Games between Manchester United and Liverpool are not what they were. Until quite recently the two strongest sides in the north-west would also be the two strongest sides in England, so one or the other’s title ambitions would often be on the line in what came to be regarded as a local derby, even if 30 miles of separation stretches the definition of the word local.
In historical terms the two clubs are still the big hitters of English football, with almost 40 league titles between them, yet both have known long fallow periods. Manchester United famously did not win a title between 1967 and 1993, even enduring a season in the Second Division as a result of Matt Busby’s European Cup-winning side being allowed to grow old together, while Liverpool have still to win a title in the Premier League era. Hopes are high of a 30-year wait finally being ended this season, now that Manchester City have faltered while Jürgen Klopp’s players have recorded a perfect start, and a ninth win of the season at Old Trafford on Sunday would also see Liverpool match Manchester City’s two-year-old record of 18 consecutive wins.
That rather startling possibility has tended to dominate much of the discussion in the buildup to the game, perhaps because this authentic north-west derby has been overtaken in importance by the rivalry that has grown up between Liverpool and Manchester City. United are struggling under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, they have not come close to a title since Sir Alex Ferguson stood down and they cannot really regard themselves as one of the biggest noises in the region when they are no longer the biggest noise in their own city.
Yet United vs. Liverpool is always a big game, always a tense, nervy atmosphere, and the whole of Manchester will be temporarily behind the home side in the hope that Klopp’s team might trip up. Not because anyone particularly cares about matching a record of 18 successive wins – even Klopp has admitted that he only ever hears that statistic being mentioned in press conferences – but because City have to hope that Liverpool drop points somewhere. The side that lost the title through drawing too often last season now appear to have corrected that tendency, and if Liverpool can win their next two games against United and Tottenham they could extend their perfect record right into November when they welcome Pep Guardiola’s side to Anfield.
That would certainly be a remarkable feat, yet even among Liverpool fans it would be welcomed more as proof that City cannot only be caught but bettered than as a record-breaking achievement in its own right. When Arsenal set a Premier League standard with 14 consecutive wins in 2002 the record stood for 15 years, though it has since been surpassed on three occasions, all in the last three years. City have two sequences of 15 wins and then 18 wins, while Liverpool are on 17 and counting.
While superficially it might appear that standards are getting higher and leading teams achieving more, what these trends probably tell us is that the level of competition within the Premier League is getting worse. If one team then another can take it in turns to put such long sequences of wins together, it clearly does not say a lot about the caliber of the opponents they are meeting. It is further unwelcome evidence that the Premier League is more stratified than ever before, with the teams at the top all but uncatchable in terms of results and resources.
City may look unusually vulnerable, after two defeats in their first eight games, but their last two title-winning seasons saw them claim 100 points then 98, from a possible maximum of 114. Liverpool’s task after missing out by a single point last season was to aim higher than 97 points, and though it is too early to draw any firm conclusions about what may happen six months from now, they have made a conspicuously strong start.
Once upon a time the record books used to draw a distinction between Premier League records and achievements from the century or so of league football played before 1992. Now they tend not to, at least in the area of winning sequences, because all of the longest runs are from the modern era. For years the old Football League record for most consecutive wins was the 12 games Everton managed towards the end of the 19th century. That was over the course of two seasons, and the long-established record for consecutive wins within a season was the 11 set by Tottenham en route to their 1960-61 Double.
By today’s standards those are quite conservative attainments, suggesting that Everton and Spurs must have been fairly handy at the time, but no more. A run of 18 or more games implies dominance of the sort that might be unhealthy for the league as a whole. Though the maximum wage system that prevailed until the 1960s was rightly condemned as feudal and iniquitous, it is often overlooked that it succeeded in one of its main aims, that of keeping the playing field level.
When players were simply unable to double their money by joining a bigger or more successful club they tended to stay where they were for longer, with the result that talent was better spread around, with even Second Division clubs able to attract good players and offer a decent standard of football. No one ought to be nostalgic about the maximum wage era – it offered the players a very poor deal – yet it kept the club structure in robust health because with teams more evenly matched the top division was more competitive.
Many would argue there is nothing wrong with the level of competition within the Premier League at the moment, with City, defending champions, losing to promoted Norwich and last season’s newcomers Wolves.
Even if those results make the title race less of a procession it still seems only a matter of time – it could just be a matter of weeks – before someone extends a winning sequence beyond 20 matches. While a team going the equivalent of half a season without dropping a single point would unquestionably be an unprecedented achievement, whether it counts as progress would be a difficult question for the rest of the league to answer.
The Guardian Sport