Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is reluctant to acknowledge it, but there is a story that he was a boyhood Liverpool fan. So, apparently, was his predecessor as Manchester United manager. “I never confirm it,” said Jose Mourinho when once asked about his allegiances.
But such allegiances can be a by-product of success. Both grew up in an era when Liverpool were a byword for glory and when United’s honours were altogether rarer.
If historic rivals’ identities were reversed in the early 1990s, they have swapped back again of late. The mythical perch Sir Alex Ferguson claimed to have knocked Liverpool off? United lost their balance and tumbled off it years ago. Jurgen Klopp has one foot on it.
When Borussia Dortmund manager, he was reportedly told that Old Trafford was “like an adult version of Disneyland.”
It formed part of a unique pitch from Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice-chairman, to replace David Moyes. His persuasive powers were not quite what he thought and Klopp pitched up at Anfield some 18 months later.
Woodward’s theme may need to change now. Solskjaer, equipped with memories of United from his playing days, still saw Old Trafford as a magical place. Those who witness the mundanity and mediocrity the modern United often exhibit may not.
These days, Anfield has the late deciders and the winning habit, the sense of endless possibility and the players who touch new heights in the right environment.
Meanwhile, Paul Pogba wants to leave Woodward’s Disneyland. So did Romelu Lukaku. Alexis Sanchez found it made him unhappy. United and Mourinho made each other miserable.
Perhaps Liverpool eased his pain, finishing him off in a blitz of 36 shots. A 3-1 defeat on their last visit to Anfield flattered United. Mourinho was sacked within 48 hours. His legacy, in part, was to leave United far behind both Manchester City and Liverpool.
By the end of New Year’s Day, United had dropped more points, and failed to score in more games, more often in 2020 than Liverpool have all season.
United have taken 100 points since the start of last season. Liverpool got 97 in the 2018-19 campaign alone, before mustering the best start ever to any of the top five European leagues.
The almost freakish nature of Liverpool’s sustained winning run exacerbates United’s issues but while enemies are not always opposites, they may be now.
One is at a historic high, the other at a low ebb. There are 27 points between them. Factor in a game in hand and a Liverpool victory today would in effect make it 33.
Carry on at the current rate and the gap will be bigger, even adjusting the table to afford three points per win, than it was in 1974 when United were relegated.
United can console themselves with the thought they stand alone. No one else has taken points off Liverpool this season. Without October’s 1-1 draw, it would be a clean sweep for the Merseysiders.
Under Klopp, Liverpool have a solitary league win against United. Under Solskjaer, United’s injury-hit side held on for a 0-0 draw that helped cost their rivals the league last season. Under Mourinho, United ground out two forgettable stalemates in three trips to Anfield.
Then, however, expectations were different. United were supposed to be title challengers when they bored their way to a draw in October 2017.
The shift in the balance of power has not just been huge. It has been sudden. Shorn of Pogba and, perhaps, Marcus Rashford, arguably none of the United side would get in the Liverpool team. And perhaps that was not even the case when Liverpool were so triumphant they attracted the attentions of the young Solskjaer and Mourinho.