Preview: Liverpool v Manchester United
Monday sees United back in league action after the international break and the first of four important games – Liverpool, Fenebahce in Europe, Chelsea and then City in the EFL Cup. Testing times for a new manager, and a new team.
The first of those matches is English football’s biggest fixture. Cultural, geographical and footballing rivalry ensures that Liverpool v Manchester United has no equal in the English game.
For United fans, recent league success over Liverpool is tinged with bitter woe given the abject performances in the Europa League last season. Over the two legs United were poor. Where was the fight? Where was the desire? Where was the energy? Many laid the blame squarely at the previous manager and while Louis Van Gaal has much to answer for, he is also responsible for the best league run against Liverpool in eight years with four consecutive victories.
Liverpool will look to overturn that record and will be confident that with Klopp at the helm, they have the players and the form to come away with three points. Liverpool have made a positive start and sit just two points off top spot. More than that, this optimism is fuelled by the fluid, attacking football they are playing that is yielding plenty of goals. Indeed, there is a renewed positivity on Merseyside that ‘this could be their year’.
For United, recent poor results against Watford and Stoke will be quickly forgotten were Mourinho to continue his excellent record against Liverpool and to do that he will have to find a way to counter Klopp’s high press (another footballing term to add to our lexicon), something United were unable to do against City.
Regardless of injuries to Lallana and Wijnaldum, it would be a surprise were Klopp to venture away from the 4-3-3 that has served his team so well this season, and this poses a conundrum for Mourinho. Does he go like-for-like in midfield or accept Liverpool will have an extra man in the middle of the park against his preferred 4-2-3-1? Klopp will have to assess the fitness of Firminho and the outstanding Coutinho as they return from international duty thousands of miles away, but if both are fit, they are likely to start and form the fulcrum of the home side’s attack. Mane has been a revelation since joining in the summer and it is the ability for all three to interchange and play quick, one touch, penetrative football that has been the basis of Liverpool’s success thus far.
What will Mourinho do? Rooney, having been dropped by England in midweek is unlikely to be recalled. More interesting is whether Mourinho sees Fellaini coming back in, purely because of his physical presence. While the Belgian would be very effective in both penalty boxes, I would fear his immobility would simply increase the space in midfield for Liverpool to exploit. This is why I think Mourinho will stick with Pogba and Herrera – both are agile on the ball and both seem to complement each other well. It is no surprise that United have created far more goal scoring chances in the last two league games when both have started than in the previous five games put together where the one-paced and one-dimensional Fellaini has been a fixture. Both Herrera and Pogba are also able to move the ball quickly and have a range of passing which will be important against Liverpool’s pressing game.
Looking further forward Zlatan will again lead the line and of all the new players on show, the Swede is one who will relish this match. Rashford will play one side and I would favour Martial on the other, given his success against Liverpool last season where he scored on his debut and also against them in the Europa League tie. Likewise Mata should also start given his recent form but also as like Martial he too has a fondness for scoring against Liverpool.
Key To Success
How can United win? By exploiting Liverpool’s back four. Lovren and Clyne are likely to be absent and as a defensive unit, they are still a work-in-progress. What Liverpool’s opponents have not been able to do this season is exploit this fact, largely because Liverpool’s front six have kept the ball as far away as possible from this weakness. The high-press has served Liverpool well but if United can get the ball and move it quickly, there is enough pace in Martial (or Lingard) and Rashford to complement the guile of Mata and the finishing prowess of Ibrahimovic which should cause Liverpool problems.
The stats make healthy reading too. United have beaten Liverpool more than any other side in the Premier League era, 27. The next highest? Chelsea with and we know who was responsible for some of those!
All too often over the last few meetings, there has been a sanitising of the rivalry on the pitch. The proliferation of foreign players and a lack of home-grown stars has seen the balance tip towards a majority of players from both teams who don’t understand what this match means. This is certainly not the case among the fans and is still the fixture each set of fans look for first.
Red Hot Atmosphere
An expanded Anfield, with more supporters in the ground, may finally justify the hyperbole of an atmosphere that is more myth than reality these days. Anfield is certainly not alone in this regard but if there is one match that is likely to generate noise it is this one. Add to the fact it is an evening kick-off with two managers who are as likely as the players on show to be prime protagonists and the ingredients are there for a throwback to when both sets of fans were as vociferous as any in the land.
Finally, United fans will embrace the fact that there is no love lost between Mourinho and Liverpool. Hopefully this will be transferred onto the pitch and the matches we remember from yore can come to the fore again.
The result is all important but this early in the season the performance is crucial too. Which of these predominant giants of the English game will come out of this match feeling they are on an upward trend? Lose and United will have serious ground to make up. Win and momentum is quickly established. A draw will likely favour both teams but given the personalities involved, I cannot see a cagey affair.