It is not unusual that Liverpool’s biggest game of the season should take place at Old Trafford. The rivalry with Manchester United is intense. What is striking about the fixture is how badly Jurgen Klopp’s team have underperformed in away games against United during the German’s six years in charge.
Liverpool desperately need a victory against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to keep alive their slim hopes of claiming a Champions League spot.
On paper, Klopp’s team have not done too badly at Old Trafford. They have racked up four draws and two defeats in all competitions but they have not put together an impressive performance in front of the Stretford End during the 53-year-old’s tenure. The 1-1 draw in the knockout stages of the Europa League five years ago was a satisfying night but, overall, Liverpool have returned to Merseyside with the feeling that they have not done themselves justice.
Two years ago, in the nip and tuck of the title battle with Manchester City, a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford took Liverpool top of the table. The travelling fans, locked in after the final whistle, celebrated loudly. It turned out to be the worst of missed opportunities. United had used all three substitutes before half-time and were there for the taking. The two dropped points proved costly. City topped the table by a single point at the end of the campaign.
Even last season, Liverpool’s barnstorming 100 per cent start to the Premier League was ended by a 1-1 draw at the so-called Theatre of Dreams. For Klopp, visits to the stadium have been more akin to nightmares.
For some reason, Liverpool have been particularly tentative in these fixtures. United’s approach has varied significantly under three very different managers – Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Solskjaer – but whatever the home side’s tactics there has been little sign of heavy metal football from the visitors. Mourinho got physical with Liverpool and played a long-ball game, much to the chagrin of Klopp. Solskjaer has less need to rely on brute force. The United manager will look to Bruno Fernandes to exploit the space that the champions leave in midfield and unleash Marcus Rashford’s raw pace against Klopp’s patched-up defence. The Portuguese scored the winning goal from a free kick in the 3-2 FA Cup victory over Liverpool three months ago and has been the catalyst for United’s revival over the past 15 months.
Fernandes’s impact contrasts sharply with the experience of Thiago Alcantara, who has struggled to impress in the Premier League. The two midfielders operate in different roles but share common traits: a superb touch and a wonderful passing range. The United man plays higher up the field than his Liverpool counterpart and that is reflected in his goalscoring record. He has hit the net 16 times in the league so far. The 26-year-old also creates chances for his team-mates and is second in the assists table with 11.
Thiago sits deeper but he might have expected to score more goals and produce more opportunities. He has recorded zero in each category in the Premier League.
The key to the success of Fernandes is his ability to receive the ball in congested areas and pick a pass. The United midfielder has the knack of taking possession on the half turn rather than with his back to goal. This allows him options when markers are swarming around him. His second touch is frequently a telling pass or a shot. He can draw defenders out of position because of this threat.
Thiago is too often presented with the ball closer to the halfway line than the opposition goal, part of the pitch from which he is unlikely to disrupt the defensive shape. He has come into a team whose biggest success came when they bypassed the midfield. Liverpool won the Champions League and the title utilising crossfield balls and width, turning around opponents to chase back facing their own goal. The 30-year-old has not only been thrust into a side that does not suit his style of play but one that has been hamstrung by injuries. When the ball goes to Thiago, his options are more often than not limited. The full backs are generally available but the pace of their forward movement has slowed to a crawl.
Liverpool under Klopp have not been bold at Old Trafford. They need to take risks to stand even the faintest chance of reaching the top four. One adventurous move would be to shift Thiago forward into the sort of areas where Fernandes thrives. The former Bayern Munich man’s control and deft passing might be better employed upfield. It would not be much of a gamble because he has been largely ineffective in his present role.
The season is on the line for Liverpool. They cannot afford to drop any more points and another callow display would cap a dispiriting campaign. Klopp needs to do something different. His first win at Old Trafford is long overdue.
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