The first few months were disappointing. Manchester United wasn’t noticeably better after spending more than £150 million in the summer transfer window. Record signing Paul Pogba seemed lost in midfield.
But time, the world’s most valuable resource, gave United a reprieve. Manager Jose Mourinho made necessary changes to the squad, slowly integrating Henrikh Mkhitaryan and allowing Pogba the freedom to rush forward. And a nine-match winning streak was born.
With a win over eternal rival Liverpool in Sunday’s clash at Old Trafford, the Red Devils would pull within two points of Jurgen Klopp’s side and once again have a stake in the Premier League’s title race.
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Klopp’s lot needs a victory of its own if it wants to keep pressure on leader Chelsea, which provisionally extended its lead to seven points Saturday.
But the German cannot count on the explosive pace of Sadio Mane, who’s away on African Cup of Nations duty.
Liverpool failed to score against United in a tight and defensive reverse fixture in October – one of only three league matches in which the Anfield outfit was silenced.
Now that Mourinho’s men are chasing points at home, the weekend’s marquee match should be a more entertaining proposition.
Injuries and suspensions
United comes into the fixture with no major injury concerns. Eric Bailly, who’s taking part in the AFCON with the Cote d’Ivoire, is the only conspicuous absence.
Liverpool is going to miss Mane on the right flank, but a more pressing concern is Jordan Henderson’s fitness. The Reds sorely missed the England international in a midweek loss to Southampton and badly need him back at the base of the midfield. Joel Matip is also a doubt with an ankle problem.
Manchester United starting XI: De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Blind; Herrera, Carrick, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimovic, Mata
Liverpool starting XI: Mignolet; Clyne, Lovren, Matip, Milner; Wijnaldum, Henderson, Can; Lallana, Firmino, Coutinho
What to watch
There’s every reason to believe Sunday’s meeting won’t go the way of October’s dire and insipid 0-0 draw at Anfield. United is no longer searching for an identity, and because it’s winning games on a regular basis, priorities have changed.
“Because the results are better than before, this changes a lot of things,” Mourinho said, according to the Guardian’s Jamie Jackson. “At that time, I had less time working together with my players. Now we know each other better, we have a certain way to think and play football. We don’t just have good performances, we have good results, we play at home not away. Little details that change a bit.”
The Portuguese guaranteed his team will play with more attacking spirit, even though United has only managed 16 goals in 10 Premier League home fixtures this season.
The key here is how exactly Liverpool decides to set up. Klopp’s side is not afraid to press opponents home or away, and could look to pull shaky defensive duo Phil Jones and Chris Smalling into compromising positions. A fluid attacking lineup with the recovered Philippe Coutinho, the shifty Roberto Firmino, and the more technical Adam Lallana could pose tactical dilemmas for Mourinho.
Should the Brazilian start up front, his movement would keep Jones and Smalling in a constant state of alert. Firmino’s not a traditional striker in the sense that he waits for the right moment to strike: He pops up all over the pitch and runs more than the average poacher. Coutinho is just as adept at navigating tight spaces and drawing defenders out of their designated roles, and because Antonio Valencia is better at bursting forward than tracking back, space could come to Liverpool more easily.
Liverpool’s high press could also target Michael Carrick, who has become a crucial element of United’s revival. The deepest of United’s midfield three, Carrick gives the team an additional layer of security and recirculates possession.
He is the link between the defence and the attack. Pogba is a better player beside Carrick, liberated from defensive duties, and the rest of the team is allowed to play higher up the pitch. That’s a sign of trust.
But Klopp may try to get his players to hassle and harry Carrick and isolate him from the rest of the squad. Eliminating Carrick would cut off United’s life support.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Klopp said to one of his players, ‘When Manchester United have got the ball in deep areas, go man for man on Carrick,'” Sky Sports pundit Danny Higginbotham suggested. “Stop him getting on the ball because he’s the one who makes things happen for Manchester United.”
The counter-attack then becomes an intriguing option we may see unfold at Old Trafford. The more Liverpool goes after the game, the greater opportunity United has to exploit spaces left behind.