Progress vs protests: Why Liverpool and Manchester United are poles apart right now

Mohamed Salah Harry Maguire Liverpool Man Utd Premier League 2021-22Getty

If ever there was a day to sum up the contrasting fortunes of English football’s two most successful clubs, then this was it.

As Liverpool fans partied at Wembley on Saturday, Manchester United’s were protesting outside Old Trafford. As the travelling Kop saluted their heroes, each and every one of them, Paul Pogba, the most expensive player in United’s history, was being booed and told to “f*ck off” by a section of his own supporters.

And while Jurgen Klopp’s quadruple-chasing side were seeing off Manchester City to reach their second cup final of the season, Ralf Rangnick’s rag-tag bunch were just about edging out the Premier League’s worst team, relying on the talent and single-mindedness of a 37-year-old, and the inconsistencies of Tottenham and Arsenal, to keep them just about in the hunt for a top-four finish.

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On Tuesday night, the two worlds will collide at Anfield: the progressors against the protestors; Klopp’s collective versus Rangnick’s team of individuals

Liverpool will go top of the Premier League with a win, and most expect them to get it. And doesn’t that say everything about the mess United find themselves in right now?

However it finishes, it has been a season to forget for the Red Devils. One which started with optimism but will end in familiar fashion, with talk of overhauls and clearouts and resets.

Nothing has changed, it seems, and yet everything has to, if the 20-times champions are to get back to competing for the big honours.

It feels strange now to recall that it was United who finished last season as the nearest challengers to Manchester City.

And having followed up that second-placed finish with the signings of Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and, most spectacularly, Cristiano Ronaldo, it was they who were being tipped for a title charge at the start of the campaign.

How wrong those suggestions were. They are 20 points off the top, and 19 behind Liverpool, who also have a game in hand.

Were it not for Spurs’ struggles and Arsenal’s wobbles, they would already have had to give up on the idea of Champions League qualification.

A new manager – almost certainly Ajax’s Erik Ten Hag – will arrive in the summer, the fifth permanent appointment since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. United were champions then, but they have rarely looked as far away from the top as they do now.

No such worries at Liverpool, who will equal United’s haul of league championships if they can pip City this season, who already have the Carabao Cup in the bag and who still have a Champions League semi-final and an FA Cup final to look forward to next month.

While their great foes stutter, the Reds are steaming on.

It is one of the curiosities of this particular rivalry that when one is flying the other is usually floundering. Rarely are they both on an upward curve, and the fear for United is that it may now take years before they are in a position to seriously compete with Liverpool and City.

They’d never admit it, not publicly at least, but Liverpool should be the blueprint for United going forward.

In terms of decision-making, leadership and expertise, they have been the standard-bearers, moving from also-rans to front-runners in the space of five years under Klopp.

Fenway Sports Group (FSG) have certainly made mistakes – the European Super League fiasco remains a stain, one which is hard to avoid or forgive – but they have provided a masterclass in how to build a sustainable football structure, getting the right people in the right roles, appointing the right manager to knit things together and unite the fanbase when it was needed most, and then swiftly and smartly building a team, a squad, which is as good as any in world football.

Compare the steady, and then sensational, progress of Liverpool under Klopp to the flip-flopping and false dawns under various United managers, and you see exactly where their problems lie.

Compare the two clubs’ transfer business, and you see what happens when those problems are allowed to grow and to multiply.

A fish rots from the head, and United were rotting even before Ferguson departed. There is a reason that LUHG (Love United, Hate Glazers) is the abbreviation of choice for protesting fans.

Their recruitment policy has been wild and expensive.

While Liverpool were able to find and identify difference-makers - Alisson Becker, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane - and sniff out unexpected bargains such as Andy Robertson, United have squandered millions on players (and managers) who promised the world but who have left them in no better position than before.

How many of the current squad, for example, would you suggest is guaranteed to thrive under Ten Hag? David De Gea maybe? Bruno Fernandes probably? Jadon Sancho perhaps?

Jadon Sancho Manchester United Premier League 2021-22 GFXGetty

The pedigree of Varane and Ronaldo can’t be ignored, but the rest have question marks, at the very least.

Pogba will go in the summer, a £90million ($117m) signing leaving for nothing, and the likes of Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani will likely follow.

The likes of Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan Bissaka, Fred, Victor Lindelof, Alex Telles, Eric Bailly and Luke Shaw cost around £300m ($390m) in transfer fees alone, and have done little to justify such outlay.

Liverpool, meanwhile, have already begun putting the pieces of Klopp’s next great side together.

The impact of Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota and Ibrahima Konate, all of them signed in the last two years, is clear, while teenage Fulham star Fabio Carvalho will arrive in the summer, joining a squad which already boasts young tyros in Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones, Kaide Gordon and, still only 23, the brilliant Trent Alexander-Arnold.

However this season pans out, the foundations are there for Liverpool to challenge for everything in the coming years. They have the manager, the players, the staff and the structure to compete at the very top.

United, right now, have only their name. We'll see a contest at Anfield on Tuesday, but the gap between the clubs is as big as it was at Old Trafford back in October, when Liverpool won 5-0.

They remain rivals, and always will be, but facts are facts. And right now, these two are poles apart. On and off the field.