Liverpool v Man Utd: big game performances

Will Klopp fire up the Kop? –

The North-West Derby is always the most important date on the calender of Liverpool and Manchester United fans, but this year it has added significance.

For a start, this is Liverpool’s worst period during Jurgen Klopp’s reign. They recently dropped points at Newcastle, Philippe Coutinho wants to leave, Sadio Mane is injured, they have won once since August while their defence is conceding 1.7 goals per game. And yet, the one glaring positive of the German’s tenure is his side’s capacity to move up a level when they play the big teams.

They averaged two points per game against top six opposition last season, after beating Man City twice and future champions Leicester once the year before. Perhaps this big-game enthusiasm is a trait that predates the Klopp era, yet the manager has a knack of bringing out the passion in the Anfield crowd, something they have needed without Gerrard.

Now more than ever, those fans need a strong performance to re-build faith. For Manchester United, Saturday’s result would not necessarily impact the fans’ belief in Jose Mourinho, who has delivered a nigh-on perfect start to this campaign. It would however, impact their title chances, with city rivals leaving the Red Devils no room for error.

They are short on central midfield options, with Marouane Fellaini picking up an injury during the international break, Paul Pogba still out and Michael Carrick a doubt. Through force or desire, Mourinho will almost certainly play a 4-2-3-1 system with a double-pivot of Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera.

The latter is hoping to work his way back into the first team fold and might be asked to do a job on Coutinho and deny space for the Brazilian in central areas. Another man who perhaps has something to prove to Mourinho is Juan Mata.

Before March last season, when domestic games remained a priority, the Spaniard played 155 minutes out of a possible 540 against fellow top six sides. 70 of those minutes came in two substitute appearances when the team was already losing, which would suggest that Mourinho did not trust Mata in big games when there is something to protect.

Whether he starts, or is dropped to make way of the more energetic but less gifted Jesse Lingard, will tell us much about how much trust Mata has won. The visitors will need a tactically alert right side capable of denying space for Coutinho, who remains a key threat. On the other side, Mohamed Salah will hope to exploit United’s likely lack of pace at left-back and potentially force Marcus Rashford into his defensive third.

The young forward will want to be far enough up the pitch to get at the home side’s defence. Ragnar Klavan dominated Romelu Lukaku in a Merseyside derby last season but two of him, an out-of-form Joel Matip and a half-fit Dejan Lovren at centre-back will not breed great confidence.

When Liverpool went to Leicester last month, they got their victory but allowed too big a space between the full-backs and the centre-backs against a quick attack. If they were to make the same mistakes again, the consequences would be fatal.

Form and logic would suggest that Manchester United will win, but then in these types of games at Anfield, Liverpool create an intense environment in which form and logic goes out of the window.

The Football Lab’s Verdict: 2-1