Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and his Manchester United counterpart Louis van Gaal headed in opposite directions as soon as the final whistle sounded at Old Trafford.
Once the usual formalities were complete after the 1-1 draw that sent Liverpool into the last eight of the Europa League with a 3-1 aggregate win over United, Klopp went to salute the travelling fans as Van Gaal strode towards the tunnel at the Stretford End.
It was symbolic of the current trajectory of these two fierce old adversaries under their respective managers and underlined by the performances of Manchester United and Liverpool in their first European meeting.
Liverpool on the up, United on the drift
Klopp, on the evidence of these two Europa League legs, has built a Liverpool team more in his own image and likeness in six months than Van Gaal has managed in two years at Manchester United.
Liverpool, while not at their best at Old Trafford, have demonstrated an intensity and work-rate that reflects their manager’s personality and what he regards as the trademark of his teams – namely a mixture of attacking intent and the “Gegenpressing” style.
In other words, you can see Klopp’s imprint on how Liverpool go about their work, even though he has only been at Anfield since early October. Liverpool’s graph is on an upward curve.
United are currently team on the drift, without personality or direction. If Van Gaal is stamping his personality on the side, it is almost impossible to detect. This was not a bad performance but one that came too late after the dismal display at Anfield last Thursday.
Van Gaal may have declared his pride in his team’s efforts but over the two games Liverpool thoroughly deserved to progress. United are seemingly no nearer a firm tactical template than they were when Van Gaal arrived.
Once Philippe Coutinho equalised on the night with the away goal that left United requiring three second-half goals, this tie was over.
United’s spirit was willing, especially in the shape of youngsters Antony Martial and Marcus Rashford, but there is no surge of old in this team. Once the Brazilian’s goal went in there was no sense inside Old Trafford for a single second that a comeback from days gone by would ensure. And it did not.
As United became increasingly desperate, the cavalry consisted of Matteo Darmian coming on for Marcos Rojo after 62 minutes, following the introduction of Antonio Valencia for the struggling Guillermo Varela at half-time. One veteran was swapped for another when Bastian Schweinsteiger replaced Michael Carrick late on.
Memphis Depay was not trusted and it was a reflection of United’s current state that attacking options were so limited.
Liverpool’s supporters left shrouded in red smoke from flares and a growing optimism that, in the charismatic Klopp, they matter again and have found the perfect personality to take them forward.
Liverpool play like a Jurgen Klopp team, which is an ideal platform for progress. United have no discernible personality or clear direction.
Liverpool have a manager in for the long haul accompanied by a feel-good factor. United have a manager many believe will not be at Old Trafford beyond the end of this season – and the uncertainty is plain to see.
Klopp carrying players with him
Klopp’s heart-on-the-sleeve management style, a whirlwind of activity and emotion in his technical area, is the polar opposite to Van Gaal’s rule by clipboard from his seat in the dug-out.
And the German already seems to be carrying his players with him in a manner that has eluded Van Gaal in almost two seasons at Old Trafford.
There is a close bond between Klopp and his squad that has never existed, perhaps deliberately, with Van Gaal and United’s team.
Liverpool’s Brazilian Roberto Firmino, the £29m signing from Hoffenheim who is flourishing with Klopp after early struggles under Brendan Rodgers, summed up the manager’s approach.
He said: “He is the best manager I have ever worked with. I don’t say that because he picks me all of the time. It’s because of his mentality and personality. He gives confidence to all of the players. He knows what your potential is, so he always says just one or two words to give you confidence and show trust.”
Players like Firmino and Coutinho have bought into Klopp’s approach and the German has also established an instant connection with Liverpool’s fans.
United, in contrast, seem stuck and no-one is more stuck than Marouane Fellaini. He is now almost the symbol of where it started to go wrong after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, when the ill-fated David Moyes was tempted to pay £27.5m for the 28-year-old midfield man he managed at Everton.
Unloved by the crowd – Old Trafford resounded to some of the loudest cheers of the day when his number came up to be substituted in the FA Cup quarter-final against West Ham United on Sunday – and struggling desperately to find any form, it is painful to watch.
It is certainly painful for those playing against him. Fellaini was fortunate to escape punishment for elbowing Emre Can at the end of the first leg, he was at it again when he flailed and felled Dejan Lovren here. He is a disciplinary liability and a tactical millstone – his presence too often an excuse to resort to aimless long balls.
Referee Milorad Mazic was generous with a yellow card when he flattened Lovren – it might almost have been a mercy sending off had he produced red.
Who would survive a cull at Old Trafford?
United’s targets now are a place in the Premier League’s top four and winning the FA Cup, with a testing quarter-final replay at West Ham United to come.
Will it be enough to spare Van Gaal? And how many of United’s current squad would survive further failure after the blow of falling to Liverpool in the first European meeting between the clubs?
Van Gaal’s reign is currently rolling along at a pedestrian pace and any finish outside the top four would surely be fatal for his chances of seeing out the final season of his contract.
Goalkeeper David de Gea is world-class and must be the focal point of United’s future. They must hope Real Madrid do not come calling again.
Chris Smalling will be crucial, while Cameron Bortwick-Jackson has shown real promise at full back. Luke Shaw will also surely fulfil his outstanding promise at left-back when he completes his recovery from a broken leg.
In midfield there must be long-term doubts over 34-year-old Michael Carrick, while Schweinsteiger is hardly one or the future. Would another manager get more out of Morgan Schneiderlin, who has struggled since his £24m move from Southampton last summer?
The picture looks bright in attack with 18-year-old Rashford and Martial, 20, while United will hope Adnan Januzaj can rediscover his youthful promise.
As for Memphis Depay, left kicking his heels against Liverpool on Thursday, United must hope his poor performances this season can be attributed to a bedding-in period and the best will be seen next term.
And for all the doubts expressed, Wayne Rooney’s absence with a knee injury has shown, especially when United went down without a fight at Anfield, how important he remains.
These are times of flux at Old Trafford and a loss over two legs to Liverpool only brings that into sharper relief.
What now for the rest of the season?
Liverpool’s season is alive with positivity – through to the Europa League quarter-finals and only seven points off Manchester City in fourth place in the Premier League with a game in hand.
This victory will only enhance the growing confidence under Klopp and the belief that this season could yet end in something special.
United still have hopes of a trophy in the FA Cup but Van Gaal admits they need to beat Manchester City in Sunday’s derby at The Etihad to keep that Champions League momentum going.
As the final whistle blew at Old Trafford, it was Liverpool and Klopp with the momentum while Van Gaal and United faced an uncertain future with fragile confidence.