On Sky Sports’ flagship Monday Night Football show last week, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville turned their attention to Manchester United vs Liverpool. It is the match which gave their bosses the idea of making them the perfect foil for one another, a sort of anti-double act.
First and foremost, in an industry filled with poor research and lukewarm opinions, their punditry is why they have become so lauded over the best part of a decade, but their personal rivalry, so loyal are they to their respective teams, has made them entertaining to watch, too.
But when presenter Dave Jones asked them to put together a combined XI of players from both sides, they inadvertently showed the difference between the two sides and why Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are so far ahead of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United. They agreed on seven out of the 11 players, but one issue between Carragher and Neville in particular was the central striker. The former Reds defender selected Roberto Firmino; the Red Devil opted for Cristiano Ronaldo.
In the realm of an exercise as light as that, when the aim was to choose the best players available, it doesn’t matter too much. Neville was right to suggest that Ronaldo should be in there on talent and reputation alone; after all, this is a team that will never play a game, so discussing tactics is futile. But when he turned to Carragher and asked whether he’d pick Ronaldo for Liverpool, it exposed something more about how the two pundits, and by extension clubs, approach the game.
The answer was no, and Carragher was ridiculed, softly by Neville but more severely, as expected, on social media, but his point was more than valid. Liverpool are perhaps the most intense team to watch and play for in the world; everything starts on the front foot, and Klopp’s style, which he dubbed ‘heavy metal football’ is essentially a race to get the ball back as high up the pitch as possible.
Energy and stamina are key; the Reds have effectively won the Premier League and Champions League without a midfielder whose instruction was purely to maintain possession. It isn’t about domination of the territory, but rather making sure where you do win the ball is as impactful as possible. There can be no passengers; the system is more important than any player.
Like it or not, that simply isn’t the case for Solskjaer’s side. While signing Ronaldo was understandable and he has already proven his worth — twice scoring late winners in the Champions League — he has become the focus of the team as little more than a poacher. At 36, it is incredible to see the way he has understood what he needs to do to get the most out of his latter years, but the things he has sacrificed are basically all the ingredients Klopp sees as essential.
He doesn’t really press because he has to pick his moments, he doesn’t get involved in the build up play. Where Klopp demands a collective effort, Ronaldo has become the ultimate individualist, capable of digging his team out of a hole, but the antithesis of what the Liverpool boss needs. Of course he wouldn’t pick him.
But that is what Ronaldo brings and what Manchester United’s biggest problem is. He has to play, in the eyes of many, because of moments like against Villarreal and Atalanta. But the uncomfortable truth is he has also exacerbated an issue with the current set up at Old Trafford; Solskjaer’s tactical identity is not obvious even now, three year as after he arrived in the job/
Although Ronaldo’s brilliance has got him out of difficult situations this season, there is only so far he can take the team. The price paid for Ronaldo is also heavy in terms of missing the sort of fast-paced cohesion that has made Liverpool’s front three so effective in recent years.
There is always a chance with Ronaldo in the team but the most in-form player in the world, Mo Salah, lined up against Manchester United to devestating effect and also has the ability to drag Liverpool out of situations.
Neville played in an England side which suffered failures because it failed shoehorning the best eleven players onto the pitch at the same time over a thoughtful approach and philosophy. It isn’t an argument against Ronaldo’s quality, but rather a question of values.
He remains the deadliest finisher in the world and has proven that this season. But hs involvement in the side has not made Manchester United look any more like title challengers; Solskjaer’s issues still remain extremely prominent. Klopp has built a team where the players solve problems for him because they fit into the wider system. The gulf between them was evident on Sunday and it is an issue that even one of the greatest players in history can’t help solve.
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