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Manchester United v Liverpool: The underdog complex

Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp both like to play the underdog

Jose Mourinho harbours plenty of hatred for plenty of things, but none so much as for the establishment.

Wherever Mourinho has gone in his career, he has made sure to pitch himself as the beleaguered underdog who must overcome oppressive higher powers to triumph. Sometimes this has required him to massage the truth a tad, but the end result has always been pretty convincing: he convinced himself that his team were the underdogs, he convinced us, and he convinced his players, too.

Sure, his Porto side might have been the dominant force in Portugal, but on the European stage they had barely any pedigree at all; Mourinho won them their first ever Uefa Cup and then an improbable Champions League.

Sevilla FC v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg

Sure, the Chelsea side he took over in 2005 was dripping with high-calibre stars and his boss had handed him a blank chequebook, but they had won nothing. Manchester United, Liverpool, and the invincible Arsenal were English football’s superpowers, his side were the jumped-up arrivistes.

At Inter he was able to repeat his Porto trick – big fish at home, small fry on the continent – while also inventing a suppressor in the Italian football authorities, and took the club to a treble. Even at Real Madrid, the ultimate establishment club, he was able to point towards his chief competitors, Pep Guardiola’s epochal Barcelona side, and claim underdog status with some legitimacy.

And by the time he was back at Chelsea, the Premier League had entered a new financial era – the richest clubs were no longer backed by oligarchs but by entire Gulf states. Mourinho’s “little horse” claim might have stretched credibility, but there was a kernel of truth in there: Chelsea were no longer the richest guys in the room, and as such the odds were against them.

At Old Trafford this Saturday, Mourinho will glance over to the away dugout and see a manager whose blueprint is so similar and yet so different. Jurgen Klopp, too, has built an entire career on the idea that he is upending the establishment.

His Mainz side had never played in Germany’s top tier before; his Borussia Dortmund not only had to compete with the juggernaut that is Bayern Munch, they had to deal with Bayern’s annual tradition of cherry-picking their rivals’ best players.

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Like Mourinho, Klopp used this torment in his favour: his Dortmund side played with a commitment that bordered on the psychotic, and won two league titles in two years.

Yet if Mourinho’s underdog routine is tetchy, hostile, belligerent, then Klopp’s is precisely the opposite: zany, upbeat, punctuated with wild laughter; the Jerry Seinfeld to Mourinho’s Larry David.
Those are the personas, at least. The reality is slightly less straightforward – Mourinho can be good-humoured, even these days, and Klopp can certainly rage with the best of them – but they both affect an act to some extent, and where Mourinho is vengeful, Klopp is happy-go-lucky.

Which is all well and good: both acts are tried, trusted and trophy-winning, both managers have honed these characters and been decorated for doing so. But only one of them seems to align with the outlook of their current club, while the other somewhat jars.

At Anfield, the league title has not been won for almost three decades. Plenty more trophies have been stashed away in that time, but the club has lost its status as English football’s regal force. For Liverpool, the story of the Premier League era has been the story of them losing ground to others: to the commercial might and iron will of Ferguson’s United, to the imagination and innovation of Wenger’s Arsenal, and to the unmatchable riches of Blackburn and Chelsea and Manchester City.
It has been no fun on Merseyside, this zigzagging decline. But it has allowed Klopp to arrive on the scene and wins hearts and minds without altering his MO.

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It hasn’t hurt Klopp’s cause, either, that Liverpool is a city that harbours a strong anti-authoritarian streak, and for good reason. From the Thatchernomics and “managed decline” of the 80s to the Hillsborough cover-up to the dozens of foodbanks that have sprung up across Merseyside as a legacy of post-recession austerity, Liverpudlians have learnt the hard way to regard the establishment with suspicion and no little distaste.

Back on the football pitch, English football’s post-Abramovich era has only amplified a truth that had been clear since Ferguson wrenched the Old Trafford juggernaut into gear: if Liverpool are going to reclaim their perch, they’re going to have to do it against the odds.

All of which means that Klopp’s cackling rebel schtick is something Anfield can happily get behind. As absurd as it sounds regarding the club ranked in Forbes’ Rich List as the eighth richest on the planet, Liverpool are underdogs. (Four English clubs sit above them in that table, for a start.)

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Manchester United, on the other hand, see themselves a bit differently. Indeed the entire recent history of the club is founded on a self-image of supremacy. Ferguson’s teams became famous for their last-minute winners not just because they never stopped trying, but because their mindset fostered a self-fulfilling prophecy – ‘we know we’ll score eventually, and you know it too’ – which saw United play with increasing conviction, and their opponents play with increasing fear, until the goal inevitably came.

Despite his famed ‘siege mentality’ gambits, Ferguson did not forge United’s success through an underdog attitude. In fact he did the exact opposite, imbuing his sides with an undying entitlement to victory. Think of Ferguson tapping his watch at the fourth official. Think of Eric Cantona and his one-man reeling-in job on Newcastle in 1996. Think of Roy Keane and his cavalry, snarling in the face of a retreating Andy D’Urso. These are all images borne of entitlement: an entire club affronted at the very idea of being denied their rightful win, their rightful points, their rightful trophies.

It was genius, of course, and it led to the most successful spell for a single club that English football has ever known. Yet it meant that, for all that Mourinho touted himself as Ferguson’s successor, the suspicion always remained that he wasn’t the obvious choice. United’s place at the top of that Forbes’ Rich List confirms the contradiction facing the Portuguese: if ever there was a club that could call themselves the little horse, it’s not this one.

Sevilla FC v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg

Mourinho’s mindset off the pitch is reflected in his tactics on it. Which is to say that, when faced with a big team, he tends toward the defensive, the reactive. This was never starker than in December, when Manchester City came to Old Trafford and administered as comprehensive a 2-1 battering as you’ll ever see, while Mourinho’s men stood off deferentially, treating their guests to two-thirds of the game’s possession as they looked to spring a surprise on the counter. “Park the bus, park the bus, Man United,” chorused a gleeful away end.

Ferguson was no stranger to a well-drilled smothering job when the occasion called for it, but that occasion was rarely at Old Trafford, nor was his gameplan ever quite as devoid of adventure. The Old Trafford crowd was not mutinous – far from it – but it was eerily quiet. On Monday night, as United trailed 2-0 at Crystal Palace, chants of “attack, attack, attack” could be heard from the travelling fans. United did attack, and they did win, but you sensed that those frustrations were borne of something more than Monday’s events, more than that one isolated incident.

None if which is to say that Mourinho is destined to fail at United. Indeed if he was to depart without having claimed the league, it would be an event unprecedented since his Porto days. But what’s clear is that he is unlikely to change his mindset. Which means that he might have to set about changing the club’s. Emulating Ferguson’s excellence is hard enough, but to reach the same ends, Mourinho will have to undo the means.

His adversary on Saturday has no such problems – Jurgen Klopp has no culture to refashion, no top-down indoctrination job to complete. He can cackle on, confident that his own underdog routine couldn’t be any more befitting. His only issue is one that doesn’t apply at United, even Mourinho’s United.

Underdogs are underdogs for a reason: they tend not to come out on top.