SPORTS science and statistics, heat maps and heart monitors, video-assisted referees and goal-line technology. The more football is mapped out and measured up, the more some will say its very soul is being chipped away that little bit more.
The Premier League as a product pushed to millions worldwide, and aggressive global marketing from the clubs, has also changed the dynamic of what we once knew. No longer are heaving terraces behind the goal filled by workers fresh from shifts on the docks or a stint on the railways.
The game has been gentrified, admission prices have sky-rocketed in comparison to inflation, and the make-up of crowds at top-level games in England has shifted forever. Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The hard work continues at Melwood pic.twitter.com/w0jdjimkOy
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) October 16, 2019
Manchester United may sit 12th in the Premier League after their worst start to a season in 30 years. The club may have a complex contradiction of the biggest wage bill in English football history and a manager that is second favourite for the sack. Bookies are even making Liverpool odds-on to go to Old Trafford on Sunday and claim victory.
But while The Reds boast a perfect eight out of eight in the Premier League, and already an eight-point lead at the top of the table, such certainty around a fixture that has so often left Liverpool dealing with doom on the final whistle will trouble the traditional among the supporters’ core. As they will freely admit, following Liverpool into the lair of Manchester United hasn’t been fruitful often enough to fully embrace the certainty of the data-driven bravado.
Challenge your romantic memory with the historic facts. Remember that 3-0 win there under Brendan Rodgers? When Liverpool walked the walk and United had no answer? When it could and should have been an even more convincing victory for The Reds? That was five years ago.
What about when Liverpool scored four there? When Fernando Torres reminded the Mancs of how many European Cups the Reds had won and even Andrea Dossena got in on the act. Remember that? That was 10 years ago.
The truth is, wins – and especially convincing ones for Liverpool – have been thin on that particular ground.
In fact, Liverpool have won there twice in a decade. Before that, it was the trio of Danny Murphy-inspired 1-0 victories under Gerard Houllier in 2000, 2002 and 2004. And before that it’s a double from John Barnes in a 2-1 win in March 1990. Going back further to take in every game played between the sides on Manchester soil, the win rate for The Reds comes in at about 18 per cent of matches played – only 17 victories from 95 contests.
More injury problems for Man Utd ahead of Liverpool as David de Gea limps off for Spain with a muscle injury. Kepa comes on. De Gea has been outstanding tonight. Jurgen Klopp will be smiling in Merseyside right now…
— Uche Amako (@UcheAmako) October 15, 2019
Why? The facts and figures that play a part in the build-up to any game obviously play a part. Form, quality – collectively and individually, tactics, management and more. All factors. The mapping and the measurement paint some of the picture. But there’s plenty in this fixture that you can’t measure. Fans, players, managers – they all know that this one matters. And it often shows – on both sides.
As the build-up story will tell, it’s tribal, it’s historic and it’s emotional. There is a deeply ingrained one-upmanship at play. Liverpool and Manchester are both proud northern cities, churning out talented, cocksure individuals that aren’t shy of shouting about their worth. And central to so many of those individuals’ make up is their pride in their football team.
Once upon a time Liverpool were winning everything and Manchester United fans had to endure it. And one of the few ways they could get up our noses was turning it on at Old Trafford – in the stands and on the pitch. Before Alex Ferguson started to win leagues like clockwork for United, the Mancs not only trailed Liverpool by 18 to seven in terms of titles, they trailed Arsenal and Everton too. They were even relegated in 1974.
Now, the tables have long since been turned. They are out in front on 20 titles. And we’re still waiting that long wait for number 19.
Manchester United endured their own long wait – the barren spell of 26 years between 1968 and 1993. With so many parallels, and with histories that are so closely entwined with each other, the hope, the dream, the prayer for Liverpool fans now is that United are entering their very own version of the Graeme Souness era.
For us, many mark Kenny Dalglish’s resignation in 1991 as the moment when Liverpool’s light began to dim; when the cycle of success began juddering to a halt.
A glance at Manchester United’s performances since Alex Ferguson’s 27-year, 1,500-game, reign ended suggests his departure in 2013 could be their bulldozing of The Boot Room philosophies moment. An FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League victory have followed in the six seasons since but already United are on managerial appointment number four since Fergie hung up his stopwatch.
And their Premier League finishes since his departure read seventh, fourth, fifth, sixth, second and sixth. Further, they have never been closer than 15 points behind the title winners at the end of the season in that period (that was in 15-16, when Leicester City won it).
Last season, they were a hefty 32 points off the pace. Twice more in the post-Ferguson era, they have been 20-plus points off the pace. It’s not the Manchester United we once knew. But it is still Manchester United and still Old Trafford.
Last season, most people glanced at the form guide, looked up and down the respective squads, and concluded that Liverpool would go there and win well. It finished 0-0. The Reds’ 30th draw there. The home crowd that day was bang up for it. It was surely the loudest that place had been in a long time. Liverpool were off their level. And despite United being patched up with walking wounded on the pitch, they still took a point.
It should serve as a lesson. Jurgen Klopp will know his side need to play the team and not the occasion. It’s easier said than done though, as history proves. Should the boss claim his first win there, it will be a huge boost – another improvement on last season’s results after the home win against Leicester City bettered the home draw against the Foxes last season.
If it becomes nine out of nine in the Premier League, the pressure will continue to crank up on Manchester City, too. It will also be a rare moment to savour: victory at Old Trafford. A moment to enjoy. To flick the Vs, wave at the opposition and crow about being the best. There are no stats for that, no way of measuring that joy. But anyone who’s felt it will tell you it’s among the best of football feelings.
We’ve waited too long for it. Just win, Liverpool. Just win.