It is English football’s answer to El Clasico, a clash between the nation’s two most successful clubs, though rarely a footballing classic in entertainment terms. Unlike Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, Liverpool vs. Manchester United is not a match likely to decide the destiny of the Premier League title since both have fallen from their historic pedestals in recent years.
In terms of the 2016-17 season and the rivals’ ambitions, and their place in relation to each other, it might however be significant. Should Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool beat Jose Mourinho’s United then they will climb six points clear, a decent advantage even after just eight matches played.
Here, John Brewin evaluates each aspect of both clubs, from talent between the sticks to smarts in the dugout, to help predict a winner.
The dropping of Simon Mignolet ahead of Liverpool’s 5-1 win of Hull City on Sept. 24 for Loris Karius was popular among many supporters. The Belgian has been bemoaned as a weak link since his first season at Anfield in 2013-14. The 23-year-old German’s injury in preseason gave Mignolet a chance to cement his place, yet once Karius was fit to play, he was selected, though gave a mixed display during a 2-1 win at Swansea on Oct. 1, where he looked ill at ease with the ball at his feet and when dealing with crosses. Whether Klopp stays faithful to his compatriot is a significant selection query.
No such selection issues for Mourinho, for whom David De Gea is the undoubted, indisputable first choice, though he has not looked quite so watertight as he did under Louis van Gaal last season. A late error led to Stoke City’s equaliser in United’s last match, a 1-1 draw, and he looked less than secure during a 3-1 defeat at Watford on Sept. 18. When United won at Anfield in each of their last two Premier League visits, a 2-1 win in March 2015 and a 1-0 win in January this year, De Gea was required to be outstanding.
Dejan Lovren, expected to recover from a hamstring problem, is one of the success stories of Klopp’s year in charge. The manager usually prefers one of his central defenders to be capable of starting off passing moves from the back and the Croat supplies that function. Lovren is aided by the presence of Joel Matip, whose free-transfer capture from Schalke now looks a sizeable coup, as a central defender far more reliable than outcast Mamadou Sakho and departed Martin Skrtel. James Milner’s reinvention as a solid left-back with the penalty-taking accuracy of 1970s and ’80s legend Phil Neal has been a welcome innovation in recent weeks.
It will be of concern to Mourinho that his team have not kept a Premier League clean sheet since losing 2-1 to Manchester City on Sept. 10. The latest central defensive partnership of Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly is yet to look secure while Daley Blind has filled in for Luke Shaw while the left-back recovers from his latest injury. On the right, Antonio Valencia has improved as a defender but cannot be a long-term option.
Klopp is still unable to overturn the curse of muscle problems that have been a regular byproduct of his all-action football strategies. Georginio Wijnaldum limped out of Netherlands’ 1-0 loss to France on Monday with a hamstring problem while Adam Lallana, outstanding this season, suffered a groin strain at Swansea.
Their expected absences will force a reshuffle, and perhaps Philippe Coutinho dropping back into midfield, with Milner required at left-back. Jordan Henderson has had a fine season so far, and captained England in midweek, but that reconfiguration will put even greater responsibility on his shoulders.
Ander Herrera’s deployment as a deep-lying midfielder in recent weeks suggests the Spaniard might at last be given a run in a set, stable position, though will Mourinho’s characteristic caution cause him to add ballast? Marouane Fellaini scored in 2015’s 2-1 victory before his header rebounding from the bar led to Wayne Rooney scoring the winner in January, and is an extra tool in aerial situations. Less likely to play is Morgan Schneiderlin, who appears untrusted by United’s manager despite being perhaps best suited to anchoring the midfield.
Whatever Mourinho decides, he will require a disciplined, energetic contribution from Paul Pogba, coming off a decent display in scoring the winner in Amsterdam for France. As yet, the £89 million man is yet to supply one of those for United.
Despite a headed goal against Malta, many of the reasons for Klopp’s discomfort with Daniel Sturridge were made flesh during the striker’s last two England games. He was never quite in the positions his teammates wanted him to be, and rarely involved himself in the physical battle. Lallana’s likely absence, though, could give Sturridge a chance to work alongside the incendiary Roberto Firmino, whose constant movement is ideal for Klopp’s high-energy football. As well as being a reliable goalscorer — he has four this season — Firmino is selfless, which is just what his manager requires and expects.
The Rooney question again? Perhaps Mourinho might gamble his club captain will be inspired by being omitted by United and England and can repeat the role of match-winner he enjoyed in January. That seems an outside chance, with Juan Mata currently looking a better option at No. 10, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic a shoo-in whenever he is fit to play. The Swedish megastar would only augment his cult status with a winner at Anfield, and his physical power will no doubt be a prime weapon deployed against the likes of Matip and Lovren.
And there’s always Marcus Rashford, while Anthony Martial was on the scoresheet for the first time this season against Stoke. United have multiple options in attack, though granting them supply is the main task in hand.
His first anniversary now passed, Klopp’s popularity among Liverpool fans could hardly be higher, beyond winning the club its 19th league title or lifting a sixth European Cup. The team, and much of Liverpool Football Club these days, is built in his zany, outgoing image, and five wins in succession has everything on a roll.
It is in the big games, though, that a Liverpool manager is defined. Predecessor Brendan Rodgers suffered on such occasions. Klopp’s gegenpressing approach seems better equipped to deliver. And a match like Manchester United is the time to deliver.
The German may draw confidence from his superior record against his Portuguese visitor. He has three wins from their five previous meetings, including last season where he gained his first win as Liverpool boss when winning 3-1 at an ailing Chelsea in October 2015. Perhaps more memorable, though, is the 4-1 first-leg crushing of Mourinho’s Real Madrid by Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in April 2013. That result all but killed off Mourinho at the Bernabeu.
Mourinho still appears an uncomfortable fit for United, with his team’s performances yet to pull in the undecided factions. He has a rebuilding job to carry out, and the instant successes of his tenures at Porto, Chelsea (the first time around) and Inter Milan look unlikely to reoccur this season. For his part, aside from a couple of snarks in the direction of his “Einstein” doubters, he has been withdrawn rather than the wisecracking raconteur of yore.
Anfield, though, is a ground that holds memories for Mourinho, both bad and good. In 2005, he lost a Champions League semifinal in disputed fashion; he still denies that Luis Garcia’s goal crossed the line in a 1-0 defeat. In 2014, a masterclass in anger took the heat from a Rodgers team closing on the league title with a 2-0 win. Liverpool’s home is a venue that might at last energise him and Klopp, an opponent he might feel he owes more than a slice of revenge.
Liverpool have covered the most ground (815 kilometres) while United have covered the least (736km) distance in the Premier League this season, according to Opta, which suggests Liverpool’s energy, and United’s means of dealing with it, may provide the key to this match. In that March 2014 match, infamous for Steven Gerrard’s slip allowing Demba Ba to score, Mourinho’s Chelsea sapped energy from the fans as well as Liverpool with some expert time-wasting.
Will United’s traditions allow him to adopt such a cynical approach? And does he have the personnel to be so disciplined in their spoiling?
This will be the first match against a true, avowed rival to take place in front of Anfield’s hulking new Main Stand structure, which towers above the Merseyside skyline. An added 9,000 Liverpool fans will be roaring on their heroes.
Score prediction: 3-1 Liverpool