Liverpool vs Manchester United has become a lopsided rivalry – but will it stay that way? – The Athletic

By Simon HughesMar 17, 2024

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The last time Manchester United hosted Liverpool in front of a crowd in the FA Cup was in January 2011, three months after Fenway Sports Group’s takeover at Anfield.

There was optimism in the away end that day, mainly because of Kenny Dalglish’s return as manager earlier that week. Even so, most visiting supporters looked around Old Trafford with envy. Their rivals felt on a different level on and off the field, with a bigger stadium and considerably better team, one that eased to a 1-0 victory following Steven Gerrard’s early red card.

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While Liverpool had entered a new era with a series of off-field appointments, United had an established executive culture that helped its commercial operation to underpin all of the club’s successes.

Over the past decade, these positions have largely flipped. United were debt free when the Glazer takeover was completed in 2005 and the club now owes around £653m. Meanwhile, Liverpool were £350m in debt before FSG’s buy-out in 2010. The latest accounts show a £123m debt, although £80m of that is because of the redevelopment of the Anfield Road stand.

Since United’s last Premier League title in 2013, they have finished above Liverpool in the table as many times as Liverpool have finished above them.

Yet Liverpool’s achievements have been greater: United have claimed four trophies, but no league titles or Champions Leagues. Liverpool have one of each, plus five other cups for good measure.

Anfield remains smaller than Old Trafford, but it has grown much larger and is far more modern than United’s home, with its leaking roof and cramped seats. It helps explain why United are considering knocking it down. Liverpool have also moved into a new training ground in Kirkby, one which other clubs examine before designing their own.

Anfield has been remodelled by FSG (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

All of this has amounted to Liverpool closing the gap in their off-field performance as well. When FSG bought Liverpool in 2010, the club was more than £100million behind United in terms of annual revenue.

Liverpool had long been criticised for failing to make the most of their commercial pulling power, yet matchday income was the biggest problem, with United making £57m more than their rivals in the 2010-11 season.

FSG responded by growing Anfield and styling the commercial operation based on what was happening at United. One of the earliest acts involved establishing a London office and the hiring of Matt Scammell from United as chief commercial officer. What followed, essentially, was an aggressive copy-and-paste job.

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The 2022-23 accounts showed that while both clubs’ revenues have increased considerably since 2011, the gap between them had roughly halved — and that after a particularly poor season by Liverpool’s recent standards, which ended with them out of the Champions League.

A year earlier, Liverpool finished above United in the money table for the first time in 26 years as Jurgen Klopp’s team nearly won the Premier League and reached three cup finals.

Even that, however, underlines the challenge facing Liverpool in trying to keep up with their historic rivals. That season, United finished sixth, sacked their manager, failed in all domestic cups, and were eliminated from the Champions League at the earliest opportunity after the group stages. Liverpool, meanwhile, almost completed a clean sweep of every available competition and still only just edged ahead of them in terms of revenue.

All of this means the state of play is this: Liverpool, under Klopp, might field any team and beat any opponent, while United, under Erik ten Hag, might field any team and lose to any opponent.

United are chasing Liverpool in the most significant sporting senses, but a competitive balance away from the pitch dictates they do not need to perform particularly well to beat Liverpool off it.

It is a credit to FSG that they have created this reality in an era when former United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward claimed, in a conference call with shareholders in 2018, that “playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business”.

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This suggestion might have mutated into complacency in other parts of United’s operation, helping Liverpool catch up, but it would still be no surprise if FSG saw this as its ultimate ambition on Merseyside.

A sharper test of Liverpool’s place in the world might be just around the corner given the forthcoming summer upheavals, the most significant of which is Klopp’s departure. It remains unclear who will replace him, but there is also a shift behind the scenes, with FSG recruiting Liverpool’s former sporting director Michael Edwards to lead its football operation, which will eventually involve acquiring another club.

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A big part of Edwards’ early responsibilities will be bringing more balance to the structure and processes at Liverpool, one which is not as heavily influenced by the manager as it has been in recent years under Klopp.

It is a significant challenge and one being replicated 30 miles east in Manchester, where United’s new era is already well underway following the confirmation of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s purchase of 25 per cent of the club from the Glazer family in December.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe will control the footballing operations at Manchester United (Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

A new chief executive, the highly-regarded Omar Berrada, has been hired from Manchester City, while Dan Ashworth (most recently with Newcastle United) will become the new sporting director.

Ten Hag’s long-term future may be a source of conjecture, but given the lack of high-level sports experience in United’s executive hierarchy over the past decade, the appointments surely give them a better chance of developing a working relationship with the manager, whoever that may be, improving on-field performance and allowing the economic cycle to accelerate.

It would be naive if Liverpool did not see the threat. Such a change in fortunes has happened before and Liverpool were able to see it coming, with highly respected secretary Peter Robinson speaking in 1991 about the impact of a successful United “if they got their act together”.

Robinson, however, would not have been able to envisage such a development happening at the same time as the influx of money from Sky TV and the Premier League changing the appetite for football, creating a new fiscal realm that United were primed to expose.

The landscape is different now. It would seem that Ratcliffe does not see Liverpool as the team to eclipse. That would instead be Manchester City, who he has spoken about in glowing terms despite them incurring 115 financial fair play charges from the Premier League. The club deny any wrongdoing.

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This underlines why it is not easy to do what Liverpool have done. To what extent Edwards was responsible for the club’s revival might be revealed with greater clarity in the years ahead. Often, it has been argued that without Klopp, Liverpool would still be roughly where they were in 2015, enjoying the odd promising season, in the league at least, before ultimately falling away.

Edwards’ record as the club’s transfer man was less impressive before Klopp, but the appointment of a manager with such clear expectations helped him do his own job better. It is vital, then, that he, the incoming sporting director Richard Hughes, and whoever they hire as Klopp’s replacement are all on the same page.

For so long, that has not been the case at United, with confusing results, but Liverpool cannot assume things will be that way forever: history suggests otherwise.

(Top photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

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Simon Hughes joined from The Independent in 2019. He is the author of seven books about Liverpool FC as well as There She Goes, a modern social history of Liverpool as a city. He writes about football on Merseyside and beyond for The Athletic.

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