Liverpool v Manchester United: How Will It Pan Out?

At lunchtime on Saturday the Reds go up against Manchester United at Anfield in one of the most fiercely contested games in English football. For most Liverpool supporters this game matters even more than the derby, if for no other reason than that fixture hasn’t been genuinely competitive since the Blues last won at Anfield in 1999. Man United, meanwhile, are rapidly approaching the point at which they’ll not only have won more top-flight titles than us but also more trophies in general. There is a bitterness between the two sides that involves more than just footballing matters, with the rivalry between the two cities also playing a part.

There has been plenty of spice in this fixture over the years, despite the fact that not much needs to be added in order to set the sparks flying. This year is no exception, given the perception of both club’s starts to the season. United, having won six of their opening seven games and not having lost yet, are one of the favourites for the title according to the bookmakers. Liverpool, on the other hand, are being described as a club in crisis after only winning one match in our last seven in all competitions. Never mind that we’ve only lost one league game so far and are unbeaten in Europe, the narrative is that we’re in trouble. So how will Saturday’s game pan out?

Anfield Shouldn’t Boo If It Wants The Team To Win

I don’t like José Mourinho. I’m on record over that fact, even to the point where I’ve written a piece explaining exactly why the fact that Jürgen Klopp is the opposite of him pleases me so much. I’m sure the Portuguese manager is a lovely person if you meet him in person and I’ve heard several stories suggesting exactly that. Nevertheless, I despise the way the media fauns over him so much, lauding him as sort of genius without ever mentioning the fact that he’s one of the biggest chequebook managers in the business. That he also attempted to gouge the eye of Barcelona’s then assistant manager Tito Vilanova back in 2011 also gets conveniently forgotten when talk turns to him being a real gentleman of the game.

Even so, my opinion of him as a person and the press’s representation of him has no bearing on Saturday’s match. Yet we can make certain assumptions about how the match will pan out based on previous experience. In previous games between Liverpool and a team managed by Mourinho he has invariably sent out one of his snidest players to put a reducer on the man he sees as our biggest threat. Remember Samuel Eto’o’s shin-high tackle on Jordan Henderson at the start of the match in December of the 2013-2014 season? If your memory doesn’t stretch back that far then think on this fixture last season, when Marcus Rashford smashed into James Milner in the first few minutes. The self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ knows that a referee won’t brandish a card so early in the game, regardless of how justified it is, so he sends his players out to act accordingly.

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The problem is that it works. The result is useful from Mourinho’s point of view for two reasons: firstly it reduces to ability of one of our top players to cause his side problems, secondly it turn the atmosphere in the ground hostile. The latter fact might not seem like a bad thing, but you’ve got to remember that Anfield is at its best when the crowd is fully behind the team rather than on the back of the referee. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like we should be baying for blood at every possible opportunity. Yet the reality is that when the atmosphere turns negative that plays right into the hands of Mourinho and his Manchester United team. Would they prefer the Kop to be offering vociferous support to the Liverpool players or booing loudly every time the referee does anything?

Some referees also relish the opportunity to prove that they’re not a ‘homer’ and won’t be influenced by the home crowd. Casting back to last season once more, the Football Association’s inexplicable decision to give refereeing duties to Anthony Taylor, who was practically born in the shadow of Old Trafford, resulted in the man in the middle making virtually no decisions and giving every 50/50 to the away team. This riled the Kop and instead of getting behind the team the entire ground was getting more and more annoyed with every decision he made. Had that noise been positive encouragement for the Reds rather than fury at the referee then we might have seen a different result. Whatever happens on Saturday, it’s vital that we don’t play into Mourinho’s hands by going negative. Liverpool can beat Manchester United and, not for the first time, the crowd can play a part in that.

Everyone Needs To Be On The Ball

What happens in the stands is one thing, but it’s obvious that what takes place on the pitch is the most important thing. When Manchester United came to Anfield last season José Mourinho did what he always does in big matches and parked the bus. It was as if the Red Devils had been told that they would be fined a week’s wages if they ventured past the halfway mark. I see no reason why he won’t opt for exactly the same tactics this time around. You can point to this summer’s signing of Romelu Lukaku as proof of the fact that he’s got an exciting attack this time around, but twelve months ago Zlatan Ibrahimovic was leading the line and it’s not as if he underperformed for the Manchester club. The Portuguese manager will know that our defence will give away a chance or two, so he’ll be happy for his side to bide their time.

When he’s been playing for Everton, Liverpool’s defence has coped well with Romelu Lukaku. Whether that be Alberto Moreno keeping him surprisingly quiet when the striker was used wide on the right or Dejan Lovren not giving him a sniff when he’s played through the middle, he struggled to do us any serious damage when he was on the other side of Stanley Park. I’m expecting a different player this time around, though. He’s been on fire so far this season, for both club and country. José Mourinho might like to pretend that he’s got a whole hatful of tactics but at its most basic his football involves defending deep and hitting it long to a big man. It says something about his ‘tactical genius’ that Man United have spent more than half a billion quid since Alex Ferguson retired and yet the loss of Marouane Fellaini ahead of this game is a genuinely big blow to them.

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It’s vital, therefore, that every single person in the Liverpool team is on top of their game. From a defensive point of view we’ll certainly have our hands full and won’t be able to afford any lapses in concentration. They can definitely do it, if the past is anything to go by. I was looking at the stats before we played Tony Pulis’s West Brom last October and the Baggies had been involved in matches with thirteen, eleven and then twelve corners in their previous three Premier League games. I put a bet on there being over ten corners, only for the Reds to limit Pulis’s team to just two corners during the ninety minutes. Knowing that set-pieces was their main form of attack, Liverpool refused to give them any ammunition. When it’s focussed on a specific job, even our defence can do what it needs to from time to time! Marshalling Lukaku and not letting him bully our back four is vital to any success we might be able to achieve, therefore.

That’s the job ahead for the defence, then, but it’s in attack where Liverpool’s day will likely be made or lost. The Reds have been extraordinarily wasteful in recent weeks, taking 143 shots but scoring just seven goals in our last seven games. If there’s one thing we know about a José Mourinho team it’s that it won’t be giving away chances for fun, so the likes of Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino will know that they need to be putting away any opportunities that they’re presented with. If we play exactly as we’ve been playing since we put four past Arsenal but are more clinical in the final third then there’s no doubt in my mind that we could win comfortably. The problem hasn’t been creating the chances, it’s been finishing them. That’s where we’re struggled in the past and it can’t be the case again on Saturday if we’re hoping to give United a bloody nose.

United Haven’t Been Tested – It’s Time They Were

One of the biggest things about United’s start to the season is that they really haven’t been tested yet. In Premier League terms, these are the teams that they’ve gone up against:

  • West Ham United
  • Swansea City
  • Leicester City
  • Stoke City
  • Everton
  • Southampton
  • Crystal Palace

With the exception of Stoke, Everton and Southampton, it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see any of the other teams United have played so far involved in a relegation fight this season. Even Everton might well be down there if the board doesn’t react quickly to Ronald Koeman’s management of the side. It’s interesting that the only points Mourinho’s side has dropped so far this season came in the game against Stoke and that they could easily have dropped points against Southampton on another occasion. Wins against West Ham, Swansea, Leicester and Crystal Palace are the least a team going for the title can hope to achieve, so there’s an extent to which the media has been getting a little bit carried away with United’s start to the season, in my opinion.

You can only beat what’s in front of you, of course, and Liverpool definitely haven’t done that. As much as United might not have been tested, they’ve built up a head of steam and will be full of confidence heading into this clash. Liverpool supporters keep talking about the fact that they’ve been playing poor teams, so it’s vital that the Reds put their rivals under huge pressure and see how they react. I can easily see this one ending in a dire draw, just as I can see the Red Devils beating us and us beating them. It’s the sort of game when form really does go out of the window, but have we got what it takes to react to our poor form and truly put United to the test?

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