In 1996 Manchester United and Liverpool met at Wembley Stadium for the final of the FA Cup. Prior to this fixture, Manchester United had sealed their third league title in four years. Liverpool, conversely, had not won a league title since 1990. Though the 1996 final was forgettable for most, with Manchester United sealing victory in the 85th minute with an Eric Cantona volley, the game would mark a period of dominance as Liverpool’s Premier League lacuna would become firmly entrenched. This season, however, Liverpool’s drought looks likely to end.
The two rivals met at Anfield with Liverpool, sitting 16 points clear of second and 30 points above Manchester United, representing everything that United were previously once hailed for; a finely tuned squad and a manager with tactical savoir-faire.
Throughout the match, United looked toothless as chances were missed by Andreas Pereira, bewilderingly playing as United’s number ten, and by Anthony Martial in the second half who succumbed to the pressure of Virgil van Dijk. The Red Devil’s blushes were saved on two occasions as VAR ruled out Roberto Firmino’s goal for Van Dijk’s foul on De Gea, and the second as Gigi Wijnaldum was caught offside.
Liverpool’s first goal came from van Dijk in the 14th minute as he easily out-muscled Harry Maguire to nod the ball in from a corner. Their second goal came in stoppage time from a counter-attack orchestrated by Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson, who pinged the ball up to an unmarked Mo Salah, who calmly slotted it underneath De Gea. Liverpool’s title charge appears to be unstoppable as they now have 21 wins from their first 22 matches of the season.
A lot can happen over three decades and United’s history does not ipso facto guarantee modern successes. However, what is the cause of United’s mediocrity? It is clear that their defeat by Liverpool is not an anomaly but a symptom of problems that are more systemic. For instance, other symptoms include the injuries to Marcus Rashford, who suffered a double stress fracture in his back (likely a result of Rashford carrying the team on his shoulders) which also lead to the medical team discovering that Rashford also had a piece of floating bone in his ankle. Even Basil Fawlty would blush at such a calamitous state of affairs.
So, what have United done to re-wire their performances on the pitch? Very little. In January they hired Neil Ashton—a reporter whose previous experience includes The Sun and Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement—as PR adviser to the club. Such a move signals United’s intent to sustain their brand whilst neglecting their footballing performances, suggesting that the club are treating the symptoms of their failure rather than the cause. For instance, Gary Neville has recently attacked the club for their logistic failures, stating on his podcast: ‘they [United] have made some terrible investments in terms of recruitment’ and ‘it’s all coming home to roost. This is going to get bad. The next six months are going to be really difficult.’
Solskjær responded, stating: ‘For me we lost to Liverpool, a team that you all say are fantastic, and we’ve been in the game until the last kick.’ The club’s hierarchy appear content with the Ole Gunnar Solskjær experiment and using the Norwegian as a puppet to absorb the criticism. It is an experiment, nonetheless, overseen by a power structure in a state of apoplexy, driven by app downloads and Facebook likes.
The moment that best captured the confused atmosphere at United was the post-match analysis on Sky Sports. Solskjær acolyte Roy Keane, in a surreal discussion with Jamie Carragher, could not remember how long Solskjær had been in the job for. ‘Find out how long Ole’s been in the job’, Keane demanded, with the lilt of a man who longs for Manchester United’s salad days.