The best rivalry in English football is about to enter another episode into a catalogue of dramatic moments this Sunday when Manchester United welcome Liverpool back to Old Trafford. Both teams are European and English super powers, but have watched their influence at the top wane with the recent addition of two new super powers in Manchester City and Chelsea. While Chelsea look to be incumbent title winners the points difference between the top 6 teams is so tight that all 6 teams can logically still be thought of as title contenders. A Liverpool win would see them keep pace with Chelsea and remain capable of chasing down the leaders, while a United win over their oldest rivals could spur them on to extend their 7 game winning streak in the league.
This game is balanced on a knife-edge and will likely have repercussions for both teams past Sunday’s game. Both sides are evenly matched in most respects and are still finding their feet under new managers that would enjoy a huge boost in confidence if they manage to snag three points. A loss for either, though, could result in an unwelcome slump in their form that neither team can afford if they’re going to contest the league alongside Chelsea, City, Arsenal and Spurs. We’ll have a look at where the game could be won and lost, and which players are most likely to make the difference for their sides.
The teams are rather even in terms of the quality of their defences. Both sides have had somewhat inconsistent back fours for the last while, with United’s somewhat more steady. Valencia has been great at right back and the frequent centre back pairing of Jones and Rojo have had surprisingly good results considering neither were considered solid options. Left back is a weak spot for them, though, as different players have had to slot in due to injury and poor form, which would likely mean Liverpool attacks could profit on that flank. For Liverpool almost the exact same holds true, Clyne has been extremely solid at right back and the centre back pairings have been passable, but Milner at left back isn’t ideal and Moreno is weak in his positioning and leaves far too much space open for opposing forwards. Both defences will have a mistake or two in them, but neither has extremely glaring issues.
The midfield contest is likely to be where this game is won and lost. It took Mourinho some time to find his best midfield setup, which has become a deep defensive position for Michael Carrick with Herrera and Pogba a little more advanced ahead of him. Carrick dictates the tempo for the team, while Pogba and Herrera provide equal contributions in building attacking moves and winning possession back from the opposition. United have recorded zero losses when Carrick
starts a game, so a priority of Liverpool’s will have to be disrupting the smooth function of United’s midfielders. Liverpool have a selection of energetic like Emre Can, Henderson and Wijnaldum that will have to do a lot of hard running to cover United’s passers and close down their space. If United’s midfield manages to set up a steady rhythm and deal with Liverpool’s fast pressing they’ll be able to bring the forwards into the game frequently and create consistent chances.
The two teams both have talented forwards, with United maybe having a little more individual quality, but Liverpool have a superior cohesion in how their forwards interplay. United’s main attacking threat is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, top scoring with 13 league goals while Liverpool’s top scorer is Sadio Mane. Mane’s call up to the Senegalese squad for the AFCON means United will have one less direct attacking threat to worry about, but Liverpool have had thirteen different scorers so far this season and are the league’s top scorers so they’re very capable of getting goals out of other players. United on the other hand have been extremely reliant on Ibrahimovic’s goals this season to turn games in their favour. If Ibrahimovic is kept quiet United will be forced to rely on their wide forwards like Mkhitaryan, Rashford and Martial to break down the Liverpool defence. Liverpool are likely a bit more dangerous in attack because their forwards are dangerous in combination while United’s tend to require more individual effort to craft their own chances. The absence of Mane for Klopp’s team is significant though, and United will get good chances if Ibrahimovic, Martial and Mkhitaryan perform the way they have been lately.
Zlatan vs. Lovren/Klavan: Liverpool have had some defensive hiccups this season, particularly with their centre backs, who will face a tough test against Ibrahimovic. Not only is the lanky Swede good with the ball at his feet, but he’s a massive nuisance in the air, winning long balls and holding up play for team mates as well as converting set pieces and crosses are the bread and butter of his game. Liverpool’s centre back partners will need to be on the same wavelength to pick up and neutralise Ibrahimovic as best they can.
Coutinho vs. Carrick/Valencia: Liverpool’s talismanic young Brazilian is back in contention to start at the weekend after a long injury layoff. He’s been their most impressive forward for the last two or three seasons, providing goals and assists in equal measure. His tendency to drift between the midfield and attack makes him tricky to pick up, so United’s midfielders and right-sided defenders will need to watch him diligently to make sure he can’t use free space to play his fellow forwards in behind United’s defense or have shots on goal himself.
Henderson/Can vs. Pogba/Herrera: The workhorse midfielders are going to be running themselves into the ground for this game. Both pairs will have to show a lot of positional discipline to track their opposing numbers, with particular emphasis on Liverpool’s midfielders to shut down Paul Pogba. United’s record signing has been developing an impressive relationship with Ibrahimovic, who he’s provided several key assists for, most notably the winner against Crystal Palace. United’s chance creation all comes from fast midfield build-ups, Liverpool’s midfielders will have to quell those build ups to keep pressure off their occasionally shaky back line.
It’s rare for recent games between these two teams to have high stakes but this weekend’s game extends far beyond just the three points on the day. United are currently five points behind Liverpool, and a victory would cut that distance to just two points, while a defeat would leave the gulf at eight. For United’s premier league season to really take off they need a victory, anything less will put a major damper on their recent good form. Equally, for Liverpool, a victory away from home against in-form opposition would resoundingly cement confidence throughout the team and allow them to chase down Chelsea with renewed fervor. In some cases it’s hyperbolic to say one team’s season can be made or broken in a single game, but for both United and Liverpool the result of this weekend’s game will have far-reaching repercussions if either team walks away with a victory.
It’s difficult to call this game, as form isn’t always a good indicator of a derby result. Mourinho’s side are on a solid winning streak and confidence will be running high, no doubt the Old Trafford faithful will do their part to encourage the team to victory too. But, Liverpool will have grown in confidence too with their team’s rampant attacking performances, despite less than stellar performances in their most recent games. Unlike some of the previous matches in the last two or three seasons this one will have some bit and atmosphere to it due to what’s at stake for both teams. The big match players will have to show up, and United have several who are used to pressurised games, if ever there was a time for them to halt their slide away from the Premier League’s big sides it’s now.
Predicted Result: Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool