Expert Predictions: The Northwest derby

The greatest fixture in English football and a 90 minutes that brings in amongst the biggest viewing figures of any match across the globe, all eyes are firmly set on Saturday’s Northwest derby. The last three have failed to entertain, producing just two goals in total, but with Manchester United and Liverpool ranked second and third respectively in the Premier League table, there is at least a revived importance to this weekend’s instalment of the ancient rivalry – it could well decide who lays rightful claim to being Manchester City’s closest competitor come the end of May.

But are we in for another over-hyped snoozefest, or will the Northwest derby live up to expectations this time around as both managers search for the win? This week’s experts, Live4Liverpool’s George Dagless and Football FanCast’s very own United-loving Sam Preston, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of Saturday’s 12.30pm kickoff…

Ever the pragmatist, Jose Mourinho will feel he’s got the better of Liverpool during the last three meetings even if his defensive tactics have often been widely condemned by pundits, twice escaping Anfield with a point and reducing Jurgen Klopp’s usually potent attacking cast to just one goal during that time.

What must Liverpool to do ensure they aren’t cancelled out by Mourinho’s tactics once again on Saturday?

George: “It’s true, he has earned some decent results, but the onus is surely on him to attack more in this game than in previous recent instalments. Liverpool have been better at breaking down stubborn sides this year and I think patience is key. If United decide to be cagey, the Reds just need to knock it around looking for space that will open up on the bigger-than-Anfield, Old Trafford pitch. Eventually United will have to attack to keep their fans at bay and that’s when we should look to strike.”

Statistics from the Premier League's greatest major derbies

And aside from the Premier League’s second-top scorer, Mohamed Salah, which player do you think Mourinho will be most concerned with nullifying?

Sam: “It has to be Roberto Firmino. Sadio Mane is lightning fast but so is Antonio Valencia so he should be able to match the former Southampton man. However, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof have been nervous in recent weeks and Firmino’s movement could prove too much for both of them. They both struggled in midweek and Firmino’s energy along with his ability to drop deep just as well as he springs in behind is a real danger.”

Perhaps a bigger dilemma for Mourinho than working out how to stop Liverpool though, is how to get the best out of his two chief talents – Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba. Neither have been in particularly impressive form recently, but they appear to struggle even more when they’re in the same starting XI.

Alexis Sanchez's stats vs Crystal Palace

Why have they struggled so much alongside each other, and how can Mourinho solve the problem?

Sam: “There are two problems with Sanchez and Pogba. They both like to operate in the same area of the pitch; Sanchez drifting inside from the left and Pogba starting centrally but roaming wide  Also, they’re both under a bit of scrutiny and are trying too hard to prove their worth. It’s a tough one for Mourinho to solve without making one of them play out of position. They both want to be the main man so using his man-management skills to get both of them to keep their game simpler might be the best approach.”

And with Sanchez and Pogba struggling for form, is there another attacking player who could cause Liverpool problems at Old Trafford?

George: “You can’t rule them out from doing something special, undoubtedly, but I’d be particularly wary of Juan Mata. He’s got a good record against us for United and was the difference when he came on for them against Crystal Palace last time out. He’s not the quickest physically but mentally he can unlock games faster than most and he has the form and guile to cause us issues – providing Mourinho starts him of course!”

The situation in Liverpool’s midfield, meanwhile, is slightly different. Captain Jordan Henderson has received plenty of stick this season, but was arguably the Man of the Match last time out in the Premier League against Newcastle and clearly still has a huge fan in Klopp.

Jordan Henderson's stats vs Newcastle

Is he Liverpool’s best option at the base of midfield, and which three players would you start in the middle of the park at Old Trafford?

George: “I’m a fan of Henderson so I think he gets a raw deal. It’s almost fashionable to have a pop at him without really looking at the job he does for us. I’d actually like to see Emre Can at the base with the skipper marauding forward more – similar to 2013/14 – but Klopp won’t employ such a set-up and so he’s the best for how the German wants his midfield to work. With that said, then, I think it’ll be Henderson, Can and potentially James Milner. Georginio Wijnaldum has had illness recently and, though he’s recovered, I can see the former City man playing in this one.”

With or without Henderson anchoring the engine room, Liverpool have been in incredible form in recent months. In fact, excepting a shock away defeat to Swansea City, Liverpool haven’t lost a Premier League fixture since being drubbed 4-1 by Tottenham back in October. That loss proved this Reds side can be beaten though, and there are still long-standing issues that Klopp is yet to truly resolve.

What Liverpool weaknesses are United well equipped to take advantage of?

Sam: “Both Loris Karius and Liverpool’s central defenders have improved lately but they can still be exploited. Crosses into the box towards Romelu Lukaku, especially from Antonio Valencia, may unsettle Karius. Also, playing the ball in between the centre-halves and the full backs for Lukaku to chase will get Van Dijk and Matip facing their own goal and that is when they look most vulnerable. Liverpool still lack a recognised, disciplined holding midfielder and that should encourage Pogba to roam into the space behind Henderson.”

Liverpool and Manchester United's form guide heading into the Northwest derby

And where will this game be lost and won?

Sam: “We know that Mourinho has been terrified of Liverpool’s dazzling attack in the two trips to Anfield he has overseen and it will be United’s ability to stifle the Reds’ front three that is the key to this one. Liverpool have the capacity to overpower a nervous and aging United backline but if the back four and Nemanja Matic can keep a handle on things at the back – without parking the bus and withdrawing United’s attacking threat in the process – then the Red Devils will have the springboard to go on and win the match.”

George: “Roberto Firmino against United’s central four of their two centre-halves and two holding players. It seems perhaps a tad fanciful that one man can occupy four players but Firmino is excellent at doing just that and could cause them real issues with his work-rate and tendency to pop up pretty much anywhere. He’s been excellent this season and with the lack of discipline Paul Pogba shows in midfield he could be afforded the space to bring both our midfielders and the two wide men into the game. The Brazilian has become a fantastic asset this season.”

Finally chaps, let’s hear your score predictions…

George: “It’s the one game you want to win more than any other and I think we’ve got a great chance of earning three points. Mourinho and United will be switched on more than they were at Selhurst Park, though, and so I could see it being a draw. 1-1 – though I’m hoping for something like 3-0!”

Sam: “2-1 to United. Liverpool’s attack will cause United problems, no doubt about it, but Mourinho’s men have ground out results recently. Pogba and Sanchez need to put in big performances and if they do, it will go a long way to securing the win.”