It is a source of great frustration and unfairness that Manchester United against Liverpool is happening the Monday after an international break. Not just because somebody always gets injured, somebody always gets a late plane back, and somebody scores an own goal to ruin their country's stout defensive performance and comes back a broken shell of a footballer. But because had this Premier League game followed directly on from the last Premier League game, we would have had a chance to investigate not just the relative strength of the two teams, but some of the underlying principles that give football — and the stories we tell about football — its shape.
One of the most enduring beliefs of football followers is the axiom that follows a "big team" playing badly, yet coming away with a win. The axiom states: That's what champions do. And it's a sound principle. Given that big teams tend to win when they play well, what with having all the best players and all, the sight of a big team picking up points where they might not entirely deserve to is a pretty decent suggestion that this team, this season, is going to do well. So when Liverpool pick up a late win over Swansea, in a game they could easily have lost, we might well conclude that this year is going to be a good one at Anfield.
Does the principle work the other way around? We know that, when it comes to big teams, a bad performance leading to a bad result equals a CRISIS, a good performance leading to a good result equals business as usual, and, as noted above, a bad performance leading to a good result equals championship form. How should we respond when a big team plays well, yet doesn't win? When Manchester United spend an hour and half chasing a fairly rubbish Stoke side all around Old Trafford, yet drop points?
And then, if those two teams play each other in the very next game what happens then?
Let's take United first. Against Stoke, they played pretty well in almost all respects, and the eventual result — a 1-1 draw that presumably felt, from a United perspective, quite a lot like a loss — was contingent on the combination of three very unlikely things: a visiting goalkeeper in inspired form; a collective breakdown of striking ability; and David de Gea, who is usually quite good, doing something hilariously bad. It's tempting to fold the result into the wider story of José Mourinho's slow start. To note that 13 points from seven games isn't particularly Special and, while it's a little early to start taking the league table too seriously, the sight of United tucked into sixth place behind both halves of Merseyside, both halves of north London and Manchester City isn't quite how things were supposed to be going.
Yet Mourinho, spoiler of sport that he is, refused to play his part by lashing out against his own players, the FA, or the phases of the moon. "It's simple — the best Manchester United performance of the season," he blasted. "We had 90 minutes of control, we had 90 minutes of ambition. We played really well and it was a good home performance and we created lots of chances," he roared. The fact that they mostly failed to kick the ball into the net means that they didn't deserve to win — good football without finishing is not good-enough football — but equally, assuming that all this missing doesn't become a habit, it suggests that it can be written off as just one of those days. And, presumably, every single United player was desperate to get onto the next game and manufacture a result to match their performance.
CUE THE INTERNATIONAL BREAK!
As for Liverpool, following the Swansea game Jürgen Klopp was less complimentary about their overall performance, if much happier with the result. The second half was "how the whole game should be;" in the first, by contrast, "the body language was not good, [Liverpool were] too late in mind, all that stuff. You have to show the minimum part of your usual face," he concluded, a trifle confusingly. Perhaps that's why he wears the beard.
Where United had to process the deflation that comes when dominance is thrown away, Liverpool, by contrast, could ride the wave of having been struggling, then having found themselves and found a path to victory. There is some debate about whether momentum in sport is a thing, but if it is, then nothing gives it impetus like a late, slightly scabby win. We can assume that every single Liverpool player, just like every single Liverpool fan, was absolutely buzzing to get on to the next game.
CUE THE INTERNATIONAL BREAK!
This isn't going to stop the game being ... well, whatever it's going to be. It's Manchester United against Liverpool, it's Klopp against Mourinho. None of that needs sexing up. But it is something of a shame that we weren't allowed to see two teams with big ambitions trying to respond to different kinds of underperformance. To really stress test the championship form theory and its logical opposite. Instead, everybody took two weeks to go and do something else, and so we reconvene with a blank slate, and nothing to look forward except one of the banner fixtures of the Premier League. Sometimes, life just lets you down.