast, United have tried to build Rome in a day. A few good months and their dressing room was talking about the possibility of winning the Premier League and a quadruple this year. Liverpool have brought the day-dreamers crashing back down to earth.
The Reds’ controlled transfer plan under FSG might not be the most popular with supporters, but it has delivered them every major honour going since 2018. With that side at the end of its cycle, there is hope that the next generation can be just as, if not more, successful with the foundations for this next squad already in place, even if a little more building work is still required.
But by signing the likes of Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo, both aged 23 and both players who had previously looked set to join United before Liverpool intervened, the Reds are constructing a side for the next decade. No wonder they are so keen to build their midfield around Jude Bellingham, while the aforementioned pair will inevitably have no regrets about ending up on Merseyside rather than Manchester.
Compare that to United’s own ‘throw money at it’ approach and while the likes of Casemiro and Eriksen might have papered over the cracks, the same old frailties were there for all to see at Anfield on Sunday. They might have won the League Cup to end a six-year trophy drought and are enjoying their most successful campaign in years, but you can’t turn yourself into genuine contenders overnight.
Liverpool have ripped off the plaster to expose the gaping wounds underneath at Old Trafford, as their same old problems lie in wait for them around the corner. Managed in such a short-term way, they are just running from the inevitable.
Last season, when the Reds’ thrashed the Red Devils 4-0 at Anfield, while competing for an unprecedented quadruple of their own, they unveiled a memorable banner – ‘Imagine being us’.
Just under a year later and while they are not reaching the same heights, Liverpool can at least take solace in the fact that they are still a better-run club than Manchester United. Imagine being them.