Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool play host to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United in Saturday’s early kick-off at Anfield.
United have started the season impressively while Liverpool have yet to get going.
Mourinho’s side have won six of their first seven league matches conceding just two goals and dropping as many points along the way. While Saturday’s game will serve as their first real test, there’s no denying that they have improved massively on last season.
They struggled to put teams away last term, racking up a ridiculous 15 draws while Zlatan Ibrahimovic carried most of the goalscoring burden. Already this season goals have been easier to come by with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini all chipping in.
New signings Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic have made a marked difference at opposite ends of the pitch. As a result, many of those draws have turned into wins.
It’s something the United manager has been quick to acknowledge himself (via the Liverpool Echo):
“I think we are a better team. You can say, like some people do, we have not played one of the top five teams but last season we did not beat West Ham at home, last season we did not beat Everton at home or Southampton away.
“I think it would be unfair to say Lukaku and Matic did not make an impact, we have to admit that and give them what they deserve. But the team give them the conditions to arrive the way they have.”
By contrast, Klopp has come under fire this season for failing to address the problems that beset his side last season. The previously exiled Alberto Moreno has been deemed fit for first team selection again despite showing no improvement at all defensively.
Meanwhile, central defence remains a massive problem. Having failed in his pursuit of Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk it seemed as though Klopp had no plan b.
At the other end of the pitch, the German’s side have been characteristically devastating at times. The triumvirate of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane (who’s out injured for up to six weeks) and Mohamed Salah have the ability to outscore many sides on their own. However, when one is missing – particularly Sane – they struggle for the same degree of cohesion.
Firmino’s form has dipped recently too, which will worry Klopp as he is the trigger man for Liverpool’s high press. But the return of Philippe Coutinho will help offset that loss.
Injuries will have a massive bearing on this clash. Without doubt Mane will be the biggest miss for either side. His drive, pace and interchanging play with his fellow forwards is difficult for any side to cope with. Liverpool’s front line will be easier managed in his absence.
For United, Pogba is still missing. Surprisingly, it will be the loss of Fellaini following his injury during the international break that will weaken Mourinho’s side more. The Belgian has stepped in since Pogba’s injury and gotten among the goals himself. The turnaround in his fortunes under the Portuguese has been remarkable.
In the corresponding fixture last season Mourinho played for and just about got a draw. This season, with his side flying high, Liverpool missing their best player and perhaps more suspect at the back than ever, expect him to go for the jugular. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have started impressively and Mourinho won’t want to let any daylight between the sides.
Klopp will set his side up to play the only way he knows: press high and often. If form suggests anything, he may be playing right into Mourinho’s hands.
Expect the opposite of last season’s tense, cagey affair. Goals at both ends but United to just edge it.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena