There are two important things Jurgen Klopp has yet to do at Liverpool – lift a trophy and defeat Manchester United in Premier League play. While the Reds still have three opportunities to do the former, they have arguably the best chance during his tenure to do the latter Sunday when the table-topping Reds host Jose Mourinho’s inconsistent side.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Since arriving at Merseyside in October 2015, Klopp has one win in seven lifetime matches (1-4-2) against Manchester United – a 2-0 victory in the first leg of Liverpool’s round of 16 tie in the 2016 Europa League. That was one of two continental runners-up finishes for Liverpool (13-3-0), the other coming last spring in the Champions League.
There was also a runners-up finish in the 2016 League Cup, and the absence of silverware alongside the five European championships, 18 league titles, seven FA Cups and eight League Cups since lifting the 2012 League Cup has been the one thing that has frustrated supporters.
United (7-5-4), in turn, have done a good job flustering Klopp in league play with three draws and two defeats. Liverpool have failed to score in Klopp’s three matches at Anfield versus United, suffering a 1-0 defeat to Louis van Gaal in 2016 before being held to scoreless draws by Mourinho in the last two meetings.
“In the league, I don’t remember bad results too much, to be honest, but I don’t feel we always got the right result for the performance we had,” Klopp said at his Friday news conference when asked about the overall interest in the match between the two football titans. “Last year, they had a very, very good start in the home game against us and then we more or less took over but couldn’t get the game back, so it was a draw.
Before, I don’t even remember it, but I don’t think we won a lot, so we’ll try to change that at least. It will be a very intense game and we need to be ready for that.”
Liverpool are enjoying their best Premier League start in club history and emerged as the last of the unbeatens after defending champions Manchester City lost to Chelsea last weekend. That defeat, coupled with the Reds’ 4-0 thrashing of Bournemouth, put Klopp’s side atop the Premier League table for the first time since Sept. 22.
To continue ruling the roost, Liverpool will have to show plenty of resiliency after scraping into the Champions League knockout round for a second straight year. The Reds finished runners-up in Group C after a nervy 1-0 victory over Napoli on Tuesday – a triumph and advancement preserved by Alisson’s point-blank save on Arkadiusz Milik in stoppage time.
The save by the Brasil international shows how Liverpool have come full circle in their footballing, from a swashbuckling side willing to win matches by outscoring opponents as late as last season’s Champions League semifinals to one who can deliver this type of grind-out 1-0 result with a rock-strong defence anchored by Alisson and towering centre back Virgil Van Dijk.
The combined £125 million in transfer fees for the pair have been worth every penny as Liverpool are contenders to lift their first Premier League trophy and win their first title since 1990. But the primary goal in this match is to put another three points on top of the 16 that already exist between themselves and United.
“You know what you’re going to face,” Van Dijk told Sky Sports when asked about playing United. “We have pretty good pace as well, so we don’t need to be scared of anything. But obviously we need to be aware of their danger; they have good players, especially up front.
“We need to be ready for that. But we need to play our game and make sure we are on top of them and make sure they are put under pressure.”
Klopp will have to reshuffle parts of his back four since centre backs Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are sidelined with injuries. Gomez’s versatility will be sorely missed – he also played right back – but Dejan Lovren is still a quality partner for Van Dijk. Right back Trent Alexander-Arnold is also expected to miss out with an ankle injury, with Nathaniel Clyne likely starting in his place.
In his attacking six, it is unknown if Klopp will stick to his regular 4-3-3 in which Mohamed Salah – the offensive hero against Napoli with his first-half goal – Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane are across the front line, or use a 4-2-3-1 he has preferred of late in domestic play in which Salah is up front and Mane, Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri are behind him.
Salah is in blistering form with six goals in his last seven matches across all competitions, but the Egypt international, Mane and Firmino have failed to breach United’s defence for a goal in 855 minutes playing together.
While there are few as good as setting up a defence to negate an opponent’s offence as Mourinho, this United team has lurched in quality from match to match all term and arrive at Anfield on a low ebb of that range. Manchester United squandered a chance to finish atop Group H in the Champions League, turning in an insipid performance at Valencia in a 2-1 defeat Wednesday.
Mourinho rotated a good portion of his side for this contest – he made eight changes from the side that beat Fulham 4-1 last weekend as United were already through to the Champions League round of 16 – but the back four continued to be problematic as they conceded on 17 minutes and again right after halftime as defender Phil Jones had a brutal own goal in which his sliding back pass rolled right past keeper Sergio Romero.
Marcus Rashford had a late consolation goal, but with group leaders Juventus suffering a stunning loss at home to last-place Young Boys, United’s performance against a team currently 15th in Spain’s La Liga was too poor for Mourinho to not lose his cool post-match.
“I didn’t learn anything from this game. Nothing that happened surprised me,” he fumed. “I thought we were too passive in the first half. But I think fundamentally this, we wasted the first half playing too comfortable and not enough with the intensity.”
Midfielder Paul Pogba did play the full 90 minutes in his first start in three matches, but he showed Mourinho little reason to be included in the starting XI for this match. Antonio Valencia’s performance at right back also left little to be desired, and it is very possible two of Diogo Dalot’s first three starts at that spot will come against fellow Big Six opponents after the first one came against Arsenal earlier this month.
Up front, Mourinho is hoping Anthony Martial will be available after sitting out the last two matches due to injury. The France international has been United’s best performer in league play with a team-high seven goals despite logging just 787 minutes. By comparison, Romelo Lukaku – the only other player with more than three goals in league play – has six in 1,094 minutes.
Rashford, though, has been in a fine patch of form with two goals and four assists in his last four matches in all competitions. He also powered United to a win over Liverpool in the most recent meeting last term, bagging a brace in the first 24 minutes of a 2-1 win at Old Trafford.
United are unbeaten in their last eight in league play (5-3-0) against Liverpool since a 3-0 defeat at home March 6, 2014. They are also 12-6-8 at Anfield in the Premier League era and 2-2-0 since a 1-0 defeat Sept. 1, 2013, on a fourth-minute goal by Daniel Sturridge.
Sturridge also recorded Liverpool’s last home goal against Manchester United in a 2-1 loss March 22, 2015, with their home drought versus United at 291 minutes in league play.
Per Bet365, Liverpool are healthy 4/7 favourites to claim all three points and remain atop the Premier League table, while United are 11/2 underdogs to regroup from their setback in Spain and begin their charge to challenge for a top-five spot. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 16/5.
Though it would surprise no one to see Mourinho set up United in a defensive stance, oddsmakers do not appear overly convinced it will slow Liverpool down much as there are 8/11 odds for more than 2.5 goals scored compared to 11/10 odds to finish under that threshold. There is even money for one side to post a shutout compared to 3/4 odds for both teams scoring.
Liverpool own the first six slots for potential first-goal scorers, with Salah leading the way at 10/3. Understudies Daniel Sturridge (7/2) and Divock Origi (4/1) complete the top three, followed by Firmino (9/2), Mane (5/1) and Xherdan Shaqiri (13/2). While Lukaku is United’s top option, it is a clear fall-off for oddsmakers at 17/2. Martial is a 9/1 option, while Pogba and Rashford are both 11/1 — just behind James Milner (10/1).
For any-time goal-scorers, both Salah (10/11) and Sturridge (20/21) are better than even money selections. Origi is 11/10, followed by Firmino (5/4), Mane (7/5) and Shaqiri (15/8). Lukaku and Martial are United’s top options once more at 13/5 and 11/4, respectively, while Rashford and Pogba again slot behind Milner, this time at 10/3 compared to 3/1 for the Merseyside’s dependable penalty-taker.
The debate for Klopp between using a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 will rage right up to kickoff, but Liverpool have a chance to go for the jugular here in terms of showing their superiority over Manchester United. Thus, the expectation in this space is Klopp will go all out to turn the screws on Mourinho. That means putting a well-rested Shaqiri into the first XI and testing Shaw and Dalot on the flanks early and often through the Swiss international and Mane.
With Liverpool’s back four mainly defined by who is not available for Klopp, the midfield presents selection headaches of the good kind because the Liverpool gaffer can mix and match to his wants. It was telling Klopp trusted Fabinho enough to start him in the Merseyside derby, and that was with Everton having a far better playmaker in Gylfi Sigurdsson than any one United can offer in the middle of the park if Mourinho drops Pogba to the bench as expected.
The only potential midfielder who would be a surprise inclusion into the first XI would be Adam Lallana, otherwise, the expectation is to see Fabinho and Giorginio Wijnaldum reprise their partnership as the defensive midfield pairing.
Given how Mourinho plays pragmatically, the lineup above is arguably the most defensive route he can take and a formation that can morph into a 5-4-1 with Lukaku as the lone striker. Would it surprise anyone if he did start Pogba? Not really, but after a vanilla performance against Valencia mid-week, there is little to believe Mourinho would give him a second chance.
Given Martial’s injury issues, the expectation is he will start on the bench behind Lingard, who has been solid since picking up his play of late. Rashford right now is the best thing United have going offensively, and he must challenge Andrew Robertson at every opportunity to at least try and stretch Liverpool’s back four.
With no trophies since his arrival, this is a de facto cup final for Klopp and Liverpool. Win this match, and win it impressively, and it serves notice to Manchester City there is most certainly a title race for the final five months. Nothing less will suffice in this instance, and given United’s poor form, nothing less should suffice.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 2, Manchester United 1.