Liverpool head to Old Trafford looking to equal the Premier League record for consecutive wins. Manchester United welcome their long-term rivals having made their worst start to a season in over 30 years.
As Michael Scott from The Office once said: ‘Well, well, well. How the turntables.’
It isn’t a must-win game for Ole Gunnar Solskjær. It isn’t even a must not lose match for the Norweigan tactician, with reports suggesting defeat to the Reds won’t cost the former Molde manager his job. However, the latter could well change depending on the sort of performance United put in on Sunday.
A dismantling on home turf could see the tide turn and the feeling of goodwill towards Solskjær go out of the window. United haven’t won a match since the 1-0 victory over Astana in the middle of September. Since then, the Red Devils have lost two and drawn three. They find themselves just two points above the drop zone and are 15 points behind leaders Liverpool.
Solskjær’s squad is riddled with injuries and many of his fit players find themselves out of form. In normal circumstances, looking to frustrate Jürgen Klopp’s men may be acceptable. It worked when the two sides met at Old Trafford last season. The Reds dominated possession against an injury-ravaged United side, seeing 65 per cent of the ball, but managed just one shot on target.
But this Liverpool side is a different beast altogether this season. They’re finding ways to break down low defensive blocks. They’re picking apart teams who attack them. They’re by no means unstoppable but they’re far better equipped to deal with teams that have no intention to attack.
The Red Devils boss must be aware of this. But Klopp must also take advantage of the situation he’s being presented with, to force Solskjær into playing a game that the former BVB boss wants him to play.
For example, United have pressed a little higher in matches this season. Their defensive line has been near the half-way line and they’ve looked to swarm the opposition. In other matches, United have sat a little deeper and looked to absorb the pressure.
The Liverpool boss needs to take that decision away from his counterpart. Not only must Liverpool dictate the tempo, but they must also control how United play. This may hinge on who Klopp picks to lead his line.
Over recent weeks, the Reds have moved away from their usual dynamic in attack. Roberto Firmino has played as a left-sided forward, with Sadio Mané on the right and Mohamed Salah leading the line. Against Red Bull Salzburg Mané even spent some time as the No.9.
When Liverpool hosted Leicester City the switch was noticeable. Some theorised that Klopp wanted more pace in central areas to exploit the high line and Jonny Evans. Some people felt that by having Mané and Firmino in wide areas it nullified the threat of Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira.
The truth is somewhere in between.
Firstly, United do look to play the offside trap and Harry Maguire isn’t the quickest. Positioning Salah and Mané on the right side of the team – which happens naturally if the latter starts as a right-sided forward, due to Salah instinctively drifting to that part of the pitch – means the pair can angle their runs to exploit the fact that Maguire lacks recovery pace.
Mané is a master of that run. His goal against Leicester, though from the opposite side of the pitch, was a replica of that scenario. Salah has scored many goals from cutting inside from the right and timing his run to allow him free entry into the penalty area.
Starting with the same shape as they used against the Foxes enables the above. It also pits Firmino against Wan-Bissaka. Now, the £50million-rated right-back is famed for his tackling ability and recovery pace. In a foot race, very few will beat him. But as shown when Liverpool faced Crystal Palace last season, the 21-year-old doesn’t have as much joy against trickier players who aren’t reliant on pace.
Naby Keïta and Mané controlled the space so it wasn’t about a foot race. It was about a battle of the minds, with both Liverpool players looking to tempt the right-back into diving into a tackle in a dangerous area. On the night, Wan-Bissaka missed three of his six attempted tackles. Sticking Firmino on his side of the pitch might see Liverpool get a lot of joy against a player many believe to be the best defensive full-back in the Premier League.
If Klopp moves away from the tried and tested formula in attack then it’s a sure sign that he fancies his chances. Last season he travelled to Old Trafford and showed the hosts far too much respect. The game was there to be won but Liverpool simply didn’t want to lose. Switching it up would show there’s only one thing on the German’s mind; all three points.