Rivalries are one of the most important aspects of modern football, they enhance the spectacle and the importance of matches and create a product that can be enjoyed the world over. In terms of rivalries in English football, few can match the passion and importance of the clash between Manchester United and Liverpool.
These teams represent the two true dynasties of the English game, with each dominating the domestic landscape at different points of the 20th century. In recent years both have fallen short of their dominant best, but there are definite signs this season that both sides are finding their feet again.
Indeed, Manchester United are perhaps one of the most in form teams in Europe and after initial teething problems following the appointment of the Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho we are now seeing the side rediscover their attacking swagger following the defensive system imposed by Louis van Gaal. The likes of Henrik Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba are emerging as key players to compliment the attacking threat of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool are at best an irresistible attacking force with the capacity to break teams down through any phase of the game.
The forthcoming fixture promises to be a fascinating tactical battle but there are two key areas to keep an eye on…
Two high profile summer signings have after a less than stellar start at Old Trafford emerged as key players over the last few weeks. The Armenia international Henrik Mkhitaryan was brought in to much fanfare following his excellent performances for Borussia Dortmund and Paul Pogba became the most expensive player in the World after his move back to Old Trafford from Juventus.
These two players have the potential to break through the Liverpool defensive structure almost on their own if Mourinho can ensure that they are in a position to connect with one another in the final third.
In the first leg of the EFLCup semi-final against Hull City we saw Mkhitaryan deployed on the left of the attack, which allowed him to connect more easily with Pogba who naturally prefers a left sided role in the centre of the midfield. With the vision of Pogba and the ability of Mkhitaryan to find and exploit space coming off of the wide areas, the two can be hugely effective in breaking down the opposing team’s defensive structure.
If you then factor in the tactical intelligence of other United players, like Ibrahimovic and Herrera, then you begin to see how effective United can be when their most tactically influential players click and are able to work together in the same zone of the pitch.
Much will depend on the performance of Pogba as well with the French midfielder at times appearing complacent on the ball although this complacency is in part because he has the natural ability to beat the press when the opposition are closing him down.
This could be the match when the world’s most expensive player cements his place in the hearts of the United fans.
A lot has been made of the loss of Sadio Mane to the African Cup of Nations this month but in truth the loss of club captain Jordan Henderson has been more of a concern, given the lack of a like for like replacement in the squad.
Emre Can and Kevin Stewart have both featured as the controlling midfielder in front of the defence in recent weeks, with neither appearing altogether comfortable in the role. If Henderson is still going to be missing from the match with United then it is likely that Klopp will prefer Emre Can in this role, which will be key in negating the threat from United.
Even if Henderson is fit to return then he will be short of match sharpness, which will present its own set of problems. United are likely to attack through the central areas of the field, looking to play the ball in through the middle third of the pitch and in to their danger players Mkhitaryan and Ibrahimovic. In these areas the controlling midfielder will be responsible for blocking any passing lanes through to the strikers and positioning himself to prevent the wide attackers from getting free when they cut centrally away from the Liverpool fullbacks.
There have been times that Emre Can has been too tactically indisciplined for the role, preferring instead to join in with his more advanced teammates. This is a scenario that could prove costly against a United side who are starting to perform in the final third in line with the quality of their players.
The calm head of Henderson would certainly ease the worries of Liverpool fans should he be fit to start.
As with so many games in the Premier League this season, this match will be set as a clash between two coaches as much as it will be between two sets of players.
The attacking vibrance of Jurgen Klopp will be hard pushed by the tactically disciplined Jose Mourinho and the match may well hinge on which side can boast the smaller injury list.
United are starting to find their stride going in to the most important phase of the season whilst Liverpool are looking to rediscover the excellent form that they showed at the start of the season.
We are now getting to stage that neither side can afford to drop points to the sides around them in the table.