“Liverpool revived their ambitions of claiming the Premier League title in remarkable fashion as they humiliated champions Manchester United at Old Trafford.”
That was the BBC headline following Liverpool’s triumph over Manchester United. The Merseysider’s humiliated their rivals in their own back yard. Goals from Torres, Gerrard, Aurelio and Dossena ensured that the Red Devils suffered their biggest defeat at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ since 1992.
The implications of such a result were far greater than a mere 3 points. This victory essentially gave Liverpool hope in the title race. Yes, Liverpool were contenders for the Premier League crown. With this stunning result they closed the gap down to just 4 points against leaders and defending champions Manchester United.
It was by far Liverpool’s greatest win in the Premier League era and arguably one of their greatest of all time. A loss would have undoubtedly put the Manchester club in pole position for the Premier League title.
The sheer ramifications of the result of this game made it one of the greatest ties between the two most successful clubs in English football.
Liverpool had a brilliant week in the lead up to this monumental fixture, having embarrassed Real Madrid 4-0 at Anfield (which remains their biggest defeat in their illustrious European history), the Reds went onto record a thumping 5-1 victory over Aston Villa. Liverpool were playing and looking like strong contenders. Determination in their play, spirit on the field, and hope in their hearts. It was the best league campaign since the league winning season of 89/90.
United did however go on to successfully defend their Premier League title, winning it for a record equaling 18th time. Sharing the record with, yes you guessed it, Liverpool.
That game was more than 3 years ago, a lot has happened since that sunny day in March. The fortunes of both the clubs have changed drastically since the 08/09 season. While United have continued on as contenders (and champions for a 19th time), our beloved club has not quite been that successful.
Remainder of the 08/09 campaign
Following that fixture on 14th March 2009, United went on to lose to Fulham as well at Craven Cottage and it looked like a distinct possibility that Liverpool would finally have that long awaited 19th crown.
However the Manchester club responded strongly after the back to back defeats, racking up an amazing 25 points out of a possible 27 from the remaining fixtures. Liverpool matched them stride for stride also racking up 25 points out of 27 (i.e 8 wins and 1 draw in nine), with the only set back being a memorable 8 goal thriller at Anfield against Arsenal. Arsharvin scoring all of the London clubs’ goals.
Liverpool had to play with the composure and confidence of champions, and Rafa Benitez’ men did not let the Kopites down. Unfortunately 10 other draws proved to take a toll on the clubs points tally, and their inefficiency in the first half of the season proved to be their downfall.
Manchester United, on the other hand, maintained a level of consistency throughout the campaign, and despite losing twice as much as Liverpool did, they ensured that they were able to dig deep and get those late goals when the score was deadlocked.
Liverpool played like champions, United were just a step ahead.
A bright future
Liverpool had to pick themselves up from that season, after giving their best effort yet to claim that illustrious Premier League crown and still falling short, the signs were bright for the future.
That was a season in which the club were unplayable at times, even against the best of Europe.
There was reason to believe that Liverpool were over-dependent on the dynamic duo of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, and while to a certain extent it is true that the two carried the club throughout the campaign, one cannot ignore the contributions of Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Dirk Kuyt, Yossi Benayoun, and more. Every club has their star players, but what got the club through the entire campaign was a combined effort of a world class squad.
The 08/09 season saw Liverpool break a few records (not necessarily records that one would want to hold). Liverpool became the first club in English football history to suffer only 2 losses and still not win the title. They also became the first club to get as many as 86 points over a 38 game campaign and still not finish on top. The club also scored a massive 77 goals and were top scorers that season. In addition to the above mentioned record breaking victories over United and Real, the club also remained unbeaten against the traditional (and then existing) top four. It was however the 11 draws (which resulted in 22 dropped points) that proved to be the difference.
The basis for success was outlined, all that was needed now was a full proof plan to build on the foundations laid down in 2009. This however, was easier said than done.
Follow-up to the successful campaign
When a team experiences a successful campaign (especially their best for nearly 20 years), you’d expect them to grow from strength to strength. But the Liverpool side we saw in 08/09 was reminiscent of the glorious Liverpool sides of the 70s and 80s. What followed this side is the mediocrity that we’ve accepted to live with. The present Liverpool side is no more a contender, no more a European giant. Yes the club still holds its place as one of the biggest in the World, but the squad available and the realistic expectations that come with it are a significant deterioration from that season.
In what should have been a summer of improvement turned out to be a transfer window to forget. One will argue the period between June-August 09 (and more specifically August 5th 2009) was the period where Liverpool induced a disaster on themselves. The crucial playmaker, the one that kept the attack going while strengthening the defence, the man who provided the team its shape and balance, and most important- its creative edge- was sold in a £30m deal to Real Madrid (the team which the club had completely dominated home & away the previous season). The player that still holds a place in Liverpool fans’ hearts, and indeed holds a place for the club in his, Xabi Alonso had left Anfield.
It was the summer that Liverpool began to really feel the consequences of the ill-fated regime of Hicks & Gillette. Despite being one of the best clubs in the whole of Europe the previous season, the club failed to compete financially and consequently on the field as well.
Liverpool finished the season in a record low 7th position, losing nearly 6 times as many games and a massive 23 points behind eventual champions Chelsea (who finished with the exact same points total as Liverpool the previous campaign).
The on-field results were poor, the relationship between Benitez and his senior players took a hit but the real reason behind the disastrous campaign were sitting in a multi-million pound home in expensive suits in the States. Unsurprisingly the Spaniard was made the scapegoat, as Rafael Benitez lost his job, causing large divides among the Anfield faithful.
That season was also the last for 5 times European champions in that very competition.
Continuation of the decline
Mistakes over mistakes piled up in Liverpool, as Benitez was succeeded by Hodgson, Mascherano followed his world class midfield partner Alonso into the La Liga, while our cult hero Torres too left.
The owners were replaced, the King had ascended his throne and the future once again looked bright. Another transition period started and patience was the name of the game again. A fairly successful second half to the 10/11 campaign followed including big money spent on two strikers.
But a horror show in the first half of the season meant that the club finished 6th, lost more games from the previous season and scored lesser goals. A theme that would become all too familiar.
But the foundation was once again made, there was promise and for once the finances were secure. A buy British policy was employed and this was seen as the move forward (in Comolli’s eyes atleast).
That experiment obviously proved to be a failure as the club finished a lowly 8th position. Scored even lesser goals than ever before during the decline and lost 14 games. They did however reach the finals of both domestic cups, winning the lesser important one. But that wasn’t enough.
King Kenny went onto lose his job as well, he was replaced by young Brendan Rodgers and a restricted transfer policy followed.
And we now find ourselves in the 2012/13 season, no closer to the the success of the 08/09 season and not much better than the 3 poor seasons that had followed. And despite it being an overly used cliché in Liverpool FC circles, we can be hopeful of the long-term future and the sheer existence of the club. Yes the future is bright, and I mean that.
But let’s see what Manchester United have been doing in that time.
Comparison to United
The defending champions had a poor transfer window themselves. While Real took Alonso off Liverpool’s books, they secured a mega £80m pound deal for Crisitano Ronaldo as well. The loss of Ronaldo to United could have proved to be a far worse blow to United than the loss of Alonso to Liverpool.
They didn’t do much in trying to replace the Portuguese superstar, signing Antonio Valenica from relegation battling Wigan. Valencia was a decent player, but could he really replace Cristiano? Well, no and yes. The thing was, when compared to United, Liverpool tried to replace Alonso by signing another similar player, sticking to the same tried and tested system and effectively not changing anything at all.
Manchester United responded to the loss of Ronaldo by signing Valencia and playing him like Valencia and not Ronaldo. Catch my drift? Despite winning the title, Ferguson recognised the need to alter the play and avoid monotony. That has been the biggest reason for United’s success, their ability to recognise their needs and respond with change. Its vital that teams learn to adapt, Ferguson has been instrumental in this regard.
Despite a fairly poor transfer window, United fared much better than Liverpool. They lost out on the title by just a point, lost more games compared to the previous season but scored more goals. The difference in fortunes was more than evident. The two clubs that were only 12 months back separated by 4 points now saw a gap of 22 points, while that was the margin in the goals field as well. The previous season Liverpool had scored 9 goals more than United. They also ensured a trophy, albeit the Carling Cup.
Manchester United were growing from strength to strength. The mentality showcased in the 08/09 season survived into the following seasons as well. Liverpool’s similar show of mental strength in that season seemed a one off thing. Liverpool became weaker, and weaker, while United capitalised on the ‘foundations’ laid season after season.
They had an immense 2010/11 campaign, securing a record 19th title (overtaking the Reds) and losing out to Barcelona in the Champions League final.
Investment was once again needed, and despite having narcissistic owners like the ex-Liverpool owners, United were backed financially. Ashley Young, David De Gea and Phil Jones were the significant investments as they attempted to retain the title. As we know, they lost out to City in the most thrilling title race of all time. No additions were made into the trophy cabinet either.
And we come back to the present day. Investment in the squad was even greater this time. We are only 4 games into the season but one can say for sure that United, who have remained consistent since 08/09, will continue with their success while Liverpool remain a distant echo. Almost as if it never were.
The United that we saw in 08/09 are much the same in their ability to compete in the 3 seasons that followed and the current one. While Liverpool have witnessed a remarkable downfall in their fortunes. Many still look to that campaign as the ‘real Liverpool’, the harsh reality however is that in the Premier League era, that season’s performance was a rare happening. The only other time we have come anywhere near to the title is the 2000/01 season.
(since that game on 14th March 2009 excluding stats from 2012/13 season)
The above graph illustrates how United have maintained their consistency in league finishes while Liverpool have been in a downward spiral.
This above chart shows how much more superior Manchester United have been in the goals department. They’ve scored nearly 100 goals more than Liverpool since that 4-1 game at Old Trafford. As mentioned Liverpool had finished with 9 goals more than United in the 08/09 season. Just shows how quickly and drastically Liverpool’s fortunes changed.
(Those goals are only goals from the Premier League uptil the end of the 2011/12 season- 123 games)
The first chart showed the significant difference between the two clubs. Man Utd are contenders while Liverpool struggle to get into European spots. Its alarming to note that over the last 4 seasons (including 2012/13 season) Liverpool have a far greater net spend to that of United’s. The Manchester club have done their financial business with more frugality.
Since that game at Old Trafford, the two clubs have met 8 times in all competitions, with United just edging it. Should be noted here that all victories have been home wins and that draw took place at Anfield last season.
It is really unfortunate to recognise how differently the clubs have performed since that match at Old Trafford; two complete extremes. While one has become synonymous with success, the other with transition and then mediocrity. Everyone expected Liverpool and Manchester United to dominate British football once more, but both have in fact gone down two opposite paths.
On Sunday, Anfield will bear witness to another terrific tie between the two clubs. Expect an atmosphere and an air of friendship as the two clubs combine to pay their respect to the 96 victims of the Hillsborough tragedy. While United could afford to settle for a point, Liverpool will be seen as the club needing the victory having not recorded a single win in the first 4 games. First time that has happened for 101 years at the club. Now there’s a record for you!
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Picture credits to: joshuakearney.com; mirrorfootball.co.uk; telegraph.co.uk; guardian.co.uk
Charts made at: nces.ed.gov
This article was originally written my the writer for www.lfcts.com