IT says a lot about the damage Manchester United have done to my psyche that at 1-1 with half an hour to go against Arsenal, I still fully expected them to win.
Even as each substitution lessened their quality and their side becoming increasingly unrecognisable, I solemnly waited for the ghost of Wayne Rooney to scuff a volley in from a corner.
During that time though, it occurred to me that should the three points go to the home side, it wouldn’t matter one jot to Liverpool.
I had spent years watching games like this, desperately hoping for United’s opponents to hold on, anxiously expecting the inevitable. My nerves were always aligned with the idea that our arch rivals winning games would be detrimental to The Reds. Now, it was only an ingrained hatred of the club that had me wishing for an Arsenal riposte.
No winner would come for Solskjaer’s band of out-of-form misfits, and the result would solidify their worst start in 30 years of league football. A remarkable statistic that, based on the dire quality of the game, paints a truthful picture of the mess they’re in.
The next weekend, they would tumble down another rung in Premier League hierarchy, punctuating another pitiful display with the ultimate ignominy – a defeat to Steve Bruce.
It’s early days, but you can already see the disparity in quality by looking at the league table. As it stands, Liverpool’s great rivals sit 15 points behind.
Last season, while The Reds put together a remarkable points tally only to fall inches short of the title, United limped to a top-six finish, 31 points behind the team they were so proud to “knock off their perch” all those years ago.
Peter Moore may have jumped the gun when he proclaimed that Liverpool had returned to the comfort and grandeur of said perch – that position won’t be restored until a Premier League trophy is lifted at Anfield. However, it’s the remarkable downturn of those who once fought for the top spot that most likely prompted the boast.
What Liverpool and Manchester City did last season, and look to be continue this campaign, places them in the pantheon of all-time great Premier League sides.
For Guardiola’s men, the achievement of back-to-back titles with a combined total of 198 points should not be regarded as anything less than astonishing. The detractors will justifiably point to the money spent, and the investigations of their financial conduct could well provide more ammunition to those who want to rubbish their achievements.
Nevertheless, the money spent by their neighbours proves that financial power doesn’t always equate to success. City have the trophies, but have also won them in a style that you can’t help but admire.
As for Liverpool, the records have continuously tumbled throughout the last year, with 97 points in the Premier League and a sixth Champions League trophy representing one of the best seasons in the history of this massively successful football club.
It hasn’t dampened the appetite for more, though; the 100% win record this campaign shows that The Reds firmly have the title on their mind.
The building process may have been slow for Klopp, but patience has reaped rewards. A settled squad and playing style, along with a remarkably strong mentality that has been missing from the previous iterations of Liverpool throughout the 21st century, have turned The Reds into a fearsome proposition both at home and abroad.
The two clubs have now set themselves apart from the rest of the league. Meanwhile, those who once tussled at the top table have fallen far below the standard with which they could compete for trophies in previous eras.
The Manchester United we saw against Arsenal and Newcastle would be comfortably beaten by any United team I’ve seen since I started watching football in the late ‘90s, up to and possibly including the sides who floundered disappointingly under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.
While City and now Liverpool have accelerated into modern giants with forward-thinking managers, the once unbeatable United have regressed.
Many thought the immediate post-Ferguson dearth would be the peak of their decline. Perhaps this was influenced by their reputation – their swashbuckling success is ingrained in our minds, particularly as Liverpool fans who had to put up with their dominance throughout the Premier League era.
However, the resources behind the club suggest that any period of gestation would be followed by evolution, which in turn would lead to success. Clearly this has not been the case.
At this point, you wouldn’t imagine things getting dramatically worse for United, but the gulf between themselves and the top has never been wider. They are, quite frankly, playing a different game to Liverpool.
It’s impossible not to take some perverse satisfaction in the decline of a football club that grew into the de-facto kings of England throughout Ferguson’s reign. For years, I was told that Liverpool deserved to languish in mediocrity, that our fall from grace was somehow karmic following the sustained dominance of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
One problem: I never saw those dominant days.
While The Reds have won everything but the league title during my lifetime, they’ve never been the best in the country nor in Europe. The so-called successful days, as euphoric as they were, have been punctuated by seasons that were over in January, losses to Blackpool and Swansea, and Simon Mignolet.
Meanwhile, it was Manchester United who represented the modern superclub as title after title wad taken back to Old Trafford.
Could it be karma, or the fact that football works in cycles? They’re kind, simplistic explanations.
The truth, though, is that the management from the top end of the club has been wayward since Ferguson retired, and the short-term thinking behind both player and managerial appointments has created a cultural wasteland from which recovery will be strenuous and lengthy. Their decline has coincided with their two biggest rivals reaching their zenith.
The difference in quality should have Merseyside’s red contingent in rude confidence. Yet, as the game at Old Trafford approaches, so do the nerves.
The magnitude of the matchup evokes the old cliche “form goes out the window” – but last season’s result proved there is no guarantee that superiority will lead to victory.
But Liverpool can take comfort that, whatever the result, the gap between the two sides will remain a chasm. The Reds will challenge for the title again this season. United, barring a miracle, will not.
Liverpool aren’t quite back on their perch yet. But it’s not out of reach.
As for Manchester United? They’re craning their necks.
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"If we turn and up and are the best version ourselves, then we'll win. It's as simple as that." ✊
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) October 17, 2019