It’s been so bad for so long that it’s time to stop worrying about when or whether it would happen and just admit that it already has: Manchester United have Liverpool’d themselves.
In big-league soccer, clubs at the most elite level are supposed to be too big to fail. Because of the open nature of the sport’s player market and the almost literally inexhaustible funds available to the 10-ish legitimate megaclubs, those select few teams at the very top should always be able to buy their way to success. Most countries do have their counter examples, the exceptions that prove the rule, and they are used as cautionary tales to warn the big clubs of the potential ramifications of prolonged mediocrity. “[Big Italian club X] has been kind of bad for years now,” you might hear someone say. “They’d better turn it around soon if they don’t want to become the next AC Milan.”
In England, that cautionary tale is Liverpool’s. Before this century, Liverpool were the most successful club in English soccer history. During their most obscenely dominant stretch from 1971 to 1991, Liverpool failed to finish either first or second in the league table only two times in 20 seasons, with an average table finish of 1.7. That kind of sustained excellence, and the fame and prestige and riches that came along with it, should’ve cemented the club a permanent place amongst England’s, and thus the world’s, biggest and best clubs.
Only it didn’t work like that. Starting in the 90s, Liverpool lost their place as England’s hegemonic power to Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. As the 90s transitioned into the 00s, Arsenal emerged as United’s chief rival for Premier League preeminence, forcing Liverpool even further down the hierarchy. More time passed, and Roman Abramovich created Chelski, Tottenham got good, and Manchester City got rich. Soon, after years of poor management, wasted money, and lost ground, Liverpool were not only never in title contention anymore, they couldn’t even guarantee themselves a spot amongst the group just below the title challengers. In the 20 years between 1998 and 2018, Liverpool won no league titles, finished second only three times, and had an average table position of 4.7. Three spots might not seem like much, but for Liverpool that drop was the difference between preening atop the mounting and being splattered at the mountain’s base as all the rivals they’d once gloated over stood around laughing.
Thanks to the club’s smart, committed owners, their genius manager, and their savvy and good fortune in the transfer market, Liverpool have at long last reclaimed their place as one of England’s truly great teams. They still aren’t what they were before, and they won’t be without first demonstrating that they can maintain their position at or around the very top for several years. But at least over the past couple seasons they have regained their dignity, their glorious history no longer hanging around their necks like a millstone, their present once again a source of excitement and hope rather than a symbol of what it looks like to fall from grace.
It’s a little ironic that Manchester United, who once rose as Liverpool fell, are now the ones falling while Liverpool are on the upswing. The former heights and the present lows of United are well-established. In the 20 seasons before Ferguson brought his legendary tenure at United to a close in 2013, the Red Devils won 12 Premier League titles and had an average table position of 1.55. In the abject six seasons since Fergie’s retirement, United have never even sniffed a league title, finishing in the top four only twice, with an average table position of 5.0.
The bad showings in the league themselves aren’t what have made United the new version of the old Liverpool, though they are of course related. It’s the seeming intractability of United’s fate that’s even more important. Generally, when megaclubs of United’s level go through bad stretches, they are only a couple moves away from righting the ship. A shrewd managerial hire here, one or two great players added to the squad there, and those teams are usually right back in the title hunt.
United have tried all that, and none of it has worked. They’ve hired a slew of managers of varying backgrounds and levels of experience, and none have thrived. They’ve spent nearly a billion Euros trying to inject the squad with world-class talent, doing little more than flooding the roster with mediocre players on inflated salaries. The single true star (of the many they’ve pursued) to have signed with them is desperate to leave. And now, facing the most daunting array of challengers for the top four in Premier League history, after a demoralizing half-decade of mediocrity, it seems likely that their present position of intermittent Champions League qualification and never contending for the title is their new normal.
The first thing Manchester United would need to do in order to get back where they feel they belong is to qualify for the Champions League and stay there. That does not look like it’ll happen any time soon. This season, Man Utd once again look unlikely to finish in the top four. Their squad is decent, but it has deficiencies of the exact sort that will make succeeding in the league difficult.
The Red Devils’ defensive corps is legitimately impressive. Unfortunately, defense is the least important area of the field for their purposes. For big teams, league play is mostly about being able to control the ball and create and score lots of goals against tight, deep defenses. United lack the technical quality to be strong and sound in possession, the creativity to consistently pick their way through dense defenses, the ruthlessness in front of goal to convert enough of the chances they do create, and the tactical structure to help compensate for the talent shortcomings. It’s still very early, and while the advanced stats like United more than the league table does, it feels like all five other members of the Big Six (and possibly even Leicester City?) have a better shot of finishing in the top four.
Regardless of the managerial missteps that have plagued United since Ferguson called it a career, the only deficiency that really matters is the playing squad’s lack of elite talent. Nothing will make a real difference in how United play or what they can achieve until the club is able to put out a team with world-class players all over the pitch. Right now, they are nowhere close to that.
Of United’s current roster, Pogba, David de Gea, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Harry Maguire, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are the only players who either have or could conceivably develop the ability to be star-quality players for a title contender. That may seem like the Red Devils are more than halfway to an elite starting XI, but the reality isn’t quite that rosy.
Pogba has been practically pleading for Real Madrid to come rescue him, and this is probably his last season in Manchester; de Gea, Maguire, and Wan-Bissaka—while all really good—all play the least essential and most easily replaceable positions on the pitch when it comes to the formation of a great team; Rashford is United’s most promising player and could definitely grow into true stardom, but he’s not a sure thing, especially when it’s still not clear what his ideal position is; Martial’s situation is similar to Rashford’s, though his ceiling is probably lower. At the most crucial, most expensive, hardest-to-find positions and roles on the pitch—having in your midfield and attacking lines creativity, scoring, possession savvy, technique, and dribbling—Man Utd can only count on one, maybe two foundational building blocks for a real contender in their current roster.
And the challenge to sign great players is only going to get more difficult. The more ensconced United become in their place on the border between the Champions League and Europa League spots, the more difficult it will be to convince great players—who are already only rarely available and doggedly fought over—to join them. We’ve already seen this dynamic at play. The Pogba signing was a total fluke only possible because the Frenchman came through United’s academy and thus had more of an emotional attachment to the club than the average young stud, and United were willing to pay whatever it took to bring him back home. It spoke volumes this summer when Neymar was on the market, just fluttering in the wind because neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid wanted to stump up the cash, and United weren’t ever (credibly) mentioned as a possible landing destination for the Brazilian. Same for when Matthijs de Ligt snubbed United for Juve, and when Nicolas Pépé choose Arsenal.
Players want money, and United can still offer more of that than just about anyone else in Europe (as Alexis Sánchez’s bank account can attest to). But players also want to go where they can win, and they know there are more than enough places that can offer a combination of cash and potential for trophies that exceeds what United could realistically promise.
For the first couple post-Ferguson years, the thinking about United’s nose-diving results was that the product on the pitch and the place in the table were unacceptable, and that something had to be done immediately to get things back up to “United standard” as quickly as possible. In recognition that the club has been lost in the wilderness for so long that trying to find its way back is futile, that thinking has shifted. Now, it is clear to all that United’s problems are deep and systemic, and material change will take years rather than a single transfer window to accomplish.
That realization is helpful. Rather than believing they can solve this league trophy drought the way Real Madrid might solve theirs, i.e. by throwing a ton of money at an established superstar or three, United have to start looking at the steady, careful reconstruction Liverpool underwent as their blueprint. It’ll take strategic bets on young players who’ve shown promise but have yet to blossom fully, like the ones Liverpool made with Philippe Coutinho, Andrew Robertson, and Trent Alexander-Arnold. It’ll take exceptional scouting and more than a little luck to detect greatness in good forwards who haven’t yet show it consistently before the bigger clubs come sniffing around, à la Liverpool with Luis Suárez, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané, and Mohamed Salah. It might take selling a couple of those players who hit their individual peaks faster than the rest of the team, and using the money gained from those sales to reinvest in the roster further, in hopes of getting the timing better a little later. (Pogba could be United’s Suárez in that sense.) Most importantly, it will take hard work and intelligence in the transfer market, things for which United’s current decision-makers have displayed a criminal ineptitude.
Manchester United rekindling their former glory is by no means impossible. One benefit they have over Liverpool’s long rebuild is that United’s money-making apparatus is so enormous and self-perpetuating that they should always have the cash on-hand to fund any conceivable move they’d want to make. (Alternatively, it’s possible that United’s apathetic owners have grown so content with the cash flowing in that they don’t see much reason to do anything all that differently. This would explain the continued prominence of Ed Woodward.) But if United do get back on or near the top, it’ll take a long time. Long enough to mark a clear delineation between what United once were and what they once again could be in the future. Long enough for their present reality to usurp Liverpool’s recent past as England’s symbol of what it looks like to fall from grace.