The North West derby is always one of the biggest dates in the English football calendar: a bitter rivalry between English football’s two most successful clubs drenched in the vitriol of a regional grudge match.
This weekend, however, will give us much more than that.
As Manchester United travel to Anfield on Saturday lunchtime, they’ll do so for their first test against a side from last season’s top six. And although Jose Mourinho’s side have proven a step above all competition except their Manchester neighbours so far in this adolescent Premier League season, this weekend represents their toughest test yet. It will also tell us a great deal about where they stand as a team.
In a way, the same can be said for their opponents. Liverpool have already played two top-six rivals, but the needle has fluctuated so wildly that we don’t really know which side it will stop on.
A large victory over an abject Arsenal at Anfield probably said as much about the state of the Gunners as it did about Liverpool’s ability to tear teams apart on the counter-attack, as stunning and as ruthless as Jurgen Klopp’s Reds were. On the other hand, that side then went on to capitulate massively at Manchester City. Sinking without a trace in the second half smacked of a side who had simply given up the ghost, and whatever they made up in goal difference by beating Arsenal they gave back in interest to City. In such a tight Premier League season, that could end up being crucial.
It’s probably fair to say that Liverpool’s real level is somewhere in between beating Arsenal 4-0 – given the Gunners’ off day – and losing 5-0 to Manchester City – given Liverpool’s red card and subsequent capitulation. Those extremes are so great that it’s impossible to say with any certainty which side they’re on. and that means this derby will probably tell us more about where they are.
United are in a similar boat. Despite winning multiple games by four-goal margins this season, many onlookers have spoken about how most of those games ‘weren’t 4-0s’. By that they mean United were held much closer by the likes of Swansea and Everton than the scoreline would suggest. In fairness, though, Mourinho’s side is so physical, so big and so strong that it’s not a jump to suggest that their superior fitness levels are what sets them apart at the end of games – 10 of their 21 goals this season have come after the 80 minute mark. Can that really be a coincidence?
The thing is, for all we think we know about Manchester United after seven Premier League games, the truth is we know less than we need to before we make real judgements. Before the season started, almost everyone predicted that this would be the tightest season in years, with six clubs capable of taking points off each other at the top and possibly even having shouts of winning the league title themselves.
Given that the top six is now head and shoulders above every other team in the league, that means questions of the kinds we’re asking about United and Liverpool will only be answered in games like this weekend’s, which feature two of the sides at the top. Are United’s late goals coincidence? Whilst we won’t find out definitively this weekend, we’ll probably know more. Are Liverpool over-reliant on Sadio Mane? We’ll know more on Saturday. Same goes for whether Romelu Lukaku can be prolific in the biggest games, or whether Jurgen Klopp’s defence is good enough for Liverpool to really compete towards the very top of the table and even in Europe this season.
This weekend’s game isn’t just a chance to see two bitter foes and top six rivals compete after the lull of the international break, it’s also a chance to take notes for what’s to come in the business end of the season. United have yet to be tested properly so far this season, and we’ll find out a lot about them because of it. Liverpool have been tested twice and given such wildly different answers as to render our opinions useless – this game will give us a clearer idea.
We’ve already had numerous top six clashes already this season. Manchester City’s victory over Chelsea just before the break told us that City are very much title-contenders and don’t look like capitulating as they did after 10 games last year. Arsenal’s draw with Chelsea, too, told us that they’re not as bad as their humiliation at Anfield earlier in the season made us believe. But with so much still unanswered about Manchester United and Liverpool, this game feels like the one which will tell us the most so far.