The next round of the biggest rivalry in English football kicks off this Sunday. The latest chapter in the endless Liverpool vs Manchester United story is about to unfold.
Two of the biggest football clubs on the planet. The two biggest and most successful teams in England. A fierce rivalry that means more than just football.
Two cities with a similar history, similar politics and similar beliefs. Two cities with two major football clubs, one red and one blue. All this and only 35 miles apart, yet the hatred still exists. Rivalry wins out.
It’s Paisley or Ferguson, Dalglish or Best, Gerrard or Charlton, The Beatles or Oasis.
We get it. We’ve heard it a thousand times before.
At least twice a year, every year to be exact. Whenever the red of Liverpool comes face to face with the red of Manchester on a football pitch.
As we know, each side has had their spells of dominance in English football. Busby gave way to Shankly and then Paisley. Paisley gave way to Dalglish before Ferguson swung the pendulum. Now Klopp has returned it.
Liverpool’s six European Cups is twice as many as United’s three. But it is the domestic crown that is the true talking point in the present day. The bread and butter.
Fergie took 25 years to “knock Liverpool off their perch”. Jurgen Klopp hopes that it will only take six to knock United off theirs.
That’s because Liverpool, now 19-time Champions of England, are one title away from equaling United’s 20.
Yes, the Merseyside team have European bragging rights. But United fans are always quick to point out that the side with the most domestic crowns are the rightful kings of English football.
In short, Liverpool NEED that 20th English crowns. As quickly as possible.
2020/21 was meant to be the season that the sides drew even. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool were the best team in Europe. Nobody else looked close to their level.
That sixth Champions League win in 2018/19 preceded arguably the greatest individual season by any side in English football history as the Reds strolled to the league title.
An hour down the East-Lancs Road, United managed to stumble into the third place in 2019/20 with some excellent post-lockdown form in the strangest of years.
Yet before the signing of Bruno Fernandes, even finishing in the top six was far from certain. It is safe to say that the Portuguese midfielder has transformed the club’s fortunes.
However, even with Fernandes’ presence, United had a poor enough start to the 2020/21 league season and also crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage, despite managing to beat both PSG and RB Leipzig.
Long story short, Manchester United sit top of the Premier League table heading into Sunday’s game due to being the best of a bad bunch. In essence, they should be nowhere near challenging for the Premier League title this season.
But that is where they find themselves, three points ahead of Liverpool in second.
United have also had luck on their side. The expected points table has Liverpool in first on 32.25 points, while United sit fourth on 28.54.
Liverpool’s defensive injury crisis is actually seeing the team lose out more going forward than at the back. Missing Virgil van Dijk has had a knock-on effect further up the field.
The team has missed his world-class distribution. Trent Alexander-Arnold clearly looks more nervous in the knowledge that the world’s best defender is not behind him to cover. Fabinho has been moved out of the No.6 role to play at centre-back, meaning Jordan Henderson has been shifted to the holding midfield role to cover him.
Liverpool have won just nine of their 17 league games, drawing six. They are struggling to beat the type of teams that were being blown aside last season.
The form book is worrying, as Liverpool are winless in their last three league games. United are unbeaten in the league since November 1.
The rivalry comes to a head
It may seem too early to be making wild claims about league champions. Every team has bad runs of form. Every team has a purple patch too.
Yet it really does feel like Liverpool have to beat Manchester United on Sunday.
Win the game convincingly and fans will say that United’s good form is over. They will be labelled pretenders, much like Chelsea and Tottenham before them. Comments like this eat into sides, especially those that are not experienced winners.
People would claim that Liverpool are back to their best. They will only be ahead on goal difference, but the confidence a big win would instil cannot be understated.
Draw the game and United will stay three points clear. They will feel that a point at Anfield is a fantastic result. Again, confidence and belief would grow. Doubt may even creep into Liverpool minds. More points dropped and more anxious supporters.
The big winners would be Manchester City. Win their game in hand and they go ahead of Liverpool, closing in on United.
A Liverpool loss at home to Manchester United is almost unthinkable. The unbeaten Anfield record would be gone up in smoke and the Red Devils would go six clear. Kopites would have to stay off social media for weeks.
This really is the stepping stone for the rest of the season. In fact, the players should look at Sunday as the first game of the season. This is where the business starts. This is when the mentality monsters must come to the fore.
Win and the chances of being remembered as the side to knock United off their perch becomes a reality. Lose and it’s open season.
So yes. Liverpool must win on Sunday. No ifs, buts or maybes. Anything less is unacceptable.
How should the game play out?
It doesn’t take a genius to work out how United will approach the game. Sit deep and look to play on the counter.
We expect to see them play a diamond midfield with Scott McTominay and Fred doing the majority of the defensive work. Paul Pogba earned himself a starting place with his performance against Burnley on Tuesday.
They will try to use Pogba and Fernandes to set Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial off over the top.
In the occasions that they do have a spell in possession, they will attempt to get Rashford one-on-one with Alexander-Arnold and try to win a penalty. Their tendency to get opportunities from the spot is much-spoken about.
This is why Jurgen Klopp has a massive decision to make about who partners Fabinho at centre-back.
Joel Matip will certainly not be 100% fit, but the game is big enough to risk him if he is even 75%.
Nat Phillips’ pace and passing ability cannot be trusted. He probably won’t start.
Liverpool need Jordan Henderson in midfield. He will be important in preventing counter-attacks developing. His inexperience at playing centre-back is a big issue in terms of potential to give away penalties.
Rhys Williams has played excellently at times this season but has got badly caught for pace on a few occasions recently.
However, he did deal excellently against Heung Min Son and Tottenham, so this challenge is not much different. He is probably the best option if Matip cannot play.
If Liverpool manage to use Bobby Firmino, Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum to stop counter-attacks high up the pitch they have a great chance of keeping a clean sheet. They also must be passive around the penalty area to prevent giving away penalties.
Yes, the front three have struggled in recent games. Yet Mo Salah is at his most dangerous when he is quiet. Firmino is in much better form recently and will be vital between the lines. Sadio Mane is growing in goalscoring confidence after his brace in the FA Cup, albeit against Aston Villa’s u18’s.
United will have a low block, which Liverpool have struggled with again this season.
This is why Thiago will be vital. He has been man of the match in almost every game he has played for the side. His ability to find teammates in and around the box will be crucial to get through United’s defensive lines.
He will probably start in the 6 but if he is not having a big influence on the game, he should swap with Henderson and play higher up the pitch.
Xherdan Shaqiri famously came off the bench to bag a brace and put Jose Mourinho to the sword two years ago. His ability to pick passes would also be a great weapon to use from around the 55 minute onwards if Liverpool are not in a big lead.
Finally, diagonal passes between Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson should be a good way to open United up. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is the best 1v1 defender in the world, but his positioning can be questionable.
Liverpool clearly have the tools to win the game. Deep down, they know they are the better side.
It may not be an exciting end-to-end battle, but it should still be an interesting chess-style game of football.
One thing for sure is that the stakes are high. Just about as high as they can get.