The tactical elements which could decide Liverpool vs Manchester United clash
PREMIER LEAGUE By Mirror | January 15th 2021
Liverpool and Manchester United will contest a genuine top-of-the-table clash on Sunday for the first time since Rafa Benitez oversaw a men 4-1 win at Old Trafford in 2009; three points currently separates the two behemoth clubs at the summit, with the holders presented with the opportunity to go level with their historic rivals this weekend.
Jurgen Klopp's men have 16 points fewer than they had by the same stage last year, and while much of that drop can be attributed to competing in the midst of a global pandemic, the Reds have also suffered from notable injuries in key areas.
The absences of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Thiago Alcantara, Diogo Jota and Alisson Becker at various different stages of the campaign has allowed other teams - including United - to bridge the gap.
The difference in individual player quality between Liverpool and their nearby rivals is no longer as pronounced in comparison to before, meaning that the underlying tactical details of the upcoming bout could prove to be more decisive.
Once assessing the somewhat contrasting playing styles represented by Klopp and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - while also considering the venue of the clash and the respective positions of each team in the table - it is reasonable to suggest that the Reds will control possession from the first whistle, with the visiting side looking to make gains on the break.
It is unclear at this stage whether Anthony Martial will be available for selection but regardless, Solskjaer has the ingredients to soak pressure and restrict Liverpool's entrance into the final third at Anfield before breaking quickly through the likes of Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Mason Greenwood and Bruno Fernandes.
It will be the first time that the latter has faced Klopp's outfit as a United player, and since the last meeting between the two giants, Liverpool have been weakened on the defensive side of the game given the injuries to Van Dijk and Gomez, while the £50m signature of Fernandes has moved the Old Trafford side up a level.
Another elite performer who will be making his first appearance in the legendary fixture will be Thiago, who could wind up being the problem-solver that Liverpool haven't always had in matches against Solskjaer, who has demonstrated a clear intent to shut down the offensive nature of Klopp's full-backs.
Pep Ljinders - Klopp's right-hand man - has previously stated: “Every opponent makes the middle closed for us, so the space is on the sides. Openings must come from there. Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson literally give us wings. But the rotten thing is that teams are already trying to stop that.”
United have been successful at times - particularly at Old Trafford - in their attempts to close down Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, with the Reds consequently unable to advance up the field as effectively as normal, but Thiago could act as a valuable solution.
He has spent only 241 minutes on the pitch since his summer transfer from Bayern Munich but despite that, the two-time Champions League winner has showcased his ability to speed up the game by disguising line-breaking passes, which have brought his team to the final third in an instant at the expense of unsuspecting opponents.
With the English champions dominating the ball, United will hope to restrict Thiago while provoking errors and counter-attacking, and Liverpool have appeared less equipped to manage those breaks this season without their customary centre-back pairing.
The availability of Joel Matip looks set to have quite a notable impact on how the home team perform defensively; not only would his presence allow for Jordan Henderson to be deployed in midfield - which could help nullify Fernandes - but the Cameroonian would also act as a capable safety net for Trent Alexander-Arnold if he's directly up against Rashford, who has caused him problems in the past on more than one occasion.
Will Solskjaer use Rashford against Alexander-Arnold given previous success, or will Pogba assume the left-sided attacking role after his impressive display at Turf Moor? Given the importance of Scott McTominay and Fred to United's balance in central midfield, the Liverpool full-back could end up with the Frenchman as his direct opponent on Sunday, with Rashford instead used on the right or through the middle.
Many of those meaningful questions attached to the clash will remain unanswered until the team sheets are revealed an hour before kick-off, but they could have a significant repercussions on the story of the game.
Overall, the champions are less rigged to wholly govern United's evolved counter-attacking threat but on the positive side, they now have a means of answering the ball progression question that Solskjaer has posed in the past as a result of Thiago's addition.
The change which holds the most weight on Sunday is likely to decide whether United will double their lead at the top to six points, or whether Liverpool will rekindle their long-term relationship with first place.
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