Bitter rivals Liverpool FC and Manchester United face off once again, in a game between England’s two most successful teams. A game which could end up having little bearing on the League title this season.

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Both managers have failed to get a steady run of results from their respective sides, making the outcome of this game even harder to predict than usual. Klopp has spent most of his time at the club managing an injury ravaged squad, and still remains without many of his first choice players. Louis van Gaal is also without key personnel, though his bigger worry is the underwhelming performances from his ‘star’ players like Wayne Rooney and Memphis Depay.

Jurgen Klopp vs Louis van Gaal

Manchester United vs Swansea CityThe first time these two managers faced off (in 2009), van Gaal’s Bayern Munich beat Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund 5-1. But that defeat, the worst of Klopp’s Dortmund career, was a long time ago. The very next season Dortmund did the double over van Gaal’s Bayern, and it turned out to be the swansong for LVG’s time at Munich. It bodes well for neutrals that none of the 4 games these two played against each other resulted in a draw, with each manager claiming 2 victories a head.

Both managers have quickly been typecast into one dimensional caricatures of themselves. Louis van Gaal the meticulous, expressionless professor, who cares more about possession than winning. Jurgen Klopp the lively metal-head, who just wants to see an attacking game, defence be damned. The reality is that both of them are amongst the best managers in the world, who are simply struggling to get the best out of the limited resources at their disposal. This game comes at a time when both are having to manage under-performing players and over-expectant fans at the same time.

Jurgen Klopp Will Play Firmino Up Top

Liverpool vs ArsenalJurgen Klopp has started with Roberto Firmino as the tip of the attack for all of the big games of the season. The 3-1 over Chelsea, the 4-1 over Manchester City, and the 3-3 against Arsenal last week all saw the Brazilian play as a front-man in a 4-3-3/ 4-3-2-1.

One of the reasons for this has been the fact that Christian Benteke has not yet properly integrated into the side. Two situations where Benteke is most lethal are (1) when you get aerial balls to him in and around the box, and (2) when he can hold up the ball and lay it off for midfield runners rushing forward. The team has been unable to sufficiently provide him with either of those things. The only width in the side is usually provided by full-backs Alberto Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne, and neither is very accurate with lofted balls into the box, and none of the central midfielders seem to be in the right place to receive the second ball from the big Belgian. One of the rare occasions where this actually clicked was when, against Arsenal, Benteke knocked the ball down for Joe Allen (both were second half substitutes) to side foot into goal.

So why hasn’t Klopp used Firmino against other teams? Well, because he’s not got the positional sense of a natural number 9. Against sides that sit deep, you need someone to be the focal point of attack, but Firmino is someone who will frequently drift into wider and deeper positions. He’s more playmaker-who-can-finish than finisher-who-can-create, quite simply. But he’s still young, and it will be interesting to see how he develops under Jurgen Klopp. Remember, Klopp played Robert Lewandowski as a number 10 for nearly an entire season to help improve his game; who know’s what plans he has for Firmino

LVG Will Rely On His Wide Attackers

Manchester United vs Swansea CityMemphis Depay and Anthony Martial have had such contrasting fortunes this season. When the season started, Depay was expected to be the shining young talent that would light up United’s season. A young talent being courted by some of the biggest clubs, it helped that he was Dutch and was hence expected to be the perfect van Gaal signing. Martial, a relative unknown with a massive price tag (£36m), was expected by many to be an overpriced failure.

Instead, it’s Depay who’s turned out to be a big fat dud (so far, that is), and Martial has been United’s best attacker. What’s great about him is that he has continued to put in strong performances despite being constantly played out of position on the flank. The £25m transfer Depay has meanwhile lost his place to Youth Academy product Jesse Lingard.

Martial and Lingard are United’s best attacking threats. Even more so since Liverpool’s full-backs, especially Moreno, are regularly caught out of position and leave plenty of space between themselves and the center-halves for someone with pace to run into.

United are likely to have the lion’s share of the possession, so LVG will also have to make sure that the center-halves and holding midfielder don’t get caught up in the excitement of the game and leave themselves exposed. Facing a Liverpool counter attack is something they will need to avoid.

Key Battles

Roberto Firmino vs. Chris Smalling & Morgan Schneiderlin

Manchester United vs West Ham UnitedThe problem with having Firmino as the forward-most player in your opposition side is figuring out who should be marking him. The Brazilian will alternate between pushing right up against the center-backs, and dropping deep into central zones to receive the ball. This means that defender Chris Smalling and holding-midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin will have to coordinate in their attempts to mark him out of the game.

Anthony Martial vs. Alberto Moreno

Watford v LiverpoolAnthony Martial is a lethal mix of pace, dribbling and finishing, and Moreno is going to have a torrid game trying to mark him. The Frenchman will alternate between driving down the flank and drifting into the box. Moreno is also a vital cog in the Liverpool attack, being the only player who provides width on that left flank. But he’ll have to limit his forward forays in order to keep a closer eye on Martial.

Simon Mignolet vs. Smalling/ Marouane Fellaini

VfL Wolfsburg - Manchester UnitedLiverpool have had a knack for conceding to set-plays in recent seasons. But in the last two games, this seems to have evolved from conceding to headers resulting from corners, to the corners sort of drifiting into goal directly. Simon Mignolet is probably not as poor a goalkeeper as people make him out to be, especially since he’s been playing behind such a rickety defence for a number of seasons now. But he’ll have to have laser focus to make sure Liverpool don’t concede any goals to the aerial threat of Smalling and Fellaini.

Strengths

Liverpool FC

 

  • Liverpool seem to do a decent job of getting into scoring positions. Their shots per game (16.5) is second only to Manchester City (17.6).
  • When Liverpool play well, their intensity is a sight to be admired. The intensity of the pressing and the pace of the counter attacks can wreak havoc on the best of teams, with Man City and Chelsea already having fallen victim to it earlier this season.

Manchester United

 

  • Though van Gaal’s focus on possession may have been criticized as the root of United’s ‘boring football’, there can be no doubting that it is indeed something the club excel at. They have the highest possession stats in the League, averaging an impressive 59.8% over the course of the season.
  • In Wayne Rooney, United have a player who is an experienced head. Having a player like him, with his experience and ability, can be the difference in big games such as these. With Steven Gerrard’s departure, it’s something the Liverpool side are lacking.

Weaknesses

Liverpool FC

 

  • As mentioned earlier, Klopp’s Liverpool at their best exhibit immense intensity. The problem is, that intensity isn’t on display often enough. Every other game, the Reds will turn up and deliver a dreary performance, and they inevitably lose the match when that happens.
  • Defending from set-pieces is a big problem for Liverpool, and something united will be keen to exploit.

Manchester United

 

  • While much of the criticism directed at van Gaal has been excessive and premature, there is no denying that at times United have been very hard to watch. In many a game they have gone almost the entire 90 minutes without showing any drive to score a goal, as if their mere presence on the pitch (and their possession stats) will win the game.
  • United’s injury hit back line is a problem, with Daley Blind not the most ideal alternative to the injured Phil Jones.

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