Jack: The midweek victory over Hull City extended Manchester United’s winning run to nine matches, and their unbeaten one to 15 in all competitions. The surge has seen United move within three points of fourth-placed Manchester City, and five of second-placed Liverpool. The Merseysiders are Old Trafford-bound on Sunday, having themselves only dropped two points from a possible 15 in their last five league games.
With Champions League qualification so hotly contested, and Liverpool still harbouring faint hopes of a title charge, there’s more than mere pride at stake on Sunday. But aside from hackneyed clichés, there remains the question of how much more than pride is up for grabs. Do United have reason to be as nervous as the media hype suggests, or would dropping points not be as catastrophic as we may fear?
Andi: Let's deal with the worst possible scenario first, and think about a loss. Catastrophic would be too strong, but it would be very, very inconvenient for two reasons. The first is a practical one: this season's Premier League is shaping up to be ridiculous.
United have won six league games in a row, putting them nine points clear of seventh place. Yet they are still three points off fourth place, five of Liverpool in second, and 10 off Chelsea at the top. It's looking like the only way United are going to displace the teams above them is to start dragging them back down, then waiting for them to take points off one another. The rest of the league may not pick up the slack. (This is why, incidentally, Arsenal's late equaliser is the most irritating goal of the season so far.)
The other reason is more abstract, but while United's recent run of nine wins has been excellent, it's also only taken in one properly decent opponent, Tottenham. And they were having something of an off-day. So while a win over Liverpool would absolutely confirm that things are going very well, a loss might well pop the atmosphere of good feeling. Confidence is back, but it's always fragile.
Jack: No disagreement here. However, on a related note, it certainly seems to me that José Mourinho has been much less belligerent in the build-up to big games than he has often been in the past. Before arriving at United, he very much had constructed a reputation as a man for the big occasion, and, as records show, it’s not at all without basis in reality. As a coach, he seems to have a knack of being able to outsmart bigger and better teams, by dint of man management, tactics, or both.
It may well be because he arrived at United rather with his tail between his legs, but the feisty, opposition-baiting Mourinho of old appears to have mellowed a fraction. He surely still looks to create a siege mentality in the dressing room, though perhaps the fortress is a little more fragile than it once was. What the players may lose in motivation, however, they may well gain from the slightly more relaxed atmosphere. If Mourinho is to go the distance at United, perhaps easing the tension is no bad thing.
Andi: One of the most encouraging things about the recent spate of 'What's Going Right At Old Trafford' articles — the ones from proper journalists with actual connections — has been the reports on Mourinho's mood around the training ground. It appears that the surliness only extends to the technical area and press conference; that when he's actually working, out of the public eye, he's enjoying himself and his players are enjoying him and one another.
So if you're right and he's getting less confrontational in public, while also improving the mood around the club, then we might perhaps start to wonder if the impossible isn't happening right before our eyes. Jose Mourinho might be growing up. This, of course, only makes a victory more important on Sunday, lest this late-blooming maturity be cruelly pruned back before it has a chance to truly flourish.
How do you think a(nother) decent performance, but a(nother) draw, would go down?
Jack: I don’t think a draw would go down too badly at all. It would be naive to assume the winning streak could go on forever (to use the strange and yet somehow perfectly comprehensible footballing logic of my grandfather, United are overdue a bad result), and so keeping Liverpool within touching distance with a draw would be no bad thing at all.
Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but I’m still sceptical about Liverpool’s defensive strength, and still hopeful that over the course of the season, United’s stronger core will see them top Jürgen Klopp’s side in the table. For the time being, a five-point gap seems a perfectly manageable one, and I can’t imagine anyone being too upset if that’s how things stay at the end of the weekend. Am I being a little too dismissive of Klopp’s Juggernaut?
Andi: They're a weird side, Liverpool. Or perhaps, instead of weird, we could say "high variance". When the attack works, they're the closest thing the league has to a truly unstoppable side, but at times they can look very jaded and incoherent up front, and that's when the wobbly defence and comedy keepers look vulnerable. A fair bit of that is probably down to Klopp only having been in the job for just over a year; presumably, as he shapes the squad and gets more coaching done, they'll get more consistent. I tend to agree, though, they're catchable.
And this is probably a good time to be playing them. Mane's off at the AFCON, Henderson, Coutinho and Matip are all lacking full fitness, and they've just lost to Southampton and drawn with Plymouth and Sunderland. For that reason, a draw might be quite frustrating. Obviously United should, in theory, be able to dismiss Liverpool no matter what else is going on in the world, but a little bit of circumstantial assistance is not to be turned away.
So, the most important question. Who starts for United?
Jack: The injury to Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly’s departure to the AFCON means the back four sort of picks itself. Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia are in front of David de Gea on my proverbial chalkboard. [Don't be fooled. Jack has a literal chalkboard. — Andi] [I wish that wasn’t true — Jack] From there, it seems Michael Carrick is a must, despite the fact that I still can’t fully comprehend the impact his presence seems to have on United’s results. The thought of his old legs trying to stop a Klopp counter-attack is still one I find uncomfortable, but I suppose there comes a time we all have to stop digging ...
From there, Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović are shoo-ins (providing Ibra has recovered from the illness that kept him out of the win over Hull), but I confess I’m not quite sure who are the best options out wide. I think I’ll go for Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial; Marcus Rashford is obviously great, but it seems increasingly clear he’s much better through the middle, and is a terrifyingly good super sub. You?
Andi: Yeah, I think the middle of the team picks itself, and it seems clear that Mourinho prefers Valencia at right-back to Darmian, Darmian at left-back to Daley Blind, and literally anybody else to Luke Shaw.
Mkhitaryan I think is a must: for all that James Milner's been surprisingly good at left-back, he's not the quickest, and both Liverpool's full-backs do lots of attacking. So there should be space in behind on either flank, and if he comes central, the idea of him running at Dejan Lovren is a gratifying one.
Rashford, I agree, should come from the bench: he works as a sub no matter what the state of the game. To start on the other flank, I'm not sure. Martial would be the most aggressive pick and, for that reason, I'd enjoy it. But I wonder if Mata might be the call. One, he's the best compromise between attack and control. And two, he's got a nice habit of doing excellent things against Liverpool. Such habits should be indulged and encouraged.