Why Man United vs Liverpool isn't even England's second-biggest game anymore
Manchester United vs Liverpool is undoubtedly a box-office fixture. When two globally renowned behemoths who've divvied up 40 years of dominance between them start trading blows, how could it not be? Throw in a geographical rivalry that dates back to Victorian times and a famously antagonistic quote about perches, and even a goalless draw becomes unmissable drama.
It's no longer the biggest game in English football, however, no matter how many occasions Monday's meeting is hyped up. In fact, it's arguably not even the second-biggest anymore.
Sir Alex Ferguson saw this coming as far back as 2012. “Although things may change in the next few years with Manchester City, I’ve always considered Manchester United vs Liverpool to be the game of the season and at the moment it remains that.”
It was a rare and revealing concession from a man who'd rather buy Roy Keane a pint of stout than talk his noisy neighbours up. The caveats are especially pertinent given a comment he made three years earlier: “Liverpool will always be the derby game. It's just because of the history.”
With no silverware on the line and scant examples of top-four battles between the duo in recent times, Manchester United vs Liverpool has become moored to tradition
City supporters might justifiably baulk at that, but the latter point is also worthy of note. When securing historical bragging rights becomes the main prize, a fixture becomes reduced and insular; a sideshow curio as far as neutrals are concerned. Granted, these matches can be thrilling and are guaranteed to bring in large viewing figures – courtesy of the clubs in question boasting the largest and seventh-largest fanbases in the world – but the same could be said of a YouTube clip featuring two scrapping travellers that goes viral.
With no silverware on the line and scant examples of top-four battles between the duo in recent times, Manchester United vs Liverpool has become moored to tradition, little more than a ferocious reenactment that harks back to a time when the result actually mattered beyond the M62. It used to decide titles. Now it bumps Southampton down to seventh spot.
Compare and contrast with the recent all-Manchester affair at Old Trafford. City’s emergence as a power player since 2008 has dramatically altered the dynamic of a rivalry that was in danger of becoming awkwardly one-sided. Now there's vitriol and acrimony like never before, and while United supporters claim they still hate Liverpool more than their neighbours, the reason is entirely counter-intuitive: they say so to further wind up the blue half of the city.
Meanwhile in north London
At the time of writing Tottenham and Arsenal lie second and third in the table, with each preparing a title charge knowing they must better their closest and fiercest adversary to do so
The seismic power shift has seen the tribal intensity of the fixture become the equal of United’s squabble with Liverpool, but on the pitch its importance is significantly elevated by what’s at stake: not pride or 24 hours of Twitter kudos, but titles and glory. With Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho in charge it's difficult to imagine Manchester not competing at the very top for seasons to come, and it’s impossible to imagine every last one of us not being enthralled by the high drama along the way.
In north London it’s a similar story of neighbouring giants battling for supremacy at the top. At the time of writing Tottenham and Arsenal lie second and third in the table, with each preparing a title charge knowing they must better their closest and fiercest adversary to do so.
The last time this same gripping scenario was relevant to Manchester United vs Liverpool was way back in March 2009, and it would take some naivety to suggest that the mutual loathing between Arsenal and Tottenham supporters is any less incendiary or meaningful than that of their north-west counterparts, or that the fixture isn’t as steeped in combative folklore. With a welcome habit of producing crazy scorelines – plus red cards and controversy a given – it hardly lacks in box-office appeal, either.
On the wane
Perhaps that explains why last season’s north London derby matched the UK viewing figures of United vs Liverpool in September 2015, when Martin Tyler lost his voice and marbles as Anthony Martial condemned the visitors to defeat.
Two years ago Gary Neville likened the modern-day ‘M62 derby’ to that of a pub game – “the Dog and Duck vs the Red Lion” – and while it would be ludicrous to suggest the fixture is anything other than ferociously exciting and a highlight of the domestic calendar, its gravitas has clearly waned in recent times.
Even so, former players will inevitably be wheeled out to talk up the fixture's importance before Monday's clash, something nobody does ahead of a Manchester or north London derby. In those instances, no one has to.