For all the focus upon Liverpool’s problems against Premier League minnows, it’s worth remembering what this criticism subtly implies — their record against better sides is outstanding.
Last season, in their 12 matches against fellow top-seven opposition, Liverpool were unbeaten. This statistic becomes even more impressive when you realise that, in their equivalent 12 matches, Tottenham lost three times, Manchester United and Chelsea four times, Manchester City five times, and Arsenal and Everton six times.
Jurgen Klopp is the man for the big occasion, and his strategic approach is excellent at disrupting the possession play of top-class teams. Liverpool defeated each of those sides last season, with one notable exception: Manchester United, visitors to Anfield this weekend. A disastrously dull goalless draw at Anfield in October was followed by a slightly livelier 1-1 at Old Trafford in January.
United’s approach last season at Anfield was entirely unattractive, but whereas Jose Mourinho’s “big game approach” is often about defending deep in large numbers, this was about long ball football. The tactic is generally considered to be a side’s method of attack, but Mourinho’s direct football was entirely a defensive strategy.
It was defensive because its primary function was to nullify Liverpool’s overwhelming strength, their aggressive counter-pressing in advanced positions. Klopp’s system depends upon winning possession quickly, so United went long, hoofing the ball into the opposition half, to ensure that Liverpool couldn’t regain possession close to United’s goal.
For a statistical representation of this strategy, take David De Gea’s distribution: While United aren’t as committed to playing out from the back as, say, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, De Gea is comfortable in possession and prefers to pass the ball rather than lump it downfield. But his approach at Anfield was markedly different from usual.
The previous weekend against Stoke City, 11 of his 23 passes were played into United’s own third of the pitch. Similarly, the following weekend, at Chelsea, 11 of his 24 passes were played into United’s own third of the pitch. But against Liverpool, when charged with re-starting play 25 times, not once did De Gea distribute the ball short. Every clearance was launched long, in the vague direction of Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Marcus Rashford.
United’s centre-backs, meanwhile, had little interest in possession play — Eric Bailly attempted just 14 passes at Anfield, Chris Smalling only seven. In stark contrast, Liverpool’s duo of Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip played 92 and 70 respectively. In basic terms, this isn’t anything new — this is Mourinho, the man whose approach to facing Guardiola’s Barcelona side was famously “giving the ball away.” But it’s a variation on a theme: Whereas previously Mourinho was determined to prevent counter-attacks, against Klopp he’s determined to prevent the counter-press.
The problem, of course, is that “route one” football isn’t an effective attacking strategy — even against a Liverpool defence somewhat vulnerable in the air. Ibrahimovic spent much of last year’s game battling for balls in the air, which doesn’t play to his major strengths. Marouane Fellaini, out injured this time around, was another starter for obvious reasons. Now Manchester United have Romelu Lukaku up front, and a direct strategy could work more effectively. Not in the same manner — Lukaku isn’t overwhelmingly strong in the air either — but because United can now knock long, hopeful balls into the channels and reasonably expect Lukaku to make something of them with his clever movement and electric pace. Questions have been raised about Lukaku’s big-game performances — in that respect he’s the reverse Liverpool — but this weekend he’ll be playing against a Liverpool back line which is, in Premier League terms, no better than average.
Klopp generally pushes his full-backs forward in big matches, and therefore space will open up in the channels for Lukaku to drift into. The space behind the perennially-out-of-position Alberto Moreno, and on the outside of the unconvincing Dejan Lovren, will be particularly crucial for United, especially as Lukaku likes to prowl that channel before cutting inside onto his left foot. United’s approach, then, may be as rudimentary as knocking the ball into the right-hand channel. If it exposes Liverpool’s weakness, great — but it’s primary intention is to nullify their strengths.
United’s only nervous moments in last year’s fixture came on rare occasions their defenders overplayed — right-back Antonio Valencia was caught in possession when harried by both Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, which produced the first Anfield roar of the evening. Liverpool fans have, by and large, bought into Klopp’s philosophy — they understand the idea behind counter-pressing, they cheer any examples of successful turnovers particularly fervently.
Having grown up as a huge admirer of Liverpool, and experienced one of Anfield’s most famous nights this century when his Chelsea side controversially lost a European Cup semifinal 12 years ago, Mourinho will be detmined for his players to silence the home crowd. A Saturday 12:30 kick-off, one suspects, will play its part — those matches often start sleepily, with players not entirely up to speed, and fans not in full voice. Expect to witness plenty of time-wasting when United have a throw-in, too, before seeing those throw-ins chucked bluntly down the touchline, the sort of thing you witness in an under-9s game, with players desperate not to be caught in possession.
It’s hardly the most flattering comparison, and very different to United’s free-flowing performances so far this season, but in terms of stopping the opposition, few managers are as brazen as Mourinho.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.