“You told us to come back when we had won 18. We are back…”
That was the triumphant message delivered by Manchester United fans at Anfield in May 2011 after Sir Alex Ferguson’s side secured their twelfth Premier League crown and, more significantly, the club’s 19th English league title, surpassing the tally set by their bitter rivals some twenty-one years earlier.
It was a response to the now infamous banner held up by Liverpool fans as they watched an Eric Cantona inspired United cruise towards a second Premier League title in 1994.
Now almost three decades since Liverpool were last kings of England, United fans have basked through the glories of a trophy-laden era that would ultimately see them add a twentieth league title in 2013. In that time, at every opportunity they have routinely mocked their North-West counterparts for their relative lack of success and for hanging on to their achievements of the past.
Ferguson did what he set out to do and knocked Liverpool off their perch. But then, all of a sudden, 2013 was five years ago.
United have not lifted another league title since Sir Alex brought down the curtain on his reign in such spectacular fashion. Meanwhile, Manchester City – now bankrolled by billions and guided by Pep Guardiola – have become the dominant force in English football and the emergence of a ‘big six’ at the top end of the table in recent years has congested the title challenging pack.
Two defeats for Jose Mourinho’s men in the opening three league games of this season – a defensive capitulation at Brighton and a 3-0 hammering at home by Spurs – have by the beginning of September already brought about the prospect of United going a sixth year without winning the league.
There’s a long way to go of course, and there was a response with the 2-0 victory at Burnley a week last Sunday, but disharmony has emanated from the Portuguese’s squad in the early going. Maybe there’s some truth in the curse of Mourinho’s third season syndrome?
Six years without winning the league? Manchester United? Unthinkable.
But the same was once said about Liverpool.
If you look at the league finishes of Man United since David Moyes was appointed Ferguson’s successor for the 2013/14 season, they don’t read too differently to Liverpool’s in the 1990s. Between 1991 and 1996 Liverpool finished 2nd, 6th, 6th, 8th, 4th and 3rd, and have spent most seasons since as a big club trying to maintain a place in Europe, seldom able to sustain a true title challenge but capable of winning cup competitions – including winning the Champions League on a remarkable 2005 night in Istanbul.
Since 2013/14, Manchester United have finished 7th, 4th, 5th, 6th and 2nd and are already six points off the summit only four games into this campaign. There have been cup triumphs, but the ‘treble’ of 16/17 (consisting of the FA Cup, League Cup and the Europa League) was the same set of trophies that United fans dubbed ‘the Mickey Mouse treble’ back in 2001, when Liverpool won them.
|Liverpool league positions 1991-1995 vs Manchester United 2014-2018|
|Column1||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4||Year 5||Mean league position||Major trophies won in 5 year spell (excludes C. Shield)|
|Manchester United 2014-2018||7||4||5||6||2||4.8||4|
Despite finishing second last season, Mourinho’s United were nineteen points behind Guardiola’s record-breaking City in the league in what was a trophyless campaign. The Manchester United of now don’t look too different to the Liverpool of the majority of the Premier League era.
Ironically, since the arrival of Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool don’t look at all like the Liverpool of the majority of the Premier League era.
Klopp’s Reds secured back-to-back top four finishes at Anfield last season for the first time since 2009 and reached the Champions League final for the first time since 2007. They are also the early pace setters in the league this season, winning their first four league games for the first time in Premier League history and currently sitting top on goal difference from Chelsea and surprise package Watford.
You don’t win the league by September of course, but you can’t do any better than win your first four games. Manchester City remain firm favourites to retain their title, but Liverpool at least appear better positioned than this current United side to push them all the way.
Manchester United remain arguably the biggest club in the world and along with the club’s fan base and history, any ‘decline’ is only going to be relative to where they were before.
But the longer they go without a league triumph, the more pressure will build and expectation on player’s shoulders – a la the classic affliction of the English national side – may become stifling. It’s what happened to Liverpool and although we are a long way off United going decades without winning the league, there are parallels at this stage with the Liverpool side of the 90s.
Almost a billion has been spent on the playing staff since Ferguson left Old Trafford, but the great Sir Alex sides were built not only with successful signings, they featured stars from the youth system, something that currently appears to be lacking.
With that famous aura that Ferguson’s United had waning with each passing also, it could be a long road back to the top for the twenty-time champions of England.
Written by Jack Sumner
Follow Jack on Twitter @Jack_Sumner_
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