“They play long balls.” It’s how Jurgen Klopp – the coach with the best record against Jose Mourinho – not just in English football but in European football as well, described Manchester United under the Portuguese after their 0-0 draw at Anfield last season.
The German has only lost once in seven meetings against Mourinho, winning and drawing thrice. But while the ‘long’ balls have seen United take joint leadership of the Premier League table after seven matches on 19 points; Liverpool’s ‘short’ balls have kept them in seventh position; seven points below.
The last time Liverpool faced a team from Manchester was in early September. So demoralizing was their 5-0 defeat to City then, that since , they have only won once in six matches in all competitions conceding nine goals.
In the league, they have won just once in three games, scoring five goals and conceding four against Burnley, Leicester City and Newcastle. Their only win in September was a 3-2 victory away at Leicester .
It’s against this background that Mourinho – who finished two places and seven points below Liverpool last season – leads his team out at Anfield today. The biggest derby in English football; only bettered by the El Classico, often guarantees fireworks both on and off the pitch but the fear of defeat by Mourinho turned it into a dull affair last season, prompting Klopp to describe United as a ‘long ball’ team.
If the former Chelsea manager can shrug off his ‘fear’ and pick the cue, today’s early kick off could turn into a memorable date, lest it will be a cacophony.
In September alone, United scored 22 goals in seven matches (11 goals away), drawing just once against Stoke City. In the league, they scored seven goals against Stoke, Everton and Southampton, conceding just twice.
Liverpool are however, the first team United are meeting this season who finished in the top five, which is why it’s the first real test of their title credentials. It’s been the story of Liverpool under Klopp that they save their best football against the top sides, which is how Arsenal found themselves on the receiving end of 4-0 hammering in late August.
This time however, United are carrying all the aces. They are the second highest scorers in the league, have the best joint defense, the top scorer (Romero Lukaku) with seven goals and the second highest assists provider Henrikh Mkhitaryan with five.
They are also, one of only two remaining teams yet to taste defeat this season. With their City rivals City playing hosts to smaller Stoke City, the fear of defeat in order not to hand the advantage to City, could yet again play a big part in determining not just the flow but also the entertainment value of this highly billed encounter.
For Liverpool, lightning has struck twice in the big games with the loss of fire spitting Sadio Mane to injury while on world cup duty. They lost the Senegalese captain late in the first half of their match with City at the Etihad after a straight red card and they never recovered psychologically.
They are however fortunate to have Phillipe Coutinho back in the first team and firing on all cylinders but he doesn’t offer Mane’s physical strength, pace, robustness or dynamism to prevent the United defense from moving out in support of attack.
Their secret weapon – Mohammed Salah – is the one that will worry Mourinho most.
Fresh from single handedly delivering Egypt to their first FIFA World Cup final tournament since 1990, Liverpool’s leading scorer with four goals; perhaps the fastest creature on two feet in the league currently, has been a revelation.
With him, Mane’s searing pace will not be missed and his unpredictability could prove the biggest headache to Mourinho’s tactical master plan.
It could pay for him to pay more attention to the attacking threat that his own team brings to Anfield. It’s the reason why they sit joint top of the table. With Liverpool’s defense always looking disjointed and at times even confused, the speed and fleet feet of Marcus Rashord and Anthony Martial could leave it in tatters.
Add Mkhitaryan’s invention , Lukaku’s predatory instincts, Juan Mata’s creativity and Ander Herrera’s tactical masterly and Liverpool’s back four could have a torrid afternoon.
The absence of Paul Pogba is significant but not ominous. In Nemanja Matic and re-born Marouane Fellaini, United have an imposing central midfield whose physicality is at times intimidating.
A win for Liverpool could prove the turning point in their quiet season so far and a defeat to United could be the kick-in the backside Mourinho needs to keep his high flyers feet firmly on the ground. It’s a very long season ahead.