It’s nine victories in a row for Manchester United, the longest winning run since the 2008/09 title-winning campaign. Six of those wins have come in the league, yet the Reds remain stuck in sixth place – Mourinho’s men are running to stand still. It is a frustrating anomaly, but there is much more to the team’s turnaround than league standing. After what seems like an eternity, it feels like watching United again. What more could be asked heading into Liverpool’s visit on Sunday?
This weekend’s fixture represents the toughest test yet for this new United side. Revisiting the dreary scoreless draw at Anfield in October is akin to watching a different team. The Old Trafford crowd can have genuine belief that the team has left behind the inconsistencies that blighted the early weeks of the season.
Yes, United dispatched top four side Tottenham Hotspur in the midst of this winning run, but games against Liverpool just mean that bit more. The rivalry between these two clubs stretches back decades, but in recent times the teams have not always been in direct competition. Since Sir Alex Ferguson tore down the Scouse empire, United has often been found looking down on Liverpudlian rivals, as the once dominant club spiralled away from former glory. Only on occasion during Fergie’s reign did Liverpool present a real challenge for the title, so while the rivalry has always remained intense, matches were not always season-defining moments.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]With United in the latter stages of a transitional period, and Liverpool resurgent under Jurgen Klopp, Sunday’s game may have significant bearing on the trajectory of both teams’ campaign. United could move to within two points of Liverpool in second place.[/blockquote]
But now, with United in the latter stages of a transitional period, and Liverpool resurgent under Jurgen Klopp, Sunday’s game may have a significant bearing on the trajectory of both teams’ campaign. United could move to within two points of Liverpool in second place, or slip eight points behind. The margins are fine; defeat would render the recent upturn in form somewhat redundant, but a win propels Mourinho’s men into firm contention.
The visitors have not left the Theatre of Dreams with three points since 2014, with that victory the darkest day of the post-Fergie era. David Moyes drafted up a significant passage of his Old Trafford death warrant by referring to Brendan Rodgers’ side as “favourites” ahead of the game, typifying the lacklustre mentality poisoning his time at the club.
United’s mindset could hardly be more different now. Mourinho has restored much of the swagger traditionally associated with the club’s glory years, in large part due to his recruitment of players with real strength of character. In the past personalities, such as Eric Cantona, came alive in the most important games. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the obvious comparison in that respect; aside from being supremely talented, he carries himself with much the same aura.
Others will also be important on Sunday, including Ander Herrera. The Basque midfielder has been a favourite since he arrived in 2014, but only now is the player afforded the kind of importance to the team that many feel he has always deserved. He blends an entertaining mix of talent and tenacity, and can often be seen berating his teammates into displaying the same level of commitment.
As demonstrated by his assist for Henrikh Mkhitaryan against Tottenham, Herrera possesses not only the ability to win the ball, but transition his team from defence to attack quickly. Zlatan, Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba may take the headlines, but it would be no surprise if Herrera is the first name on Mourinho’s team sheet. The midfielder was United’s best player at Anfield in October, and will provide the energy to combat the intensity of Klopp’s team.
There is little dispute that Klopp, the former Borussia Dortmund coach, has turned Liverpool into a more potent proposition. The German has implemented his self-styled “heavy-metal football” at Anfield, guiding the Scouse outfit to second in the Premier League, outdone only by Chelsea’s scintillating form. Klopp’s side plays a relentless style of football that has overwhelmed teams, prompting Mourinho to bring the much maligned ‘bus’ out of retirement at Anfield.
Former Southampton pair Adam Lallana and Sadio Mané have been at the forefront of Liverpool’s fluid and pacy attack. Lallana, in particular, is enjoying the most impressive season of his career, reportedly courting interest from abroad.
Yet, for all Liverpool’s attacking talent, the last three games have shown that Klopp’s side is heavy reliant on Jordan Henderson – and as hard as he may try he will never be Steven Gerrard. Yet, Henderson remains vital to how Liverpool operates, and his absence has been highlighted by the Scousers’ failure to win any of the games which he has missed. Henderson plays quickly and starts off a large proportion of Liverpool’s attacking moves. United will be in a better position if he does not return to the fold in time.
Elsewhere, Philippe Coutinho and Joel Matip returned to training this week and could feature at Old Trafford, another two players who are vital to the Merseyside outfit. Coutinho has the ability to produce something from nothing, and although he may not start on Sunday, is a dangerous option to call from the bench. Matip, a summer signing from Schalke 04, has brought some stability to a backline that has been thoroughly suspect over past few years.
Mourinho has few injuries to be concerned about. Ibrahimovic is expected to return after sitting out the last two games. The Swede missed a golden opportunity to snatch victory in the reverse fixture earlier in the autumn, but is now on an impressive goal-scoring run that has silenced his many critics. If Zlatan finds the net against Liverpool it would represent another highlight in already impressive debut campaign.
Elsewhere, Mourinho’s side almost picks itself. Eric Bailly is absent at the African Cup of Nations, meaning that Phil Jones and, if fit, Marcos Rojo will renew their acquaintance at centre-back. Antonio Valencia’s physicality and experience will be needed to contain Roberto Firmino on United’s right.
Left-back presents United’s only problem position. Matteo Darmian has not been convincing in the role despite a rare assist for Marouane Fellaini against Hull City. Luke Shaw has not featured for some time, and is unlikely to make a surprise return on Sunday.
Yet, if Mourinho deploys Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the left, width will have to come from full-back given the Armenian’s tendency to roam across the pitch. Mourinho has been reluctant to put his trust in Daley Blind, but the Dutchman’s tactical nous and incisive passing could provide some cohesion in that area of the pitch.
United subs from: Romero, Darmian, Fosu-Mensah, Shaw, Young, Schweinsteiger, Fellaini, Lingard, Rooney, Mata, Rashford
Liverpool subs from: Karius, Klavan, Moreno, Gomez, Moreno, Lucas, Can, Ejaria, Coutinho, Sturridge
In midfield, the regular triumvirate of Michael Carrick, Herrera and Pogba will be key in deciding the balance of power come full-time on Sunday. The trio has been largely untroubled in recent weeks, with the Frenchman truly beginning to show his class. The 23-year-old has eased into a familiar role on the left of a central midfield three, and his dominant displays of late hint that there is a massive moment to come. There is no time more fitting than his first game against Liverpool at Old Trafford.
Mourinho biggest headache may be caused by Juan Mata. The diminutive Spaniard was the best player on the pitch against Hull City, but he may not fit into the manager’s plans for unsettling Liverpool. Anthony Martial has begun to show some of last season’s form, and the presence of James Milner at left-back for Liverpool could be an opportunity for the Frenchman to continue where he left off against Reading in the FA Cup. Milner is a more than capable footballer, but is not a natural defender and may come unstuck against Martial’s pace and direct running.
The fixture is also an opportunity for Mourinho to remind the world of his worth. There is now a collection of the world’s top young coaches in England, with the suggestion that the new wave of managers has left the Portuguese master in their wake. Klopp, Conte, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino have each been hailed as conjuring a style of play that has outgrown Mourinho’s methods. The two-time Champions League winner has already dispatched Pochetinno in United’s unbeaten run, and getting one over on Klopp would go some way to reminding the world that Mourinho is still the man to beat.
Michael Oliver (Referee)
G Beswick, M McDonough (Assistants)
C Pawson (Fourth official)
United 2-1 Liverpool