When it comes to Liverpool versus Manchester United, the two teams could be competing with nothing significant at stake and the 90 minutes would still be irrepressibly combative. So when they meet in a game such as today’s at Anfield, which has implications for the immediate and longer term – with finance, status and future recruitment on the line – we can be fairly sure it will begin with a rush and quicken from there.
The respective coach-managers, Brendan Rodgers and Louis van Gaal, may wish to impose their tactical thinking upon proceedings, but just as likely as strategy to be influential is the crowd, and what a man once described as the fierce urgency of now, as England’s two great dominant clubs of the past half-century are finding the prospect of fourth place an urgent matter.
It hardly fits the pattern of history. In 1964, Bill Shankly’s Liverpool won the League title ahead of Matt Busby’s United, and on only six occasions in the 50 seasons since have both clubs finished outside the top two in English football.
This is the modern world. Neither Shankly nor Busby had to consider the impact of Soviet cash or Abu Dhabi oil wealth, and unless Manchester City collapse, the chances are that neither Liverpool nor United will finish in the top two for the first time since 2005, and one might not make the top four and the Champions League qualifier that comes with it. Estimated minimum earnings of £40 million – or five Philippe Coutinhos – comes from the Champions League group stage. That is in part why a fortnight ago Van Gaal said that he agrees with Arsène Wenger’s assessment that a top-four place is the equivalent of a “trophy”.
“Very particular,” was the phrase used by Van Gaal on Friday to describe Anfield and a fixture in which Nobby Stiles was once hit by a dart, Graeme Souness and Bryan Robson raged brilliantly in the Eighties and more recently witnessed the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra eruption. It is a game that bristles with geographic antagonism. “So I have to have that experience,” Van Gaal added.
For Liverpool, at home and on a run of five consecutive Premier League victories, this holds the prospect of not just inflicting defeat on historic rivals, but of overtaking United in the table. United’s stated aim for the season, as outlined by Van Gaal and the club’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, in September, is “top three”. Defeat for United would raise further questions about that, and in addition to Liverpool’s growing confidence is the allegedly vital statistic that United have won just once in their previous seven visits to Anfield.
Van Gaal mentioned it on Friday, while slipping in the fact that United have beaten Liverpool twice in his time – once in pre-season game in America, and 3-0 in the League at Old Trafford in December – though he did add: “It’s not the same circumstances that it was at Old Trafford or in America.”
Van Gaal also played down an approach from Liverpool a few years ago, to discuss a director of football role. He was more expansive on Rodgers’s team’s style. “I saw Liverpool against Swansea and in the first half they weren’t very good,” he said. “But this time they are at home and Manchester United has a bad record there, so it shall be very difficult.
“I like the players they have and they play, more or less, my system. They play the system that I started at Manchester United. They have developed it in their style, with three strikers and more width.”
Liverpool’s 3-0 loss at Old Trafford is credited as the turning point in their system and season. They have not lost in the League since in 13 games, and the feelgood factor is with them. Van Gaal, who revealed this week his appetite for meetings, would probably like one where it is explained to him why this is so.
Even after last Sunday’s coherent display against Tottenham, there remains a sense that each United game is a referendum on his methods and effect, yet the Dutchman could note that, after 29 games, Rodgers’s team are eight points worse off compared with last season, while United are eight points to the good for the same period.
Liverpool vs Manchester United combined XI
Liverpool vs Manchester United combined XI
1/10 David De Gea
Simon Mignolet is hugely improved in recent weeks but David De Gea is arguably the best goalkeeper in the Premier League and easily Manchester United's most important player.
2/10 Emre Can
The versatile German is a true box-to-box threat, even when deployed as one of three centre-backs in Rodgers' back three. United have huge problems at the back, with Antonio Valencia beating Rafael to the right-back spot. Can, only 21, is a crucial piece in allowing Liverpool to play their 3-4-2-1.
3/10 Chris Smalling
As previously stated, United have defensive problems but the England defender has been a rare bright spot for Van Gaal, playing some of the best football of his United career. Phil Jones still seems erratic, while Marcos Rojo is not fully fit and Jonny Evans still suspended. Mamadou Sakho is a good defender but prone to mistakes.
4/10 Martin Skrtel
Skrtel has his critics but he has overcome poor form early in the season to become a real leader for Liverpool. He isn't always the best when in possession but he is an old-fashioned stopper, and a fierce competitor.
5/10 Jordan Henderson
With Steven Gerrard heading closer and closer to the exit, Henderson has really filled his role as captain and leader with a string of inspirational performances. The England man, whether playing wider right or in the middle, is a brilliant threat from all over the pitch, great in possession, ferocious in the tackle and has an eye for goal.
6/10 Michael Carrick
Divides opinion everywhere but surely proved against Tottenham just how important he is (and has been in the past) to United's success. Carrick was absolutely superb in possession, dictating the game and giving the inexperienced Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb the run-around. Created the first and scored the second, United played their best football of the season because of a masterclass by their veteran midfielder.
7/10 Ander Herrera
Adds the legs and bite, as well as a touch of class, to the United midfield, even if he has been under-utilised by Van Gaal. Daley Blind is clearly a favourite of the Dutchman but Herrera's engine and tenacity give United a pace in their play that is sorely missing when he doesn't play.
8/10 Philippe Coutinho
Since being given the freedom of the park in Rodgers' new formation the Brazilian has excelled, scoring wonderful goals and seeing his relationship with Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling flourish. A real match-winner, United will have to keep a keen eye on Coutinho. Ashley Young has been fantastic for United this season and deserves a mention but he is not quite playing at Coutinho's level.
9/10 Wayne Rooney
What a surprise, Wayne Rooney has been sensational playing as a striker. He may well be extremely capable of playing in midfield but United lose much more than they gain by deploying their captain deeper; he was brilliant against Spurs and Liverpool will view him as the main threat.
10/10 Daniel Sturridge
Hasn't exactly set the world alight since returning from injury, with only three goals from 12 matches, but he loves big matches and has starred in previous games against Liverpool's biggest rivals. Marouane Fellaini was excellent against Spurs but he has been very up and down this season.
This season is at a stage when such calculations count. With the necessary goal difference, 68-69 points has been the average total required over the past five years to get to fourth place. But there is no guarantee – Everton finished fifth last season on 72 points.
Victory for Liverpool in the 192nd meeting of the clubs would destabilise United; victory for United, or a draw, would hold Liverpool at bay. And Liverpool’s next game is Arsenal away.
Regardless of outcome, Van Gaal has said he wants more. Confirming this is his last job in football, he said: “That’s correct. But there could be five years still to go. I can extend my contract. I have promised my wife [not to], but you never know.”Reuse content