The build-up began on Monday with a seven-man production squad from Sky turning up at Manchester United’s training base, Carrington, to roll the cameras with Jose Mourinho. Sky’s deal with the Premier League permits this level of intrusion. Mourinho, already in full diva mode, made them wait 24 hours before submitting to scrutiny.
Six days out, and with the international programme still in full swing with World Cup qualification, the scale of the fixture between Liverpool and Manchester United was already making itself felt in the media space. The meeting between England’s most decorated clubs has become in this era of Premier League hegemony a match of global significance.
This has always been a febrile contest, it’s roots embedded in the rivalry between two great northern cities with a keen sense of their own identities, most profoundly expressed in elements of popular culture. But what was largely a domestic dispute among partisan factions arguing the toss about Law, Charlton and Best versus Hansen, Rush and Dalglish, or Oasis versus the Beatles, has been made universal by the tentacular spread and influence of the Premier League.
LA LIGA VS PREMIER LEAGUE
In Spain, La Liga stakeholders puff out their chests over what they see as the primacy of El Clasico, Barcelona against Real Madrid, the match the whole world wants to see. Yet no club sells more shirts across the world than Manchester United, 1.75 million per annum in the last recorded five-year period up to 2016, and when it comes to broadcast popularity, the Premier League is in a class all its own.
The EPL is televised in 212 territories. When United and Liverpool come together the numbers are off the scale. More than 700 million worldwide tuned in to watch the match in March 2015 when Steven Gerrard saw red minutes after coming on as a substitute. El Clasico drew a crowd estimated between 400-500 million later that day.
This is not an argument about quality but intensity. None could dispute that El Clasico features the top attractions in Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale, but it does not fire tribal loyalties like the English tempest. Every last drop of personality is wrung from a fixture that is framed not only as a match between players but, perhaps more significantly at this juncture, managers, with Jurgen Klopp beginning to twitch as he approaches his second anniversary in charge at Anfield.
In a typical newspaper excursion in the early part of the week, we learned how Klopp dreamed of the day when he might manage in the Premier League. And as the narrative twist demanded his imagined job was, of course, at Old Trafford, not Liverpool. There was never an offer, just an expression of appreciation by Sir Alex Ferguson about a young coach doing vibrant things with Dortmund in the Bundesliga, and the testimony of Eckhard Krautzun, who first steered Klopp into management at Mainz.
With newspapers scrabbling for a back page screamer for Wednesday’s editions Sadio Mane’s hamstring injury was a gift since it allowed editors to project a genuine link to the big ticket item of the coming weekend. Reflecting broadcast trends, nothing sells papers like Liverpool and United.
Getting to the meat of the matter, Mane’s loss is offset by Philippe Coutinho’s rehabilitation after the summer tug-of-/love with Barcelona. Attack has never been Klopp’s stress point, however. An opening sequence that gave us the 4-0 emasculation of Arsenal in August has also seen Liverpool pummelled at Manchester City, eventually shipping five, albeit playing more than half the match with ten men.
Klopp has been forced increasingly onto the defensive over his tactical approach and perceived weakness at the centre of defence and between the sticks. Depending on outcomes he can be seen as a progressive swashbuckler or a busted flush taking the club no further forward than Brendan Rodgers. In the 75 league games as Reds boss, Klopp has a lower win rate than both his predecessor and Rafa Benitez. Indeed, should Liverpool lose, Klopp will have returned 12 points from eight games this season, the same total deemed not good enough two years ago when Rodgers was axed.
Rodgers did not have Klopp’s aura, developed at a Dortmund team that won back to back Bundesliga titles, and was not protected by a Champions League CV that included a final defeat to Bayern Munich and a quarter-final loss to Real Madrid. Performance in European competition is a feature of the coaching landscape that continues to be persuasive when evaluating the relative merits of British and European coaches.
Mourinho’s meteoric rise was founded entirely on his success at Porto where he won the UEFA Cup and Champions League in successive seasons, 2003/04. Though he failed to repeat that success with Chelsea and Real Madrid, his second Champions League triumph at Inter Milan in 2010, defeating the great Barcelona of Pep Guardiola in the semi-final and Bayern Munich in the final, underscored his legend.
That victory was classic Mourinho with a coiled spring of a team, able to absorb pressure thanks to the towering talents of Maicon, Lucio and Walter Samuel at the back, and strike with lethal bursts via the agency of Diego Milito, Samuel Eto’o and Wesley Sneijder.
His first meeting with Klopp in the Premier League drew criticism for the extreme application of his pragmatic impulses. Parking the bus was not a new phenomenon in the world of United, who would often set up defensively away from home in Europe under Ferguson, but never quite as brazenly as that.
Mourinho was unrepentant, the ends, in this case, a clean sheet in a goalless draw, always justifying the means. The kind of criticism that followed is oxygen to him, sustaining the sense he has of himself as a footballing anti-hero, the unfashionable outsider who never played professionally, began his football career as an interpreter and had to fight for respectability without the stellar hinterland that gave the likes of Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane their chances at Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.
Having managed Chelsea, Inter, Madrid and now United, Mourinho could hardly be a more establishment figure, yet to a degree, his psyche remains shaped by his experience as the undervalued underdog fighting for recognition. You can almost see him parking two buses at Anfield just to be bloody. After all, he is without his midfield talisman Paul Pogba and go-to defensive guard Marouane Fellaini. On the other hand, he might just spring a trap, setting Liverpool the challenge they are least expecting.
He knows Klopp will go with his full-throttle selection, Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Coutinho leading the attack supported by Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Wijnaldum in a mobile midfield. Expect Ander Herrera to partner Nemanja Matic at the base of midfield to counter Liverpool’s movement.
The season has followed a familiar pattern at United with Romelu Lukaku nailing everything in front of goal and a combination of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan filling the three creative roles behind. Mourinho has been rewarded with a glut of goals, 28, bettered only by Manchester City, 29, but they have been delivered in a different way, conforming to the Inter template rather than the emphatic attacking of City, which paradoxically conforms to the traditional model established at Old Trafford by Sir Matt Busby.
Mourinho talks about building a legacy at United that matches Ferguson’s. To do that he must at some point, you imagine, respect the club’s past and commit to a more compelling attacking format. That is the tension that surrounds this match. Guardiola and Klopp are seeking to win hearts and minds as well as matches with their brazen adrenalin surges.
Mourinho risks falling behind in the battle to control the game’s zeitgeist in this phase of football’s evolution. Though United fans have enjoyed the upswing in results and goals that have taken them into a share of the Premier League lead, the matches against Swansea and Everton were in the balance with ten minutes to go, and the 1-0 win at Southampton was laboured.
Perhaps Mourinho needs a little of Klopp’s kamikaze propulsion and Klopp some of Mourinho’s cautionary reflex. No matter how much both managers play down its significance only eight games into the season, no duel between these two teams is without consequence. Results have the power to infect the atmosphere positively or negatively. The points available carry no greater value, but the sense of victory or defeat mushrooms in the soul.