The Contrasting Rebuilding Phases of Liverpool and Manchester United
The Liverpool and Manchester United rivalry used to be the dominant feature of top-level English football. Sir Alex Ferguson managed to “knock Liverpool off the perch” in his final season in charge (the 2013/14 season), when Man Utd won their 19th top division title, one title more than Liverpool.
Since Sir Alex retired, the Premier League has turned blue, with Chelsea and Manchester City both winning the league twice and Leicester’s historic triumph in the 2014/15 season. Liverpool and Man Utd have found themselves in the long journey of rebuilding their respective clubs. Throughout the post-Fergie era, Man Utd has been rebuilt under four different managers – David Moyes, Ryan Giggs (interim manager), Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.
For Liverpool, their most recent rebuilding phase began in the 2014/15 season, after missing out on the league title in the previous season. During these four years of rebuilding, they have been under two managers – Brendan Rogers and Jurgen Klopp. Let’s break down the rebuilding processes of Liverpool and Man Utd by examining the decisions made by their respective boards and managers:
After missing out on their first-ever Premier League title in May 2014, Liverpool’s summer was further rocked by the departure of their talisman Luis Suarez. With a relatively young squad, they struggled throughout the 2014/15 season and finished sixth. While Liverpool continued to hover around mid-table, the board fired Brendan Rogers in early October and promptly appointed Jurgen Klopp as their new manager.
Klopp, at that time, was renowned not only for ending Bayern Munich’s domination in German football, but also his abilities to work with young players – e.g. Mario Gotze, Robert Lewandowski, Mats Hummels etc. He fit well into a youthful Liverpool squad, which then possessed Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Nathaniel Clyne etc. In his first season in charge, Klopp carried Liverpool to the final of Europa League and FA Cup.
In the following season, he took Liverpool back to the top four; a year later, they went all the way to the Champions League final. One could surmise that the Liverpool board, in October 2015, saw exactly how things were going to pan out with Klopp in charge: Klopp is going to get the best out of these talented youngsters and gradually bring them back on track. Liverpool are certainly getting there.
For Manchester United, David Moyes was regarded as the rightful heir to Sir Alex – both are Scots who knows the Premier League very well, and Moyes was renowned for bringing his gritty Everton side into the top six despite having limited budget.
Under Moyes, Man Utd plummeted from a title contender to a team that failed to make it to the top four. He was sacked before the season ended and the Red Devils missed out on European football for the first time in decades. In the following summer, the board appointed Louis Van Gaal – a manager who has delivered huge successes in clubs and country.
However, Van Gaal had no experience in the Premier League or in rebuilding teams. In most of the teams he managed, he only had to strengthen his squad or tweak things around to continue being successful. Under Van Gaal, Man Utd showed some improvements in terms of results, but the United board felt that the team was not progressing on the right track.
Van Gaal was sacked moments after lifting the FA Cup in May 2016. The United board then opted for Jose Mourinho – a proven manager in English football who had twice brought Chelsea glory. However, entering his third season in charge, Manchester United still show little signs of progressing, with many fans and club legends unhappy about the way United have been playing under the Portuguese. The constant changes in managerial posts highlighted how the United board still struggle to find the right direction for the club. Whether hiring a director of football would resolve this problem remains to be seen.
When Klopp took over, he inherited a balanced Liverpool squad that possessed both established players (e.g. Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana) and talented youngsters (e.g. Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho). In his first summer, he brought in Sadio Mane, Joel Matip, Steven Caulker, Georginio Wijnaldum amongst others.
Not all of them worked out, with Caulker being a notable failure. However, it is the failure that illuminates Klopp’s major strength – his problem-solving skills. When Liverpool lost to Sevilla in the 2014/15 Europa League final, Jamie Carragher furiously asked the club to sign a left-back. A year later, he brought in Andy Robertson, a defender who turned from “not good enough” to one of the best left-backs in the Premier League.
When Liverpool’s defense collapsed at the Emirates in December last season, Klopp recognized that neither Dejan Lovren nor Ragnar Klavan can be his leader at the back, and he immediately splashed the money for Virgil Van Dijk. Van Dijk has not only led the line very well, but his presence has also lifted up the performances of his defensive partners.
When Liverpool were outclassed by Real Madrid in the Champions League final, Klopp recognized that the midfield trio of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum would not win him any titles. He brought in Fabinho. Along with the previously signed Naby Keita, Liverpool’s central midfield has been massively upgraded. Klopp then put the final pieces together by tackling the long-awaited goalkeeping problem, when he cashed in for Allison Becker.
Klopp’s ability to recognize the problems within his team and provide the right remedy have been major reasons for Liverpool’s resurgence in English and European football. Additionally, Klopp’s ability to get the best out of his young players is worth highlighting. Under his tutelage, Philippe Coutinho rose to become one of Premier League’s best players, Roberto Firmino has emerged as Brazil’s main center forward, and Trent Alexander-Arnold has become Liverpool’s no.1 right back at the age of 19. While much has been said about Klopp’s attacking football philosophy, his ability to resolve problems and get the best out of his young talents are indispensable to Liverpool’s recent surge.
For Manchester United, none of their managers in the post-Fergie era has solved the problems faced by the club or got their talented players to fulfill their potential. Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho knew that they needed to strengthen the spine of the squad, but none of them were successful. In defense, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones still could not establish themselves as world-class center backs despite having been in the squad for seven years.
Marcos Rojo (signed by Van Gaal), as well as Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof (signed by Mourinho), have not lived up to the expectations for different reasons. In central midfield, the problems of finding the successor for Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick still persist. Ander Herrera, despite having a great 2016/17 season, has yet to establish himself as a regular starter.
The mouthwatering return of Paul Pogba has brought a major headache to Mourinho, who is still struggling to get the best out of the World Cup winner. Nemanja Matic’s arrival has freed up Pogba to some extent, and it remains to be seen if Fred is the ideal player to complete Mourinho’s midfield trio.
In attack, the Rooney-Van Persie partnership never got going under Moyes and Van Gaal. With Radamel Falcao failing miserably, Van Gaal turned to Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford—two very promising youngsters—to lead the line. After impressive debut seasons, things began to change when Mourinho took charge. Mourinho felt that he needed a proven center forward who can guarantee 20+ goals a season, thus he went for Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
While Zlatan scored plenty of important goals for the club, his presence significantly limited the growth of Martial and Rashford. Martial was notably upset when his number nine jersey was given to Zlatan, and since then, for whatever reason, he has never reproduced the brilliant form he showed in his early days at Old Trafford.
Likewise, to accommodate Zlatan and later Romelu Lukaku, Rashford has found himself either as a winger or on the bench often. There is no doubt that the growth of Martial and Rashford have been stunted. With Romelu Lukaku likely to be Mourinho’s main no.9 and the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, it has become more difficult for Martial and Rashford to play in their best positions and fulfill their potential.
The contrasting journey of how Liverpool and Manchester United have rebuilt themselves after going through a major transition is profound. It highlights the importance of having a visionary board, managers who can solve the problems faced by the team, and players who can deliver the results. Most importantly, the board-manager-players trinity need to be united in carrying out the rebuilding plan.
Liverpool have executed their plan fairly well, whereas Man Utd are still searching for their grand scheme after Sir Alex retired. Arsenal—another team that is rebuilding after the end of Wenger era—certainly can take some lessons from their main rivals. The appointment of Unai Emery—a manager with a clear philosophy—appears to be a good start; nonetheless, only time will tell if the leadership and Emery can carry out their plan in reviving the sleeping giant.