The Dutchman was confirmed as United’s next permanent manager just days after a 4-0 defeat at Anfield further dented United’s hopes of a top-four finish this season.
It made the aggregate score 9-0 in the favour of the Merseyside club, after a hammering at Old Trafford in October, and United have won none of the last eight league clashes between the sides.
A meeting with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp will be nothing new for Ten Hag, though, after the two managers faced off in the 2020-21 Champions League. And there are certainly positives to be taken from Klopp’s reaction to his tough tests, despite the English side prevailing in the home and away meetings.
After coming within minutes of the Champions League final in 2019, Ajax failed to get out of the group stage a few months later. With Liverpool and Atalanta awaiting them in 2020-21, along with outsiders FC Midtjylland, there was a serious chance of a repeat.
While the Dutch side lost at home to Liverpool through a Nicolas Tagliafico own goal, their 13-0 win over VVV-Venlo just days later suggested they’d put it behind them quickly. A draw in Bergamo and home and away victories over the Danes meant the trip to Anfield in December was suddenly huge – three points for Ten Hag’s men would give them the upper hand and threaten to send Klopp’s men home early.
Liverpool’s injury crisis meant they were far from full-strength as they welcomed Ten Hag’s men to Merseyside. And this explains the pride Klopp took in the result after an extremely challenging evening.
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Liverpool’s centre-back concerns during the 2020-21 season were well-documented, but that wasn’t the only area where Klopp had to shuffle the deck. In addition to using Fabinho in central defence with Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez missing, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s calf problem forced Neco Williams to deputise at right-back while Caoimhin Kelleher made his first Champions League start with Alisson on the treatment table.
While there was plenty of experience further forward – including a front three of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota – the victory was all down to the stand-ins. Indeed, when Williams laid on the only goal of the game for Curtis Jones, it was the first time two teenagers had ever combined for a Champions League goal for the Reds.
Klopp was full of praise for his squad after what he described to LFC TV as “one of the most exceptional Champions League nights we’ve had”. He also showed his disappointment at the fact that fans weren’t allowed into Anfield to see the game, but insisted it was “For sure the most exceptional [Champions League night] without supporters”.
“With the circumstances, there hasn’t been much to smile about, it’s been tricky, and the boys throw themselves into the game,” Klopp said after the victory, which confirmed the Reds as group winners. “Curtis Jones, what a game, It’s amazing, I’m really proud.
“Curtis is a really good kid, a good player and I am happy to have him around. Sometimes with injuries there is always an opportunity and he has taken it.
“I really think Adrian has done a fantastic job for us, he kept a lot of clean sheets, played everywhere. But now we needed the natural football playing ability of Caoimhin Kelleher. Top, top, top. It was easy to decide, because he deserves it.”
“There were two well-organized teams that created few chances,” Ten Hag said after the game. “You see that more often at Champions League level.
“But the facts are that we have lost twice. At this level, details decide it. I thought it was unnecessary to leave here with a defeat.”
The result left Ajax with a straighforward task in their final group game. Victory at home to Atalanta would have seen them into the knockout stages and make up for the loss at home to Valencia which denied them progress 12 months earlier, but they ultimately fell short yet again.
After the setback at Anfield, Ten Hag was able to strengthen his Ajax squad and set them up to be even more competitive on the continent. Sebastien Haller joined the following month, reuniting with Ten Hag after they worked together in Utrecht, and the Ivorian international was the top scorer in the Champions League group stage as Ajax won six games out of six.
The manager was one game away from facing Liverpool again and gaining a shot at revenge. However, Ajax fell to a surprise home defeat against Benfica in the last 16, freeing up the Portuguese side to make Klopp’s team work for a 6-4 aggregate victory.
Now, the first meeting between Ten Hag and Klopp as managers of two English rivals will arrive in Thailand over the summer, with United and Liverpool meeting in pre-season. However, all eyes will be on the Premier League fixture list as we wait to discover when the Dutchman can pit his wits against United’s biggest rivals. After two heavy defeats for United this term, might Liverpool need an “exceptional” 90 minutes once more?