The Premier League returns after another tedious international break this weekend, kicking off with its headline act – Liverpool vs Manchester United at 12.30pm on Saturday. The Northwest derby is still arguably the biggest fixture on the English football calendar, even if it doesn’t always deliver in terms of entertainment, but Saturday’s instalment feels particularly significant. It will be the first true test of a Jose Mourinho side that have waltzed through their first seven games against relatively modest opposition, winning six, while defeat will see Jurgen Klopp’s boys drop ten points off the top of the table. So, how will this one pan out? This week’s experts, Live4Liverpool editor George Dagless and Niven Marston of ManUNews, share their thoughts…
Both sides face significant injury problems going into Saturday’s game but the loss of Sadio Mane feels particularly detrimental, while Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino travelled to the other side of the world during the international break and the latter is struggling for form. How will that affect the Reds’ chances and what front three would you select?
GD: It is a big blow, but perhaps not as big as it would have been last season. With Mohamed Salah possessing plenty of pace, we’re effectively back to the kind of attacking dynamic that we had last year, where I expect Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino to join the rapid Egyptian going forward.
I don’t think it’ll impact us too badly and it could actually work in our favour with United having to defend a bit higher to combat Coutinho’s trickery between the lines, rather than defending deeper and blocking the spaces that Mane likes to exploit.
As for Firmino, he’s never really been a heavy goal-scorer and I’m looking at the fact that he’s a big game player. Added to that, he’ll get a chance to link up with Coutinho up top, something that has proven devastating before and that we’ve missed for one reason or another this year, so he could come alive.
The last time United travelled to Anfield in the Premier League, Jose Mourinho eked out the most pragmatic of scoreless draws. And in fact, United’s record against top six rivals on the road last season was pretty poor – just two points gained from a possible 15. Do you think we’ll see a more open and expansive United this time around, or will Mourinho go back to basics?
NM: Mourinho was widely criticised during his first season for approaching the ‘big games’ with precaution and prioritising not losing rather than winning the game. Red Monday last season was a classic example of Jose wanting to avoid losing at all costs, as high-flying Liverpool were numbed by United’s rather average looking XI.
This season, as United sit joint top of the league and unbeaten, it would be easy to assume that Mourinho will send his team out with all guns blazing in an attempt to punish an out-of-form Liverpool defence that looks exceptionally frail at times. But I can’t see him doing so.
Regardless of form, Jose knows that the Liverpool-United games can be detrimental in terms of how a season can pan out. A victory in this fixture would surely put to bed the idea that United have faced only easy sides this season. Equally though, losing this fixture would put a dampener on the brilliant start United have made. You only have to look at what happened after their defeat to Manchester City last season – a loss that evoked a run of just two victories in their next ten games.
Therefore it seems only natural for Mourinho to approach this fixture with great caution, remaining respectful of the talent Liverpool do possess within their ranks. However, the Portuguese has had over a full year to learn the dynamics of his squad and although last season he perhaps wasn’t filled with the greatest confidence in his side, which forced him to go defensive, he surely has more faith in them this time around.
Height and power have become defining traits of this United side since Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic joined the ranks during the summer. But with Paul Pogba, Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini all absent through injury, the Red Devils’ physicality has been reduced somewhat – especially in the engine room. How would you line up United on Saturday and will Mourinho bring in players in other positions to maintain United’s height and power, such as Matteo Darmian or Victor Lindelof?
NM: The midfield trio’s absence will be a big blow for Mourinho, who would have presumably relied on Pogba to irritate Liverpool with his free-roam of the midfield, and called upon Fellaini to cement any potential lead the Red Devils may have over their rivals. Carrick is as ever-dependable as they come too, and his presence in a matchday squad brings masses of reliability and experience – something that is vital in a game such as this.
Mourinho will presumably opt for Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera to occupy the central midfield roles, with either Juan Mata or Henrikh Mkhitaryan playing just in front. Matic’s height and power will be pivotal to the side, while Herrera’s tireless legwork and ball-chasing will make it incredibly difficult for Liverpool to have any sort of time on the ball in central areas. Whoever starts in midfield out of Mata and Mkhitaryan will presumably have a part to play in supporting the duo mentioned earlier, but you’d expect them to be typically at the forefront of attacks.
As for there being any other inclusions to maintain the height of this current United team, I believe Mourinho will simply stick to a winning formula, and continue to use the players who have been so important thus far in helping the side to remain unbeaten. I expect United to line up as follows: David De Gea; Antonio Valencia, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Ashley Young; Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford; Romelu Lukaku.
United have won all but one of their Premier League fixtures so far this season, conceding only twice and netting 21 times, while the aforementioned emphasis on physicality, height and power gives them a new aura of almost machine-like efficiency. But do you see any weaknesses in this side and how can Liverpool exploit them?
GD: It’s certainly tough to see chinks in the armour, they have been pretty formidable. A couple of areas that could be got at in their side, though, is at left-back and their holding midfield roles.
Ashley Young has done well on the left of United’s defence in recent games but Mourinho can’t be overly happy with him there long-term and Salah is in the form needed to give him a torrid time.
Meanwhile, though Nemanja Matic has been a rock in midfield, he isn’t as mobile as the three central players for Liverpool – Emre Can, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson. The Reds will need that trio to be brave on the ball and close Matic at every chance and the Serbian – alongside Ander Herrera more than likely – will have to try and deal with those runs.
It looks set to be a cagey affair in which one key moment or individual battle could swing the result either way. What do you think will have the biggest impact on this game?
GD: If Liverpool score first and within the first 30 minutes, they will have a great chance of winning. If United can ride that early storm, though, then it could end up going in their favour – that’s going to be the deciding factor in this one.
In terms of the main key battle – perhaps worryingly for the Reds – Dejan Lovren versus Romelu Lukaku will be crucial. Liverpool are at home and will have more of the ball with United probably happy to sit in. That’s happened a lot at Anfield this season and, when it has, the Croatian and the back four have switched off and gifted golden opportunities to opponents – often leading to goals. Do that against the in-form Belgian and we might as well pack up early.
Mane may be out for this one but Liverpool still boast considerable vibrancy in attack, evident enough through them netting 13 times in the Premier League already this season – including four goals against Arsenal alone – which is the highest return outside of the top six. Which Liverpool player concerns you most?
NM: It has to be Philippe Coutinho. Regardless of the rumours surrounding his future, the Brazilian offers something that so few do in world football – genuine world class ability. We’re talking about a player who Liverpool wouldn’t sell for £120m+ during the summer, that alone shows you just how much of an important asset he is to the club. The 25-year-old would walk into just about every starting XI on the planet, and his presence so far this season since returning to the side has been a high point of an otherwise rather dismal campaign for the Reds.
Finally lads, let’s hear your score predictions…
GD: I’d love to be more optimistic but it’s Jose Mourinho in a big away game and so I think it’ll be 1-1. A result that would obviously suit United more.
NM: I think it’ll be 1-1 as well.