When Manchester United line up at Anfield to take on Liverpool tomorrow, they will do so knowing that their recent record at the ground is a miserable one. The past few years of visits have seen them bullied, outfought, and overrun despite the clear advantage in quality they have possessed over their rivals. It is where United's much-vaunted winning mentality appears to abandon them at the gates, leaving them with meek and timid performances. No comebacks. No Fergie time winners.
They might also be reminded of the most recent of the few times that English football's two most successful clubs enjoyed a genuine title race, in the 2008-09 season. Perhaps we'll look back on it more fondly when more years have passed, but it is one that deserves to go down among the all-time great title tussles. Even then, we do not need to wait to gain a sense of perspective: the fight was so fierce that it ended up destroying both participants, and both teams that fought for that trophy are now ancient history. Some players may remain, but as a unit and as an identity, they're as gone as Don Revie's Leeds United or Herbert Chapman's Arsenal.
The high stakes that season intensified the competition: Manchester United were competing to equal Liverpool's record of English top-flight league wins. It was not about one season, it was about all the football seasons there had ever been. Despite that, the real reason the rivalry that season was so good - and so bitter, and hostile, and yet poetic - was that both sides were as different as night from day. Or good from evil, depending on your preference. Manchester United had a remarkably deep squad full of effective options, playing with perhaps the greatest fluidity ever seen in the English game, at the cutting edge of tactical innovation, the result of years of patient building and calm planning from enlightened, cool-headed men. Their opponents were an improvised rabble thrown together out of desperation in a high-tempo, direct, no-nonsense style, but one in which all the pieces fell perfectly into place for one season only.
The contrast was best highlighted by each of their best performances that season, both of which actually came in Europe. Liverpool's 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid was a breathtaking performance, a hell-for-leather approach completely overrunning and outplaying the Spaniards as they dealt out a manic and merciless thrashing. Manchester United's 3-1 away victory over Arsenal was the polar opposite - the ferocity of United's attack was not what shocked, but rather the effortlessness with which the home side were batted away and the precision with which they were dissected on the counter-attack. Although the victory was by only half the margin, United were playing football from another planet compared to Wenger's men. That, in essence, was the two teams for most of the season: Manchester United a cool, sleek, multi-faceted winning machine, and Liverpool, a one-dimensional, relentless, and devastating monstrosity.
Manchester United essentially had three weapons they relied upon to see them through: Firstly, an impenetrable defence, perhaps their best ever, perhaps the Premier League's best ever. Certainly the finest centre-back pairing, with Ferdinand the best in the world at the time and Nemanja Vidic a world-class player who represented his perfect foil, enhanced by the supremely calming presence of Edwin Van der Sar in goal. Secondly, a ludicrous number of attacking options - in numbers and quality, again perhaps the best United or any English club has ever possessed. They had the unpredictability of Nani and Berbatov, they had the physicality and determination of Rooney and Tevez, and they had the jewel in the crown, the third and most potent of all weapons - Cristiano Ronaldo, the best footballer on the planet and the greatest English football had ever seen. In short, it was a team to rival 1968 or 1999, fresh from being declared Champions of Europe, and yet their third season would be their most difficult and their last.
An opening-day draw to Newcastle was a traditional start to United's season, but a typically sub-par performance at Anfield combined with a draw against Chelsea and having played a game less, United entered October in eleventh place, already six points off the pace. Chelsea and Arsenal were still viewed as greater threats, but Liverpool had been threatening a title challenge for years - the possibility began to be hyped up - it would be their year, and United were not even in the fight to stop them. It was a ridiculously premature assertion, but one that at the time seemed a genuine danger, particularly among the popular will to see an unloved United side featuring Cristiano Ronaldo crash and burn.
It was not until November, when a defeat to Arsenal left them eight points adrift that United began to show what they were capable of, at one end of the pitch at least. They would not concede a goal in the Premier League again for four months, but a 5-0 thrashing of Stoke City was followed with a run of six games where United's array of attacking talent managed to score a grand total of four goals, drawing blanks against Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur. United's defence was keeping them safe, but they looked shaky, rather than impenetrable.
Then, of course, came ‘facts.' What possessed Benitez to launch his diatribe, and how much effect it actually had on the Premier League season, is debatable. History, however, is written by the victors, and the narrative of Benitez showing a mental fragility that weakened his own side but inspired United is a difficult one to resist, and not entirely without merit. In the following game, United had by some distance their best game so far, thumping Chelsea 3-0 and finally coming together as a team, continuing their narrow wins and clean sheets, but looking like a solid, unbeatable unit in the process. Meanwhile, Liverpool drew three consecutive games - a disastrous run which surrendered their lead in the table.
Victory over Chelsea and Manchester City appeared to get Benitez's men back on track, but they were followed by a home draw to Manchester City and a miserable 2-0 away defeat to Middlesbrough. Yes, Liverpool lost two games in the Premier League all season, and one of them was to Gareth Southgate's Middlesbrough. It seemed to confirm United's assumptions earlier on in the season - Liverpool were no serious threat, they had merely got off to some good form while United had their traditional sluggish start. Their title bid would soon be over when United inevitably defeated them at the upcoming game at Old Trafford.
In that game, two decisions were made. They were undertaken in highly esoteric circumstances: Liverpool needed not just a victory, but a convincing and total destruction of United to shake their seemingly unerring morale. While things may have looked bright for the future of both clubs, Ferguson knew that Ronaldo's departure at the end of the season could potentially lead them down a dark road, and Benitez knew of his struggles with the Liverpool board and the uncertainty of any future investment. Combined with the scoreline starting not at 0-0, but at 17-18 - the entire history of English football at stake - it resulted in the same conclusion for both men: victory had to be achieved, no matter the cost. It was in that atmosphere and mindset that both managers made the choices that were to have tremendous ramifications far beyond the game at Old Trafford. The same conclusion, opposite decisions: United set out to stifle and resorted to negativity to prevent Liverpool from achieving the victory they desperately needed, and as Ferguson adopted pragmatism, Benitez abandoned it, and let Liverpool off the leash in search of the overwhelming victory they required.
For that game, Ferguson's plan failed. United looked uncomfortable and timid, and after taking a fortunate lead, were soon routed after Liverpool's aggression bullied them in a manner that would have been typical at Anfield but was almost never seen at Old Trafford. Of all Liverpool's players, Andrea Dossena perhaps exemplified the club at that time the most: he had the game of his life, dominating the left flank and lobbing Van der Sar as United crumbled against a palpably inferior team that was playing far better than any reasonable person could've expected.
Although a terrible and bitter blow to take in isolation, the mood at Old Trafford was not one immediately of despair. United still had their games in hand, and in the midst of a tedious round of press questioning as to whether the title race was ‘back on', the general feeling was that United would soon re-establish their lead, which would become unassailable after a few more points gained. It was not actually until the next round of fixtures, when United slumped to a pitiful 2-0 defeat to Fulham and Liverpool blew Aston Villa away 5-0, that the danger became terrifyingly apparent.
What followed was to be perhaps the most relentless title push in living memory. For a season in which so many catastrophic blunders and unforgivable errors were made, it did not have the air of 1999, when Arsenal and United charged relentlessly forwards, trampling everything in their path. For those seven games, however, the sheer determination shown by both teams to overcome was greater than anything that had gone before. For months every game was a victory-or-death struggle, both teams spurring each other on and leaving no margin for error, which against the backdrop of seemingly the entire history of English football being at stake, created an intensity which has perhaps never been seen before.
It was those two decisions made in the clash between the two at Old Trafford that were to shape the coming months - Ferguson served only to be more convinced of the need for pragmatism, and resolved to finish the season with sheer grittiness, relying on the certainty that a team with so many attacking options would score at least one goal, and therefore directing the general team effort to making sure clean sheets were kept. Liverpool were as always the opposite, running riot in Europe and England and crushing everything before them.
There was a curious paradox between the nature of the ensuing victories and the aura of the team that completed them. Liverpool's triumphs were mostly thrashings by several goals, while United desperately scraped wins from tight situations, came from behind, and relied on last-minute goals. Yet perversely, Liverpool seemed to have given every drop of sweat and blood in the endeavour. United, meanwhile, left the pitch at the end of the game looking like they could happily do the same again without so much as the need for a sit down and a cup of tea. In a battle of attrition, as any league season is, it wasn't a good sign for Liverpool.
United, however, could not replicate their earlier solidity, and after an early lead against Aston Villa became a 2-1 deficit, the jig looked up. It has gone down as the definitive game of the season, with justification, despite the fact there were eight games still to be played after it. Something else, something greater, was regained against Villa. The introduction of the 17-year-old Federico Macheda demonstrated the sheer depth of United's resources available, and also the extent to which they had to push themselves to stop Liverpool. At the same time, however, it seemed undoubtedly United, the unknown youth player scoring the title-winning goal in his debut game. It carried with it an overwhelming sense of destiny and romance - from that moment on, United were favourites. Unheard-of teenagers do not score winning goals in the middle of title races for teams that go on to lose. It wouldn't fit the script.
Although it seemed that United were a team who prevailed in the toughest of circumstances, in reality the same traits also betrayed a curious mental fragility. They were vulnerable to struggle under pressure, and when United were playing if not their most fluid, then certainly their most effective football, during the clean-sheet streak of earlier in the season, they were doing so under the lack of pressure that typifies the early season. In the first half of the season, United would not have come back from behind to defeat Aston Villa, for the simple reason that they would not have put themselves in the position to do so.
It was then, vital for Liverpool to keep up the pressure, but the same football of unbelievable pace and aggression that had crushed Real Madrid soon began to look reckless. In the quarter-finals of the Champions League, the waves of Liverpool attacks crashed on Chelsea's far more robust defensive unit, and Liverpool were picked off on the counter-attack. 3-1 was not an insurmountable defeat, but there were few expecting Liverpool to prevail in the next round. Benitez once again went all-out, but this time he lost control of the vehicle altogether: Liverpool's kamikaze attacking took Chelsea by surprise, but the balance between attack and defence had been completely lost. The resulting match was an utterly bonkers 4-4 which checked Liverpool's confidence, but also sent out an important message: they could be stopped.
Astonishingly, the game was to repeat itself immediately afterwards against Arsenal. Liverpool fell behind early to an Arshavin stirke, and their attack once again overwhelmed their opponent, and once again broke into disarray. The result was devastating to both sides: at 2-1, when Yossi Benayoun put them ahead, they seemed to be on the brink of routing Arsenal, but that desperate charge was the high water-mark of Benitez's Liverpool, their title challenge, and the team itself. Fifteen minutes later, their apparent pathological inability to stop haphazardly pouring forwards meant they would be behind once again. Two minutes later, they would be level, but the limits of their madness and aggression were by then all too apparent. Arshavin put Arsenal ahead once again in injury time, and a late equaliser from Benayoun did not succeed in repairing the damage. Four goals, and four nails in the coffin of Liverpool's title bid.
Despite the new sense that fate was smiling on them, United did not immediately improve. Macheda was, incredibly, required to do the same again as United scraped past Sunderland 1-0. but the real test, and the point of no return for Manchester United, Alex Ferguson, and pragmatism - the point at which it could all have been very different - was against Tottenham Hotspur.
United fell two goals behind thanks to some shockingly poor defending, and so after coming out for the second half, Ferguson unleashed his nuclear option, the antithesis of pragmatism: Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, and Carlos Tevez all on the pitch at the same time. It was a desperate move, and one which walked the dangerous line between fluidity and total chaos, at which United would either play the most glorious, swashbuckling football they had for some time, or implode in disorganised confusion.
It turned out to be the former. All four goals were created and scored by all four men, as United's quartet ran riot and blew Tottenham away. The first goal was, it must be said, a penalty which should not have been given, coming after Heurelho Gomes was forced to dive in at Michael Carrick's feet after he was released by a pass of incredible vision and technique by Wayne Rooney. In the context of things, the legality of it didn't matter. United were already looking dominant, Spurs already looking flaky.
It's a mystery that the quartet played together so infrequently, for in that second half they delivered the most terrifying display of attacking potency of the season. There was no clear attacking plan, but all four worked together wonderfully. The second goal was a sweeping passing move to progress through Tottenham's half before Rooney finished: Ronaldo, to Tevez, to Berbatov, to Tevez, to Rooney. The third goal, a Wayne Rooney cross to find the onrushing Ronaldo. The fourth goal, a superb piece of skill from Berbatov, played to Ronaldo to deliver a perfect chipped pass to the back post for Rooney to finish. The fifth another raking passing manoeuvre: Tevez, to Berbatov, to Rooney, to Berbatov.
From that point on, United were effectively champions. They followed it up with far more comfortable wins against Middlesbrough and Manchester City, and in Europe, demolished Arsenal at the Emirates with their best display of the season. Liverpool continued to look unbeatable, and though they had not run out of steam they had, to borrow the old Steve McClaren line, run out of time.
It was, again, the two decisions that were made on that day in March, that proved to be fatal to both sides. Both turned out to be the correct decision for the time: Liverpool did destroy United, and even had they beaten Arsenal would still have finished second. Manchester United did prevail and keep themselves in front just long enough to pass over the line. But in the bigger picture, two teams at the height of their powers surrendered a hugely advantageous position due to the misconceptions and myopia that followed.
For Liverpool, the breathtaking victory-or-death charge at the end of the season gave them an ill-deserved confidence that they were close to their ultimate victory of a Premier League title. Appreciation of their brilliance gave way to anger as they looked back on where the league was lost: the easily-avoidable home draws against Premier League cannon-fodder like Stoke and Hull. Such impotence seemed a million miles away from the current team, but Benitez and Liverpool allowed it to delude them into a false sense of security. The early-season weaknesses due to lack of options and fluidity were not addressed, and when heavily-tipped for a similar tilt next season, they flopped.
Many blame the departure of Alonso as the key factor, but there cannot be one reason behind such a rapid decline. Instead, they were numerous: Steven Gerrard's dip in form, Fernando Torres' injuries catching up with him, the disastrous decision to install Alberto Aquilani, a notoriously injury-prone playmaker, as the key player in such a thin squad, numbers not boosted, and the failure of more peripheral players such as Dirk Kuyt to replicate their remarkable form of the previous season. In calmer times, all these could've been pointed out and addressed. Liverpool were carried away in the excitement, and destroyed under the weight of their own self-belief.
For United, the decision to put a winning team to the slaughterhouse was not one taken lightly, and Ferguson has been so successful because his courage in the matter has been mediated by his ability to analyse his failured, and tell the difference between a defeat that comes as the result of an off-day and one which occurs due to a fatal, systemic flaw. The 4-1 was a far more comprehensive defeat than the loss to Real Madrid which led to his great leap forward in implementing 4-5-1, but Ferguson knew it did not necessitate a revolution. In fact, it merely strengthened his resolve to continue his negative approach, and it proved to be the right decision as it allowed United to achieve their goal - victory over Liverpool at all costs.
That philosophy did not end there, however. In pragmatism, Ferguson saw the future, and it worked. United may have played some breathtaking attacking football against Tottenham, but it was the earlier run of narrow victories and clean sheets in which Ferguson saw the direction for United to take. That triumph gave him the conviction to carry out a similar plan to cope with life after Ronaldo - prioritise the defence, and have enough options to get the goal at the other end. That strategy has been mixed - it has delivered one title and two very near misses in three years, but United have declined in Europe and look further away from building a truly great team than they have for some time.
The short lifespan of that United side is a genuine tragedy - it cannot be emphasised enough how special they were, or rather might have been. A team that had a genuine claim to possess English football's greatest ever defence, attack, and footballer cannot be spoken too highly of. Ferguson could've kept that unstoppable attack that destroyed Tottenham as the blueprint, but equally he may have decided a greater change was required. His longevity is down to the contrasting short lifespans of his teams, seeing the habitual destroying of teams at their peak and construction of new ones as a necessity. It is this relatively rapid boom-bust cycle that has kept United from any genuine decline - slow evolution can keep a successful nucleus going, but it eventually meets a final and uncertain end.
Perhaps it is only because we see it through the haze of romantic retrospection, but the narrative of Manchester United under Ferguson contains no real defeats. Every setback is rather a sacrifice, presented as a catalyst for some decision or transformation that leads to even greater riches in the future. Manchester United's great midfield weakness, obscured for so long by the brilliance of their attack and defence, was badly exposed for the first time against Liverpool, but it gave United the short-term determination to win the league. Against Barcelona however, the weakness was laid bare in a more excruciating fashion, and done so again by the departure of Ronaldo.
So far, the silver lining to those clouds has not been discovered. United's weakness remains, and they look as far off a Champions League-winning side as they did in the dark days of 2005. Perhaps, like then, their next great team is only around the corner. Even if that is true, it is unlikely that it will take the form of their 1999 heroes or the side that was capable of such glorious attacking football in 2008\09. That season, United and Ferguson finally gave way to negativity, partly enforced by the austerity of the Glazer regime, but partly as a conscious decision for which an alternative existed. It was an idea that was developed to win the league at any cost, but even in the light of United's 19th title, it still looks like a heavy one.