Despite the unrelenting pressure weighing down on his shoulders, there is a crumb of comfort for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Manchester United will end the weekend seven points behind Liverpool if they lose to their historic rivals on Sunday but, in the black and white of the record books, their manager is still keeping pace with the man who will be sitting in Old Trafford’s away dugout.
After 163 games in charge, Solskjaer has won 91, drawn 34 and lost 38. At the same stage of his Anfield career, Jurgen Klopp had won 88, drawn 44 and lost 31. If all those games were league matches played with three points for a win, Solskjaer would have 307 points and Klopp would only be ahead by the smallest of margins on 308. The similarities do not end there, either.
Solskjaer has now been at Old Trafford for three full summer windows, just as Klopp had after the same number of games with Liverpool. The difference in transfer spending between the two clubs during those respective periods is the price of United’s 19-year-old out-on-loan winger Facundo Pellistri – £9m. If only counting players to make a first-team appearance, both of their gross totals hover around the £380m mark.
Up until now, Solskjaer has failed to make a return on that investment by adding to the trophy cabinet, but then Klopp was still waiting for his first piece of silverware by this point too. If anything the Norwegian’s league finishes – sixth, third and second – are significantly more impressive at face value than Klopp’s record of eighth, fourth and fourth during his first three seasons in charge.
You are likely to hear more comparisons like these in the build-up to Sunday’s meeting at Old Trafford. These similarities to Klopp have been regularly highlighted, usually when Solskjaer’s position has come under scrutiny. It was only in August, after United’s disappointing 1-1 draw away at Southampton, that Gary Neville compared the pair’s respective Premier League records.
“If you look at the first 99 games of Solskjaer, which he’s had now, and the 99 games of Klopp, they are almost exact in terms of performance,” Neville pointed out while appearing on Monday Night Football. “1.89 points per game for Klopp, 1.86 for Solskjaer; 4th ranking, 3rd for Solskjaer; Klopp 54 per cent win percentage, Ole 53 per cent. They’re neck and neck on everything.”
Given that questions which were never asked of Klopp are repeatedly asked of Solskjaer, the correspondence between their records is surprising. Maybe, then, the constant scrutiny applied to the United manager is unfair? Perhaps, but the regular comparisons to Klopp fail to tell the full story. What appears to be similar in black and white looks very different in the technicolour of context.
Klopp’s 163rd game in charge at Anfield came three years ago, at the start of the 2018-19 season. The most glaring oversight made by any straight, game-by-game comparison with Solskjaer’s record is that Liverpool were then the previous season’s beaten Champions League finalists and a team that was undeniably on the up, rather than stagnating or regressing.
There may have been no silverware to show for the run to the 2018 Kiev final but, powered by the goalscoring of an elite, Mohamed Salah-inspired attack, Klopp’s side demonstrated that they were an emerging force in European football. And though the 2017-18 league campaign had finished in a second consecutive fourth-place finish, both were secured with marginally better points totals than United’s runners-up finish under Solskjaer last term.
Heavy spending followed the summer after their Kiev defeat, though the comparison with United’s recent investment is not like-for-like either. While United have generally struggled to balance incomings with outgoings, Liverpool’s two most expensive and transformative signings were financed by a sale. Philippe Coutinho’s £142m departure covered the fees paid Virgil van Dijk and Alisson in the accounting books with a little change to spare.
As a result, Liverpool’s net spend over Klopp’s first 163 games in charge comes in at around £125m, half of United’s approximate £272m since appointing Solskjaer. And while more spending is recommended as the solution to United’s current ills, Liverpool’s business was complete by this stage. With that £125m net spend, Klopp’s Anfield superiors had already assembled the squad that would soon reach the summit of English and European football.
In comparing Solskjaer with Klopp’s early years, though, there is a factor more important than any single signing, any net spend figure or even the Champions League final appearance in Kiev: tactical evolution. Until the second half of the 2017-18 campaign, Liverpool were still a promising team with a number of problems: both defensively and when it came to breaking down stubborn opposition. Suddenly, that changed.
The sale of Coutinho could have been a backwards step, yet it led Klopp to recalibrate Liverpool’s style of play. It is hard to recall a time when Trent Alexander-Arnold was not a first-choice right back. In fact, he had only started consecutive Premier League games once before Coutinho’s departure. Andy Robertson had also only become a regular midway through the campaign.
Liverpool full-back Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold both came into the side when Klopp’s team became a major force in 2018
(Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Having started together just four times before Coutinho’s exit, they became Liverpool’s first-choice full-backs but also their primary playmakers, taking up advanced positions and effectively turning the attack from a front four into a front five. Over time, this was balanced out with a much more conservative midfield set-up with Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and the incoming Fabinho eventually filling those roles.
Alongside the two transformative signings at the back, Liverpool’s problems at both ends of the pitch were solved. Neville, in fairness, highlighted 2018 as the turning point while making the Solskjaer-Klopp comparison himself. “That was the point when Alisson came in, Virgil van Dijk came in, and they went into turbo boost,” he said, “and they delivered probably one of the best performances you will ever see.”
And so, by the time Klopp was 163 games into his Anfield career, his side were already considered Manchester City’s closest title challengers and the second-best team in the country. Over the course of the season that followed, they amassed 97 points – the third-highest total of the Premier League era, at the time – and won the Champions League, finally ending their 30-year wait for a domestic league title the following year.
You would be brave to predict that United will come close to emulating any of those achievements this season. That, beyond what it says in the record books, is the reason why Solskjaer has come under more pressure than Klopp ever did for a similar set of results. It was around this time in Klopp’s tenure that Liverpool took the type of step forward that United, up until now, have looked incapable of making. It needs to come soon or Solskjaer risks being left behind.