Preview: Man Utd v Liverpool

Manchester United meet Liverpool on Sunday, and going into the game a staggering 15 points separate Liverpool at the top and United in 12th just two months into the season.

In May 2018, United finished above Liverpool for the 24th time in 27 years, but since then England’s two most decorated clubs have gone their opposite ways with the Merseyside Reds picking up 43 more points (121) than the Red Devils (78) during that time.

After winning the Champions League last season and missing out on the Premier League title to Manchester City by just a single point, Jürgen Klopp is hungry to go one better domestically this term and deliver Anfield its first title since 1990.

His team are certainly going the right way about it so far having won eight out of eight in the league, and winning at Old Trafford wouldn’t just mean matching City’s record of 18 consecutive Premier League wins, it would represent a real statement of intent in the title race.

Here, MM looks at five areas where Sunday’s game could be won and lost for both sides.

1. The Fabinho factor

Liverpool have pulled off some masterstrokes in the transfer market in the 21st century, bringing in the likes of Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Luis Suárez and Mo Salah. 

Brazilian midfielder Fabinho is also amongst the Reds’ very best buys in recent history, he’s become a real influential figure in how Klopp wants his team to play.

Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum are the lungs of the Liverpool team, but in between them sits the heart that makes the team tick in the most efficient way.

Like many players who come to England from abroad, Fabinho needed an initial settling in period but he is now displaying real maturity and discipline as the defensive midfielder in a team engineered to attack in numbers.

He played the same role for 2016/17 French champions and Champions League semi-finalists Monaco – a team that contained the attacking flair of Kylian Mbappé, Radamel Falcao, Bernardo Silva and Thomas Lemar, as well as marauding full-backs Djibril Sidibé and Benjamin Mendy.

Fabinho was Monaco’s, and is now Liverpool’s technical equivalent of Sergio Busquets, he not only marks the space and covers the full-backs so well, he’s often the starting point and orchestrator of fluid attacking moves.

Stopping Fabinho is a must for United in an attempt to prevent Liverpool building from the back, something teams are failing to do and ultimately paying the price.

This is something Arsenal found out when Fabinho’s acute first-time pass took Granit Xhaka, Matty Willock and Nacho Monreal out of the game to leave Salah one-on-one with David Luiz before the former Chelsea defender sold himself and allowed Salah to walk through and score.

It was reminiscent of the iconic Busquets-Messi combination at Barcelona, which has undone so many teams over the past decade.

As good as the pass was, Arsenal showed ill-discipline, and if United do the same then Fabinho will be the centre point of destruction for Liverpool against United at Old Trafford as he was against them at Anfield last season – setting up Sadio Mané’s goal.

Jesse Lingard got in and around Chelsea’s Jorginho in United’s opening day 4-0 demolition of the Blues, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could do something similar on Sunday in an attempt to stop Liverpool’s midfield maestro. 

2. Rashford vs. TAA

As well as in the centre of the park, the battle down United’s left and Liverpool’s right could easily decide the game just as it did in March 2018. 

On that occasion, United ran out 2-1 winners with Marcus Rashford scoring both of his sides’ goals and in the process gave his England teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold a torrid afternoon.

Liverpool’s right-back has improved since then, but there was certainly times last season where wingers could exploit him at points in a game.

Still at the young age of 21, Alexander-Arnold is learning the game defensively.

With Anthony Martial set to return for United in attack, it is likely that Solskjaer will deploy the Frenchman as a number nine as he did in the early part of the season before he got injured.

This would mean Rashford shifting out to the left-hand side, where he opened the scoring from for England against Bulgaria in the week.

United have the threat of Salah to worry about up the other end down Liverpool’s right, but Salah has been nullified to great effect at Old Trafford when he’s played there in the past two seasons and this could be in the back of his mind when he takes to the field on Sunday.

Likewise, should Alexander-Arnold come up against Rashford again, the game 19 months ago may well still be fresh in the young full-backs’ mind.

At club level, Rashford is a player low on confidence right now but a goal for England on Monday and a shift of position could be just the tonic he needs going into the game against Liverpool. 

3. Set pieces

We all know how good Liverpool are from dead ball situations, particularly corners (just ask Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde).

Klopp’s side scored the most set piece goals in the Premier League last season with 20.

This term, they’ve scored a further four goals from set plays including two free-kicks in their recent win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

The threat of Joel Matip and Virgil Van Dijk from corners needs no introduction, but United have a threat of their own from set pieces.

Harry Maguire, signed for £80 million from Leicester City in the summer, is yet to produce a big moment for United so far.

He produced one for England against Sweden at last summer’s World Cup in Russia, and he produced one at Anfield at the end of January when he equalised for Leicester to earn the Foxes a point.

Sunday’s game is the perfect time for Maguire to open his account for United, it would be a moment which would firmly announce him to the Old Trafford faithful and perhaps present a springboard for his United career to develop.

Van Dijk’s eureka moment came on his Liverpool debut when he scored the winner for them in a Merseyside Derby FA Cup tie at Anfield, helping him to instantly settle in.

Maguire needs something similar, and it should have came against Newcastle in the last game but he failed to divert Ashley Young’s in-swinger on target.

He’s looked a threat from set plays for United so far, frequently winning the first ball only for the the rest of the team to not be alive to the second ball. 

Magire’s ‘slab head’ is so often a magnet to the ball, and this could certainly be a route United could go down to score past the league’s meanest defence.

4. Gegenpressing and Counter-attacking

Beating Liverpool’s famous ‘gegenpress’ is difficult.

As good as Liverpool’s front three are when they combine on the ball, they are so good off it.

Salah has won back possession in the final third 12 times so far this season, more than any other player in the Premier League.

The Egyptian is always a big part of Klopp’s game plan to press high, and it will be no different on Sunday against a United team who don’t look at all confident playing the ball out from the back – as we seen against Arsenal.

Salah, along with Mané and Roberto Firmino are a perfect front three in every way, shape and form for a team that want to attack and press with vigour.

The three have started together for Liverpool at Old Trafford in each of the last two seasons and on both occasions each of them have fired blank. 

They will certainly be fancying themselves to get on the scoresheet on Sunday, but if United go into the game too concerned about Liverpool they won’t be able to muster up chances of their own.

Arsenal should have broken the deadlock at Anfield first through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and then again through Nicolas Pepe, before Aubameyang had another golden opportunity at 2-0 to pull Arsenal back into the game. 

The Gunners’ fast forwards failed to convert their chances and it cost them dearly. 

Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg did put their chances away when they played at Anfield in the Champions League, but lost 4-3.

Both Arsenal and Salzburg created chances against Liverpool on the counter attack by utilising their pace in behind Liverpool’s high line, and this is something United can do if they hope to achieve success.

Rashford, Martial and Dan James all have pace in abundance, pace which caused Chelsea so many problems on the opening day of the season.

On that occasion, United had Paul Pogba fit in midfield and he was able to find the runs of the frontmen in behind.

The World Cup winner has been ruled out of Sunday’s game, but if United can find a way to get the ball into their front three as quickly as Liverpool get it into theirs then Klopp’s side certainly have something to think about.

5. Form guide and Old Trafford head-to-head

The form book should go out of the window in a game like this, and for United it should represent a chance to spray life into their season.

This is easier said than done though when coming up against a Liverpool side in the best form any team can be in having won their last 17 Premier League games – a run that stretches back to March when they drew 0-0 at Goodison Park.

A week earlier, they drew 0-0 at Old Trafford against a determined United team who went into the game in good form having won 12 of Solskjaer’s first 14 games in charge.

Since they last played Liverpool, United have picked up just eight wins from 27 matches and in the same time Liverpool have won 25 out of 29.

The form guide suggests Liverpool will have far more confidence going into this one, but they’ve won not won at Old Trafford in their last six visits and have won just two out of their last 18 games at United’s home ground in all competitions – losing 13.

Image courtesy of Man Utd via YouTube, with thanks.

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