The stakes are higher than ever in the Manchester derby now that City aren’t rubbish anymore. Arsenal matches will always be special for Reds who came of age in the 1990s, when Arsène Wenger and Alex Ferguson and their respective teams cooked up the best rivalry in the Premier League era. But there’s something special about clashes between England’s two biggest clubs. No fixture gets the juices flowing quite like Liverpool vs. Manchester United.
Liverpool and United have, strangely enough, not enjoyed the sort of sustained title rivalry in recent decades that United had with Arsenal before Wenger became washed up. Mostly because Liverpool haven’t won the league since Moses was in short pants. And in the decade or two before that, when Liverpool were annoyingly good and successful, United were famous, but not up to much in terms of competing for titles.
Still, there’s a certain anxiety that many United supporters feel when their team travels to Anfield, regardless of either team’s title prospects at the time. Under Fergie, United had a habit of failing to turn up every other time they traveled there, and their record reflects that. United’s recent record away at their historical rivals is actually quite good, not having lost there in the league since 2013.
This season is still in its relative infancy, but it doesn’t look like these two old rivals will be going head to head for the title based on the evidence so far. While United have started the season like a house on fire, Jürgen Klopp is celebrating his two year anniversary at Liverpool with unfavorable comparisons of his record to that of Brendan Rodgers. José Mourinho and United will be looking to get a good result to Anfield as a statement of their title challenging bonafides, while Liverpool need a strong performance to breathe some life into their stillborn season.
Both teams enter this match missing their best player, with
Marouane Fellaini Paul Pogba a medium-term absentee for United, and Sadio Mané similarly sidelined for the next few weeks. How each manager adjusts to those absences will be telling. Mourinho is well-known to favor a pragmatic approach in away matches against rivals, and Klopp’s instinct will be to stick to his style, regardless of personnel.
Ironically, the absences in each team may lead both managers to set their respective teams up in a way more closely associated with the man in the opposite dugout. Question marks over Michael Carrick’s fitness mean that Mourinho only has two senior midfielders available, and rules out the possibility of packing the middle of the pitch. Playing Juan Mata alongside two other attackers in a more open approach may end up being what Mourinho opts for, just for a lack of better choices. Klopp on the other hand, will likely push Philippe Coutinho to the right of a three-man attack and line up with a workmanlike midfield three of Georginio Wijnaldum (what does he do, exactly?), notorious hard man Jordan Henderson, and (United target?) Emre Can.
Phil Jones is also a possible absentee due to injury, in which case Mourinho may well compensate by playing 3 central defenders. Both Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford will feel deserving of a starting spot on the left of the attack, but behind them the competition is less than healthy. Ashley Young has somehow become United’s first-choice left-back, but his one-on-one defending can still be suspect, and the thought of Coutinho running at him (the Brazilian started his six good weeks of the season early this year) is more than a little frightening.
Both teams have key players who will be fresh off demanding international duty trips, so jet lag and fatigue can play as much of a role as any tactical nuances. And even though locally-born players will be in short supply for both sides (less so for United, mind), there is recent evidence that the occasion can still either elevate players’ games, or get into their heads. Someone can make themselves a cult hero, or get exposed for being too hyped up and overawed for their own good.
Roll on Saturday.