When Manchester United picked up their record-setting 19th English first division title in 2011, the manager at their bitter rivals Liverpool was none other than Kenny Dalglish. A totem of the sweeping success Anfield had enjoyed in a roaring two-decade period now a distant memory, Dalglish’s installation at the helm betrayed the need at Anfield for familiar faces, for comfort and for a thread from which to trace to better times.
Liverpool were untouchable between 1975 and 1984, topping the first division on seven occasions in the nine-year spell, proving irresistible on the continental stage too by forging a dynasty in Europe with four famous triumphs in quick succession. In front of a packed-out Wembley stadium in 1978, Dalglish scored the winner to down Belgian opposition Club Brugge. No abundance of foresight would predict the circumstances of his return over thirty years later: no league title since the turn of the 90s and a demise accentuated – accelerated, even – by a potent miscellany of off-field events, perhaps underlined best by the 1985 Heysel Disaster and the subsequent blackout of English teams in European football.
“Au revoir Cantona and Man United. Come back when you’ve won 18”
When in 1994 a group of forward-thinking Liverpool fans unveiled their challenge – scrawled on a bed-sheet in block capitals marker pen – at Anfield, the power-shift in English football was already well underway.
By now, foreign players such as Eric Cantona were percolating into English stadia and broadening the division’s horizons; as English football returned on the European agenda, a new force had emerged. This was Manchester United’s second triumph in a row in the newfangled Premier League and just a few months earlier, capitalising on sources of new money in the game – and with commercial nous that would come to define the upcoming era, tilted to the Christmas market – the club had opened a gargantuan megastore. With Ferguson and the Class of 92 allied together, a global brand was born.
Liverpool and Manchester United have always revelled in each another’s failures. The landscape of English football is defined with great heft by their rivalry and the eras of dominance celebrated and endured. When Jurgen Klopp’s side took 36 shots against a Mourinho side set up like a roadblock, counter-attacking with two articulating lorries in centre-midfield, it was emblematic that the two now have their boots on the other feet once more. When the Kop sung to a chorus of “Don’t sack Mourinho”, it was an embarrassment analogous to the infiltration of the Anfield Road End in 2011 to proclaim that United were back; a haunting taunt and an emphatic dent to the image of the club – through the lens of fandom or the charts on Wall Street.
It is tempting to suggest that it has taken a strong, genuinely title-challenging Liverpool to shake Manchester United into action. As Liverpool top the Premier League at Christmas, United languish, cut adrift and are left to rue a post-Ferguson era that has left the pioneers looking primeval. There are other factors at play, of course, the circumstances blurred, but the parallels are difficult to ignore. As Manchester United struggled to adapt to a new era, Liverpool acted to adopt the structures required to run a successful modern-day superclub. Jurgen Klopp provided a philosophy to buy into; Mourinho brought with him his pragmatic toolbox but no clear direction other than a third season December check-out, this time at the Lowry, almost exactly three years to the day since his last.
So, in a roundabout way, to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Why a manager who failed to stymie a struggling Cardiff City and who, according to Clubelo ratings, has failed to improve his Molde team over a three-year spell in the 23rd strongest division in Europe? On pure managerial acumen and efficient recruitment strategy, the managerial loan-deal ranks as just about the most left-field decision the club has made in the Premier League era. It makes the seven million splurge on Bebe on account of a personal recommendation look like logical, well-reasoned business.
If the appointment of Jose Mourinho and the subsequent coup in attracting both Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Thursday night football supposed to be proof United still reside on a higher plane to their newer, more zealous and opulent rivals, then hidden beneath the media-savvy, feel-good arrival of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a stark admittance that the club is now finally playing catch-up.
The club needs time. Lots of it. Liverpool’s hare-brained high-press and explosive transition may be inimitable with the lumbering presence of Romelu Lukaku, but their strategies are far easier mimicked. More pointedly for Manchester United, they need a smoke-screen from which to conduct it behind.
From the vantage point of the boardroom, Solskjaer is the perfect candidate. A club legend and 1999 hero, he is a manager with serious ambition but nonetheless one who could never claim to land the job on merit; one who will claim no autonomy over January dealings and who will return to Norway with his celestial status unperturbed whether Kylian Mbappé tears his side to shreds or not. Alan Shearer took Newcastle down in 2009; Kenny Dalglish led Liverpool to a lowly finish not replicated since the 1960s. Roberto Di Matteo won the Champions League with Chelsea. Quite clearly, it’s a gamble, but it’s one that the current iteration of Manchester United feel obliged to take.
As Ed Woodward puts it: “His history at Manchester United means he lives and breathes the culture here.” In the eyes of the baby-faced assassin, he may now be the manager but Sir Alex Ferguson will always be “the Gaffer”. For all parties then, the appointment hopes to bring familiarity. For United, the familiarity with the winning culture of old, the hairdryer treatment and Fergie time; and for Solskjaer himself, familiarity with a bench from which he has analysed so many games. But for once, he’ll have to do it all without leaving it.