The Merseysiders have displayed the kind of authoritative football their great rivals considered a forte for years, but are now struggling to produce
The last time Manchester United walked out at Anfield under the floodlights, they were noticeably overawed. Arms interlinked ahead of kick off, the visitors twisted their heads towards the Kop – a kaleidoscope of colour and deafening cries – with a mixture of fear, wonderment and envy.
When Liverpool’s on-pitch performance matched the thunder from the terraces, it only extended United’s list of reasons to begrudge their fiercest rivals. They could not compete in the aura stakes, and were certainly no match in the contest itself.
Louis van Gaal admitted his side “couldn’t cope” with the “fantastic atmosphere” nor the constant pressure from the Reds in that 2-0 Europa League last-16 defeat, and while his successor Jose Mourinho would never allow such words to roll off his tongue, he’ll arrive on Merseyside knowing the challenge has only been elevated.
Liverpool’s progress has been rapid and riveting under Klopp; the manager’s blueprint tattooed on the squad and their performances. An off-afternoon against Burnley aside, they have been unconquerable this season while serving up an equal dose of diligence and devastation. While there is conviction and clarity coursing through Liverpool, United are clouded by uncertainty.
Mourinho has the Wayne Rooney conundrum to contend with, and it is still difficult to decipher their design. The Portuguese said he would not hide behind “philosophies” at his unveiling in July, but it cannot be blanketed that United have yet to show concrete signs of a system to produce the aggressive and dynamic approach he has promised.
Klopp has, however, highlighted the quality his counterpart has to work with and insisted there is little to separate the teams. The German is aware that in these “salt in the soup” fixtures, being the better side doesn’t automatically equal victory. His first encounter against United as Liverpool boss ended in a 1-0 defeat despite his charges commanding the game against their adversaries. “ We lost a game that we should not have lost,” was Klopp’s assessment of that January showdown, in which David de Gea was man of the match, with Rooney converting the late winner.
Mourinho insists a repeat of such a smash-and-grab is “not going to happen again” and was also quick to note that the numbers registered thus far by both sides are inconsequential to Monday night’s meeting.
“A match is an isolated event,” he said. “There is no relation to what you did in the past, no relation to what you do in the future. That is why I don’t like much the statistics of previous matches and previous results and this kind of thing.”
Regardless, it is impossible to ignore how much sharper, steelier and stronger Liverpool have been over United since Klopp’s appointment last October. They have scored 23 more Premier League goals than the Red Devils since the 49-year-old took charge, registering 57 more shots on target.
Liverpool have also completed 675 more passes, made 92 more tackles and engaged in 2533 more sprints. The only area United are superior in is goals conceded, but that is too be expected given the risk-averse, sterile football produced over the last year.
Mourinho may be taking more of an initiative in encounters than Van Gaal did, but just as it was the last time the teams faced off at Anfield, Liverpool have enjoyed superiority in terms of style and substance. Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Sir Alex Ferguson have already resentfully admitted they admire and are worried about what the Reds can accomplish under Klopp.
Liverpool were more surgical in the summer, only sourcing signings that slotted into their methodology. The club’s focus on building the best team rather than a team filled with the best players has so far shown up United’s financial flexing. The Old Trafford outfit proved they could still make major moves in the transfer market, but have delivered no authoritative message collectively in their play.
Klopp’s approach has always been proactive, with Mourinho opting for a more reactive route. The serial winner has only managed to get the better of the former Borussia Dortmund manager once in five attempts, and that came in a 2013 Champions League tie which saw the Bundesliga side progress at Real Madrid’s expense following a 4-1 blitz in the first-leg.
It was in this month last year that the Liverpool boss last got under Mourinho’s skin, securing his first English top-flight victory with a 3-1 triumph against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, which shoved the 53-year-old closer to the sack.
And Mourinho would love nothing more than to assume the role of spoiler at Anfield, as he did as Blues boss in the 2013-14 season to derail Liverpool’s title tilt.
“I will never forget that Chelsea game at Anfield when we lost and we were going for the title. It was frustrating for me. I was a fan, I was in the crowd, it was frustrating to watch. I was shouting at the ref to get things going a bit quicker,” Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson admitted.
“It wasn’t a nice game to watch but full credit to Jose. It was tactically very good from him and he is a great tactician, he is a world‑class manager and he has shown that in the clubs he has been at. The way they played that game was very clever from Jose.
“We were on fire at the time and the way they played the game, very slow, sitting in, it was difficult to watch. They made it very difficult – throw‑ins, goal-kicks, they were taking forever and that got everyone worked up in the stadium and it worked to their advantage because they got the result they came for and it had a big impact on us winning the league.
“I will never really forget that, so Monday will be a big occasion, if we can keep performing the way we are and win, to sort of put that to bed.”
United will line-up at Anfield looking to contain, frustrate and foil their opponents, but Klopp has cleverly stated he expects a lot more from the visitors.
“That they don’t come out of their own half? I can’t imagine that actually,” he said.
“They are Man United and they have big quality and offensive players who are strong, quick and technically good.
“They have everything you need to play good football. I am sure they won’t come here to defend only.”
Yet even if they do adopt that spoiler stance as anticipated, it will be incredibly tough to thwart a multi-faceted Liverpool.
As Henderson explained: “ If you are the opposition, you don’t know where the goals are going to come from because they could come from anywhere.”
Five Liverpool players have scored three league goals or more already this season, while only Marcus Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have managed that for United.
Klopp’s side are undoubtably in the ascendancy heading into the fixture and must end a run which has seen them lose the last four league matches against the men from down the M62.
The Liverpool boss wants his charges to “ feel the special vibrations around the game,” but more than that, he is determined to have them celebrate it afterwards and increase the envy on the other side of the divide.