By Dev Lewis
On Saturday afternoon Manchester United take on Liverpool at Anfield in undoubtedly one of the most anticipated fixtures in English football’s calendar.
Like in nearly all of European Football’s biggest rivalries, the rivalry between the two clubs is rooted in history and politics. The hatred between Liverpool and Manchester, two cities only 40 miles apart, can be traced back to the late 19th century and the opening of the Manchester Canal that threatened to make Manchester a significant port city, causing Liverpool to lose out financially. Liverpool did everything they could to prevent the passing of the bill in parliament before the canal finally opened in January 1894.
Since then, both these clubs have won 38 English League titles and eight European cups between them as both compete to stake claim to being the most successful club in England. While Manchester United overtook Liverpool in 2011 to become England’s most successful League team, Liverpool fans point to their superior haul of 5 to United’s 3 European cups. The narrative in the build up to these games always has an ode to the past—the great games, moments, and players who shaped this rivalry over the decades.
The two clubs have historically always challenged for these trophies at different periods, but their rivalry and hatred is rooted in the permanency of history and geography rather than league position. That is why although on Saturday these two clubs will not meet as teams challenging for the title, but the clash will be as fiery as ever.
Manchester United are currently placed 6th and Liverpool 9th but just three points behind, meaning a home victory will see Liverpool go level on points with United—catching up with them for the first time this season. United and Louis van Gaal go into this fixture under more pressure as they attempt to shake off the effects an abysmal December—3 draws and 4 losses—a combination of dire performances, matched by poor results that saw the club slip 9 points off the summit.
But what sets this fixture apart from previous ones is that it will see Louis van Gaal and Jurgen Klopp renew their rivalry.
The path first overlapped between 2009-11 when Klopp and van Gaal were then managing Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich respectively. The record reads four played with an even two wins for either manager. Although, Klopp will feel his two victories counted for something more, as his Dortmund side beat Bayern in Munich for the first time in 20 years, resulting in van Gaal receiving the sack a few days later and Dortmund eventually going on to clinch the Bundesliga title.
However, their previous meetings lack the personal plot and drama of this Saturday’s encounter—even without the context of the United-Liverpool rivalry.
Louis van Gaal is managerial great who at 66 is in the twilight of his career—during which he has won league titles with 4 different clubs in Holland, Spain and Germany. Jurgen Klopp, 49, is a star on the rise and one of the newest members to the football managerial elite.
There are some striking parallels. Just like van Gaal took his Ajax team of un-fancied teenagers to win Champions League in 1995, Klopp took Borussia Dortmund to the final of the Champions League in 2013 and broke Bayern Munich’s monopoly in the league. Both managers did so through their own unique and pioneering blend of tactics.
Here lies the real anticipation to Saturday’s football.
Louis van Gaal’s philosophy is focused on ball retention and circulation(moving the ball with the main aim of retaining possession) to exploit spaces in the opponent’s ranks. Van Gaal wants his team to play on the front foot and his teams always dominate ball possession—United boast an average of 57%, the highest in the league—as he seeks to lure opponents out for the ball and then exploit the space that opens up.This philosophy has been his blue print for success at all his previous clubs, perhaps to highest acclaim at Ajax.
Jurgen Klopp's focus, based primarily from his success at Dortmund, is on a high-intensity, gegenpressing style of football— all his players, in all positions of the field swarm the opposition seeking to win the ball. They then counter-attack with immediacy, speed and intensity in an attempt to take advantage of the spaces as their opponent attempts to recover their defensive positions. Klopp doesn't see as much value in ball possession, his comments on Arsene Wenger sum his views on possession. “He likes having the ball, playing football, passes. It’s like an orchestra. But it’s a silent song. But I like heavy metal more. I always want it loud”.
Whereas Louis van Gaal is known for drilling his players tactically with detailed video analyses of the opponent, Klopp famously showed his players photos of Barcelona players celebrating goals to illustrate how they celebrate each goal like it was their last.
Their demeanour in the dug out is almost a manifestation of this contrast. On Saturday you will see a fiery and animated Klopp prancing along the dugout contesting every 50/50 decision in full embodiment of the Anfield faithful. Louis van Gaal will be seated for all 90 minutes meticulously taking notes, unaffected by the emotion and drama that surrounds him.
Both are excellent and successful managers whose contrast in approach illustrates how many different ways there are to play football and how football has evolved tactically over the decades.
Will van Gaal’s United eagerly exploit the space as Klopp’s Liverpool swarm around them seeking the ball? Will Klopp’s “heavy metal” style of football in the charged Anfield atmosphere be too much for United to handle?
Of course, Klopp has not had the time to build the Liverpool team in his own image but in wins against Chelsea and Manchester City he has shown glimpses of how breathtaking his style can be. Equally, van Gaal’s team, who has beaten Liverpool in all his previous three attempts, have performed best against big teams that have attempted to also come out play on the front foot. Saturday’s clash promises to both be a thrilling clash in both passion and tactics.