It’s two years since Jurgen Klopp took the reigns, to much fanfare, at Anfield. The two-time Bundesliga title winner was suppose to turn a great club around; to provide the catalyst for the kind of renaissance that Sir Alex Ferguson once offered Manchester United. Two years in and Klopp is floundering, no nearer to restoring Liverpool to greatness than Ferguson was in his first two seasons at Old Trafford three decades ago. Meanwhile, José Mourinho has led a resurgent United side to three trophies and a place near the top of the Premier League. It surely couldn’t go wrong at Anfield this Saturday. Could it?
There is much to be said for momentum in football. Mourinho has it, while Klopp is desperately seeking to rejuvenate a project that appears to have gone awry. United stands second in the league, having dropped just two points this season – a frustrating 2-2 draw at Stoke City in September. That draw aside, Mourinho’s team has been scoring freely and winning games, including a 4-0 victory over Crystal Palace last time out.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It’s two years since Jurgen Klopp took the reigns at Anfield. The two-time Bundesliga title winner was suppose to turn a great club around. He is floundering.[/blockquote]
Some might say that the contrast with Liverpool is growing. It was supposed to be the Merseysiders’ time at the top, with United’s empire crumbling under first the incompetent David Moyes and then the prosaic Louis van Gaal. Instead, there has been little progress at Anfield, while Mourinho is leading a Manchester comeback. After all, while Klopp’s team finished fourth last season, it might do well to finish inside the top six in the campaign ahead given current form. Mourinho has designs only on the Premier League title.
Of course, the relative struggles of both sides over the past three seasons – and Liverpool over the past 25 – means that the intensity of a once ferocious fixture has eased, just a little. Yet, none of the meaning has been lost. It remains the most important fixture in English football, a fact that will be top of mind for supporters at a raucous Anfield this Saturday. Mourinho is looking forward to it.
“When people speak about big atmospheres, it looks like we don’t like it,” Mourinho said on Friday. “It looks like we have a big problem for us to go to a certain place and face a certain atmosphere. But this is what we want. It motivates us. It’s something that we want. It’s something that, if we could have every match, we would have it every match. I never see a player complain that this atmosphere was a bit strong. We complain when the atmosphere is flat.”
“There’s big tradition, in an amazing stadium, and we know the fans have animosity against Manchester United historically. But this is what we want. So we are very happy to have one more opportunity to play in these beautiful conditions. It’s beautiful to play at Anfield.”
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]”We know the fans have animosity against Manchester United, but this is what we want. It’s beautiful to play at Anfield.”[/blockquote]
The visitors have enjoyed a mixed record at Anfield in recent seasons. Last year’s scoreless draw came after United victories in the league during the previous two campaigns. Yet, Van Gaal’s side also lost to the Scousers in the 2015/16 Europa League round of 16 and, despite momentum being with Saturday’s visitors, nobody in the travelling party is counting on three points won just yet.
“We’re in a better position in the table, I think we are playing better, you are more confident because when you have better results, you have more confidence to play than if not,” added Mourinho. “It’s a very difficult match for us, and I think it’s a very difficult match for them.”
Is Klopp under pressure? Certainly, Liverpool’s mixed start to the new campaign is far from the form of potential champions. There are obvious weaknesses in the German’s squad, while the club has seemingly been distracted by outside forces. The Merseyside’s spent much of the summer fighting off Barcelona’s interest in Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho. It was a victory won, for now, but one that focused resources away from the ultimate goal of improving a squad that remains behind the country’s elite. Owners Fenway Sports Group remain unable or reluctant to release the kind of funds that Mourinho has enjoyed over the past two seasons. The Portuguese has brought in world-class stars such as Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, while Klopp is still shopping in the middle of the market.
Klopp remains confident of progression, although the bravado increasingly takes on the air of desperate show. The German’s honeymoon is long over and while FSG is unlikely to sack a high profile coach just yet some knives are out for the former Borussia Dortmund manager. Indeed, the 50-year-old appears increasingly on the defensive.
“It’s a difficult job, yes. Are we where we could be? Not sure,” admitted Klopp this week. “Did we do well last year? Yes. Will it be good or better this year? Yes. But we didn’t get the results so far, does that mean I should stop? No. But maybe that says a little bit about if we’ve improved or not. We had to improve to be in the situation we are now. If we didn’t improve we would not be in the situation with what happened last year, fourth position. It’s not the biggest distance to the top teams at the moment, even when it looks from the points a little bit different.
“If I would come in today as a new manager, and this would be the situation, and everyone gave us time and said do the next step, that would be perfect. ‘Unfortunately if they sack me now I don’t think there are a lot of managers who would do the job better than I do.”
Club captain Michael Carrick is unfit for Saturday’s match at Anfield, but Romelu Lukaku is ready despite suffering an ankle problem on international duty. Carrick missed United’s games against both CSKA Moscow and Crystal Palace. Meanwhile, midfielders Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini will miss the game with hamstring and knee problems. Pogba could return towards the end of the month, while Fellaini is likely to miss the next fortnight after suffering injury over the international break. Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic remain long-term absentees.
The big question is how Mourinho will approach the game. The former Chelsea manager has often reverted to negative tactics in big matches, including this fixture at Anfield a year ago. Yet, he has “let the horses run freely” more often than not this season. The United boss is a pragmatist, but also the master tactician for a one-off occasion. The question remains whether Mourinho is apt to play on the break at a hostile Anfield, or send his troops out to attack a vulnerable Liverpool defence.
Klopp believes that Liverpool is the “football-playing side” against the “stronger and more physical” United. Last season the German accused United of playing “long ball” football in a scoreless draw at Anfield. Mourinho, riffing off his rival, believes none of it.
“I play with one defender and nine strikers, don’t worry about it.,” he joked on Friday. “We play with one guy behind and then we go with a new system and we play with nine strikers, don’t worry about it. We go with an evolution of the WM.”
“We worked closely together with other clubs to bring the South American players home,” Klopp said. “Phil played two games, Roberto played five minutes. They had a long flight but it was pretty comfortable. I saw the price! They should be okay.”
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: Lee Betts, Stephen Child
Fourth official: Jonathan Moss
Liverpool 1-2 United