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Premier League: Clash of philosophies as United's stars take on Liverpool, where the team is King

Richard Jolly
Liverpool/united

They are the kindred spirits who like to imagine they are opposites. Over the years, Liverpool and Manchester United have had more similarities than differences, even if the bitterness of a rivalry makes it hard for either to accept that. Yet when they meet on Monday, it will be with a fundamental disparity in thought, ethos and personnel.

United have pursued stars. Liverpool have eschewed them. United have made Paul Pogba the most expensive footballer in history. They have signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the ego who has seemed a guarantee of league titles. They have Wayne Rooney, who could add the United goals record to the mantle of being England’s record scorer. They arguably have three of the most well-known footballers on the planet. Liverpool have none. They may not have anyone in the top 30.

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Individually, collectively, United’s players are more famous than their Liverpool counterparts. Yet fame alone does not win games. If it did, Liverpool would have beaten Burnley and United would have won at Watford. Their contrasting attitudes towards celebrity indicate very different thinking at clubs separated by just 30 miles, a couple of league titles and two European Cups.

There is an acceptance at Anfield that they do not have anyone who tops the bill in the way that Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez once did. Daniel Sturridge might be the closest equivalent, but injury problems have rendered him less prominent. So has Jurgen Klopp, when omitting the specialist goalscorer, while Sturridge himself, a singular character who ploughs his own furrow, does not gravitate towards the limelight. In contrast, Suarez’s magnetism ensured it shone on him and Gerrard accepted the responsibility that came with his status.

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Now they have no such equivalent. Perhaps it would have been different had Mario Gotze, scorer of the winner in the World Cup final, wanted to join. Instead, there is a division of responsibilities. Philippe Coutinho the greatest talent, Roberto Firmino the first-choice striker, Jordan Henderson the club captain. Yet the star is Klopp, with his huge smile, dramatic gestures, deep laugh and radiant charisma.

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But Mourinho is similarly charismatic, perhaps even more quotable and certainly with a lengthier record of winning. For much of his managerial career, the Portuguese has been in the position Klopp now occupies, overshadowing his players, the focus of all the attention, the subject of songs and the crowd’s hero.

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Mourinho seemed to have the same sort of ideas as Klopp. His Porto team was a blend of homegrown talents, bargains and underrated achievers. They were no star vehicle. Even in his first spell at Chelsea, when their budget seemed limitless, the recruitment policy seemed to be to ignore the biggest names and bring in younger, hungrier players. One theory was that Mourinho’s ego meant he preferred to be alpha male.

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Now he is one of several. Perhaps it says something about Mourinho, the outsider who is now comfortable in the company of such big personalities. Certainly it reveals much about his club.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, United have been rebranded from big winners to big spenders. They have tried to define themselves by their star signings: Juan Mata, Radamel Falcao, Angel di Maria, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Pogba, Ibrahimovic. The problem is that, so far, none is an unqualified success, though this summer’s two arrivals may yet become them and the Spaniard deserves credit for surviving longer than many expected.

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United are happy to recruit them, willing to pay suitable, sizeable fees. They spent £145 million in the summer. Liverpool made a transfer-market profit. That can be the Klopp way. His concept is that the team is the star. They are not bought but made in the process: Robert Lewandowski, Mats Hummels and Gotze left Dortmund as big names, but they did not have that rank when Klopp first picked them. Some of the side who won back-to-back Bundesligas and reached a Champions League final – Roman Weidenfeller, Kevin Grosskreutz, Marcel Schmelzer, Neven Subotic, Moritz Leitner – remained comparatively low profile for players of their achievements.

Now there are parallels with Liverpool. Loris Karius and Joel Matip were not United-style statements of ambition, but cheap additions Klopp nevertheless liked. Even Sadio Mane, his most expensive acquisition, was not the sort of name to excite the marketing men in the way Pogba or Ibrahimovic would. Two months into the campaign, Mane is shaping up as an early contender for the unofficial award for the signing of the season. A dynamic display at Anfield would burnish his credentials. A match-winning display from Pogba or Ibrahimovic would vindicate United’s strategy of buying in stars. Either way, it not just a case of clubs colliding. So are philosophies.