Liverpool’s injury woes are easing, but only a little. Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho passed through Wednesday’s 3-3 draw against Arsenal unscathed, but Martin Skrtel is still out and Dejan Lovren is a major doubt. Steven Caulker, at least, has arrived on loan to offer cover in central defence. There are problems too at the other end of the pitch, with Philippe Coutinho, Divock Origi and Danny Ings all still out and Daniel Sturridge’s still missing in action.
United are without Marcos Rojo, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luis Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw, while Phil Jones is a doubt and Adnan Januzaj, back from his loan spell at Borussia Dortmund, is lacking match fitness.
It’s becoming a feature of the Premier League this season that much-anticipated games between major sides look rather less appealing when the league positions are considered.
This clash of the two most successful sides in English league history is a battle of ninth against sixth. United have won just one of their last eight league games and Liverpool two of their last seven. Both drew 3-3 in midweek in stirring games full of both positives and negatives.
United were comfortable 3-1 winners in September, following a drab first half with goals from Daley Blind and Ander Herrera before Christian Benteke and Anthony Martial exchanged brilliant strikes in the last 10 minutes.
THE OLD AND THE NEW
At AZ and with the Netherlands, Louis van Gaal demonstrated a willingness to adapt. He showed he was not stuck in his ways by adopting a counter-attacking approach. At United, though, he has gone back to the core belief in possession football that brought such success at Ajax and Barcelona in the nineties. And that perhaps is the key detail – in the nineties.
Although Van Gaal laid the foundations for both the great Barcelona side of 2009-11 and the present Bayern team, it’s hard not to wonder whether he has been slightly left behind by the changes to the game brought about by Pep Guardiola’s Barca, less in the way they played than in the way they forced others to combat them.
Gegenpressing and the rapid transitions that characterised Borussia Dortmund under Klopp ultimately derive from the same Total Football model that forms the basis of Van Gaal’s thinking but they feel like a more modern form of the game. Not that that necessarily means Klopp will prevail: it’s one thing to have a more sophisticated system, another to apply it or to have the players to be apply it effectively.
THE FIRMINO ENIGMA
Roberto Firmino is not a consistent footballer. Jurgen Klopp may have spoken warmly of his unseen work after his two goals against Arsenal on Wednesday, and the Brazilian’s performances against Manchester City and Arsenal demonstrated his abilities, but his finishing remains erratic and he has games when he simply doesn’t get involved – which could be an issue if United dominate possession.
Wednesday’s performance probably confirms that he is at his best at centre-forward in Klopp’s side, although Benteke’s role in setting up the equaliser for Joe Allen shouldn’t be overlooked.
Van Gaal’s problem at United isn’t strictly speaking the defence or the attack; it’s getting the balance right between the two. United seem to have two modes: they either look like they’ll never score while being solid defensively, or they look like they never stop conceding, but score frequently. They’ve drawn seven games 0-0 this season, but when they’ve chased the game, as they did against Newcastle and against Wolfsburg, they’ve looked extremely vulnerable at the back. The suspicion must be that at Anfield, Van Gaal will go back to risk-averse basics.
Both sides are inconsistent but two factors seem to stand out in United’s favour.
The first is that Liverpool are still ravaged by injuries and, with a day less to prepare, may be wearied by the exertions in the snow on Wednesday. And the second is that Wayne Rooney showed signs against Newcastle of returning to form. Van Gaal will probably look to lock the game down and the chances of a thrilling spectacle to match the teams’ games in midweek is unlikely – there’s a reason under 2.5 goals is as short as 1.68.
Without Coutinho, Liverpool can lack creativity whereas an on-song Rooney might give United the edge they’ve lacked for much of this season. United are 3.40 to win or, for something a little more extravagant, Rooney to score the only goal in a 1-0 United win is 32.00.