Liverpool travel to Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon in what could be a pivotal match in the race for second. Manchester United are currently two points above Jürgen Klopp‘s men and a win would give José Mourinho‘s side breathing space heading into the final eight games of the campaign.
The last three matches between the two sides haven’t been one for the neutrals. Mourinho has managed to frustrate the Reds and the spoils have been shared on every occasion. For context, under Klopp, Liverpool have averaged 2.06 goals per game but against United, with the Portuguese at the helm, they’ve averaged just 0.3 goals.
The match is being described as the unstoppable force vs. immovable object but it will be much more of a tactical battle and both managers know they have to win the key battles.
Here, we take a look at where the game could be won or lost. However, it’s not in the traditional sense of key battles. Instead we’re looking at which of the players in important areas can be the most influential.
The midfield pair, in many ways, have mirrored one another this season. People are still undecided when it comes to what impact they have on their respective teams.
Pogba has blown hot and cold and hasn’t really found a home in Mourinho’s midfield system. His return of nine assists, the third best in the league, has papered over his creative inconsistency this season. But, at the same time, what be brings to the team when used properly is overlooked.
Likewise, the uncertainty surrounding Can’s future at Anfield has skewed the perception of him. There’s a feeling the Juventus transfer target doesn’t want to be at the club so whenever he has an average game it’s blown out of proportion. Yet when he puts in a man of the match display people tend to turn a blind eye.
When looking at the stats in the graphic above you see both are posting similar numbers. Pogba is more of a goal threat, with a slightly higher xA and goals per 90 average, while Can is winning more tackles and making more interceptions.
If Can manages to repeat those figures at Old Trafford then it’s unlikely Pogba will find himself in dangerous positions. If the Frenchman is pulling the strings on Saturday then he’s done so having got the better of the German powerhouse.
Lukaku has been involved in six goals in his last six starts and, truth be told, it should have been more. He’s found form again for the Red Devils and it’s come at the right time of the season.
If United are going to threaten a Liverpool backline which has kept four clean sheets in their last five matches then he’s going to be their best bet.
Firmino could be key to Liverpool finally putting the home side to the sword. However, in the last three encounters against Mourinho’s United, in which they’ve scored just one goal, Liverpool’s xG has been 3.97. Klopp’s men haven’t been as ruthless as they’ve needed to be.
However, this was before the Brazilian had completed his transition from false nine into a proper number nine. He’s scored more goals per 90 minutes than his Belgian counterpart despite his xG90 being less than Lukaku’s. That means the Liverpool man is scoring lower quality chances.
Whichever No.9 performs best on Saturday will more than likely finish on the winning side.