Back to being relevant
This Sunday will see a huge game in the calendar year between the Top two in the English Premier League. While Manchester United and Liverpool are indeed two powerhouses of the game their rivalry has not been what it once was in recent years. When Manchester United strode to countless titles under Alex Ferguson. Liverpool were struggling to mount a sizeable challenge of their own. Games were more for pride than they were for honours. But after 30 years of searching Liverpool have finally landed back at the top of the perch that they were famously dethroned.
What really adds fuel to this match is the position of both these clubs this season. While United were not really expected to challenge for top honours Liverpool were. The last time both these sides were fighting it out for the big prize was over a decade ago with “Rafas Rant” and we all know how that ended up. But whereas the title surges were not present the fans have not yielded their cold disrepute for each other. Usually opting to dislike their distant rivals more than their local derby.
A different season due to Covid
It’s fair to say that this is no ordinary season. Covid restrictions early last year had a knock-on effect on the Premier League with teams not finishing their campaigns until late then having no real pre-season. Where United have amassed 36 Points after 17 games, last season Liverpool were on 49. The season before that it was Liverpool and City deadlocked at the summit with 45 points. So it seems the biggest effect was that no single team is able to consistently gather enough victories to gain a lead on their rivals.
There are other aspects that are different this season which are surely having an effect like empty stadiums, squad depletions due to positive cases and the lack of new signings again due to economic issues. Aside from Chelsea no top 6 team has changed. The premier league are largely the same core as they were last season. Teams are also having to rely on a smaller panel to play more games. This is having a direct effect on the players themselves, many of whom are looking like burning out.
The resurgence of United
Anyone without a crystal ball back in the first 7 games of the season when United were languishing in 15th position with only 7 points can be forgiven. Rumours of Pochettino taking over the club. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was under huge pressure and it seemed only a matter of time that he would be replaced. CEO Ed Woodward was also facing a fans backlash for their performances and transfer policy.
While Solskjaer was still not sure of his first 11 he was sure of his basic structure and how he wanted to play. A combination of Fred and McTominay was the anchor of his midfield. This allowed Bruno Fernandez to push further up the field and influence games. The Portugese has done that and managed to be directly involved in or scored 75% of their goals and assists. Marcus Rashford has also been a huge positive in their success with his raw pace and power vital to the United counter attacking theme.
United have also been resilient this season and have recovered 15 points from losing positions. They have gone away from home and won nearly every game so far this year. Where initially people were questioning their defensive qualities they now won 4 of their last 5 league games in the Christmas period.
The Pogba scenario
Back when United were at their lowest ebb, it seemed that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had made his decision to bench Pogba until he began to fire again. This paid dividends as their results were positive enough to lift them to the summit of the table. This was with little contribution from the Frenchman. Although the interesting side of this lately is his reemergence as a starting player.
If anyone was to ask before this why he seems a much superior player when playing for France than he does for United it divides opinions. It is now clearer that Pogba was not one for having to drag his team towards the top, rather be a bit part player until they got thereabouts. Whereas Fernandez took control of the dressing room and the pitch as a natural leader Pogba is not made of the same stuff. Now Pogba can express himself as a player when eyes are not focused on his every move. A stark contrast from previous campaigns. Where this will go who knows. He has a long way to prove doubters wrong.
The Anfield Fortress – for how long?
Liverpool are now 3 and a half years unbeaten at Anfield. Some of their players like Sadio Mane have never tasted home league defeat in his tenure at Liverpool. Even without the famous Anfield Roar they seem to be able to put teams to the sword. West Brom most recently went there and managed to hold out for a draw in a game that shows the difficulties that Liverpool come across these days on home turf. 11 men behind the ball. Soak up pressure and try to score on the break. It is nothing new in the last 3 seasons under Jurgen Klopp and he has always “found a way”.
What an opportunity though for United to go there and end this record. Memory goes back to the Arsenal Invincibles who also had such a monumental record that was there to be broken. Liverpool of course cannot keep this record forever but all things must come to and end. Obviously they would prefer for this to happen at the hands of literally any other club than United!
Home advantage for this tie is a huge deal though. The Champions are not firing on all cylinders lately. Maybe the Anfield difference can get them over the line when they need it most. Liverpool have a habit of leaving big games to the last game in the Champions League over the last few seasons. Then winning when it counted most. This feels like one of those times they will need to go to the well and go as deep as possible for a win.
The Champions hangover
Liverpool amassed 97 points in the 2018/19 season. they were pipped to the title by the blue half of Manchester by a single point after losing just 1 game. The 2019-20 season however they came out of the blocks with such ferocity they were already out of site by Christmas. It wasn’t until 28 games they finally lost to Watford. It was a winning streak of incredible standards. To play with this standard for almost 2 full seasons was a huge task that would surely have after effects on the players.
After securing the league Liverpool’s performances seen a drop in many areas. This was maybe no surprise to many as it was an intense 2 years and the players needed to unwind. The problem with going down a level is that it can be a hard task to get back to the lofty heights as before. We have seen this with Manchester City especially after winning a title. This is also why it is probably a more impressive task to win back to back titles. Diogo Jota’s arrival seemed to give Liverpool a much needed lift with a player that added freshness to their attack but then losing Virgil Van Dijk and Gomez in such a shirt time took the wind out of that sail.
Liverpool didn’t waste too much time on these issues, at least on the field. Performances were still skewed but results were good and that seen them claim top position up until the Christmas period. Form has been patchy with some players not performing to the high levels we expect. The lack of an experienced center back to play alongside Fabinho has been a massive concern. This is now the perfect game for them to stand up when it matters and put all that aside when it means the most.
A statement of Intent
Make no doubt this encounter. If either team takes 3 points this will be a huge statement to the whole league. For Liverpool it will mean they once again take top position showing they are still fighting for another title. For United this will cement their position as title runners. It will place a massive gap of 6 points between themselves and the current champions. A Liverpool loss and the added stigma of knowing United ended the unbeaten 3 year record would simply be unbearable to any Liverpool supporter.
More so for United and Solskjaer this will elevate them to a position that they have not been in for many years. To have a side capable of securing a title that was once regarded as their right to own. Players like Harry Maguire and Paul Pogba who have endured much scrutiny mainly due to their price tags. They will have a viable reason to give 2 fingers up to anyone that dares say they do not belong in this team.
How will it unfold
The last front runners that visited Anfield this season were Spurs. Hyped up to be contenders in typical Jose Mourinho fashion. He shrugged off the negative tactics that he felt were necessary to win the game. This game will be a mirror of that occasion. United will sit in tight and brace for impact in the opening 10-15 minutes. The outlet will be Rashford through the boot of Fernandez. Much like Kane releasing Son.
Liverpool will surely look to impose their possession game on United to limit their ability to break with speed. Their biggest issue will be deciding on a partner for Fabinho and the form of Trent Alexander Arnold. With Rashford sure to be installed on the left flank. If they get this pairing wrong it could be a field day for the United man.
For Liverpool i expect Klopp to bite the bullet and decide on either Phillips or Williams for defence. Henderson is too valuable to play in that position especially in big games like this. I’d also expect to see Henderson pop up on the right side of the Liverpool midfield to assist Trent with Marcus Rashford. With all three of Liverpool’s front men not firing on all cylinders. This will be intriguing to see if they can force some form due to the occasion. This will be pivotal if they are to secure a win.
Manchester United are the team in form for this game. Although these encounters are never quality games as of late the sheer size of the reward for the winner will outweigh a poor game if it occurs. The backline picks itself for me although Solskjaer has a soft spot for Lindelof. I expect to see Fred and Mctominay restored as the blockers but Matic’s experience might change like for like. The biggest question then will be to play Pogba wide left, which he will probably so so he can use Fernandez in the 10.
The key to victory
The key to this game will be if they can get Fernandez in possession enough to hurt Liverpool’s high line. We seen with Manchester City last week that by starving him of quality possession really neuters the United counter attack. I expect Liverpool to attack high up the pitch, especially early on. United must stay in the game for the first 20 mins until it settles. Spurs scored 1 goal with 1 attempt in their first half so United can gain solace with that.
This game will come down to fine margins. With all the talk of penalties in the past week it will take an absolute stonewall scenario to award one to either team. Hopefully if goals are scored there will be no debate. United will also be dangerous on set pieces as we’ve seen in recent weeks. Looking forward to a really enthralling game, i will not expect a classic in terms of out and out attacking football. But i expect to be gripped from start to finish.
It’s great to have this rivalry renewed!
To wet the appetite, enjoy these goals from both sides : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6dCo6ejYio