It’s crunch time for Liverpool, and Sunday’s looming trip to Old Trafford perhaps could not arrive at a worse time.
Under Jurgen Klopp the Reds and have got stronger and stronger as time has gone on, that much is sure.
Yet this season, ravaged by injuries and badly out of sorts, the Merseysiders find themselves on the ropes and running the very real risk of missing out on Champions League football – if not European football altogether.
In over five years with Liverpool Jurgen Klopp is yet to win a match at Old Trafford
It is almost incomprehensible given the ruthless, dominant fashion in which Klopp’s troops stormed to the league title just 12 months ago.
Alas, football is a cruel game and Liverpool’s recent squandering of points to both Leeds and Newcastle means top four is now more of a hope than any form of expectation.
And now, Klopp must take his under-performing side to the one stadium he has forever failed to get a result.
The Old Trafford fortress seems to have a mental edge on Liverpool and, with the stakes higher than ever before, Klopp must now pull off something he has so far failed to do during his tenure and ensure he returns down the East Lancs road with three points in the bag.
The Theatre of Nightmares?
Klopp’s record with Liverpool at Old Trafford is a curious one, given the majority of his reign has coincided with a rather dramatic faltering of United.
The Red Devils had drifted through the turbulent uncertainties of the Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho era, before residing with current boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – yet all the while they have still managed to hold off Liverpool at home.
So, what is it? Why do Klopp’s men embark upon Old Trafford stricken with worry?
To take a look back at each of the previous meetings, a pattern emerges which shows Liverpool all but pull up the drawbridge at Old Trafford, knowing that the one weapon United retained during their difficult spell was the ability to sharply counter.
Liverpool have a miserable history at Old Trafford but need maximum points on Sunday
LIVERPOOL’S OLD TRAFFORD WOES UNDER KLOPP
Draw: March 2016 – Manchester United 1-1 Liverpool (Europa League)
Draw: January 2017 – Manchester United 1-1 Liverpool (Premier League)
Lost: March 2018 – Manchester 2-1 Liverpool (Premier League)
Draw: February 2019 – Manchester United 0-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Draw: October 2019 – Manchester United 1-1 Liverpool (Premier League)
Lost: January 2021 – Manchester United 3-2 Liverpool (FA Cup)
This has always been Liverpool’s Achilles heel. For as good as they may have been last season, Klopp’s men are always susceptible to a well organised and rapid breakaway simply because of how high up the field they commit.
It has worked wonders for Liverpool, enabling them to choke the life out of opponents for the last two years during their rise to the summit, but it does come with its potential downfalls. One only has to look at how Watford pulled apart the relentless Reds last season, before later getting relegated, to see that this can happen in any match.
Now, with United stable once more and on the march this season, the threat is more real than ever before. Last season saw United score on a quick breakaway at Old Trafford, courtesy of Daniel James sprinting down the wing to tee Marcus Rashford.
This was against a fully formed Liverpool defence, containing both Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip at the heart.
It goes without saying that Solskjaer will have designs on following a similar methodology this weekend, given Liverpool’s defence is bereft of confidence and missing vital personnel.
Which leads Klopp to a rather burning conundrum regarding the ever-flexible Fabinho.
Midfield needs its general
Fabinho is vital for Liverpool and when he is fully on song, the results very often end up being successful.
The Brazilian is the ever-ticking metronome at the heart of the midfield, with remarkable reading of the game, world class tackling and a wide-ranging pass repertoire which is up there with the best in the business.
All these stellar traits are a godsend for Klopp, though it is another one of Fabinho’s many virtues which can ultimately end up being a bad thing.
The former Monaco man is so adept at playing a host of different positions that it is sometimes all too easy for Klopp to play the conservative card and slot Fabinho into the inexperienced back line.
Playing alongside the likes of Nat Phillips or Ozan Kabak, Fabinho has been able to offer a wise head on calm shoulders, and it will most certainly be something Klopp is considering this weekend with his side still sweating on the fitness of Phillips.
Fabinho is a colossus in midfield for Liverpool and provides the metronome Klopp’s side need
Against Newcastle Fabinho filled in alongside Kabak, and Liverpool very nearly left the stadium with maximum points but for a complete lapse in concentration at the death.
A large part of this boils down to the lack of Fabinho’s presence in midfield. When he is further back in the field, the unsettled ripple-effect permeates its way through the rest of the XI. This is heightened dramatically with the combined absence of captain Jordan Henderson.
It has already been proven, particularly during two thrilling matches with RB Leipzig in the Champions League, that summer signing Thiago Alcantara flourishes when having the reassuring base of Fabinho alongside or just off him.
For Klopp to consider deploying Fabinho in defence at Old Trafford, a negative tone would be set.
It may well solidify Liverpool and earn a strong point, in a stadium where they usually reap very little, but said point won’t really count for much right now.
Deploy the full cavalry
Liverpool have continued to make high quality chances this season, but the issue has been putting them away.
For all the criticism which has come the way of the Reds’ ruthless front line, they still remain some of the finest attackers in world football on their day.
Now it feels like things are approaching pedal to the metal time. Liverpool need to start scoring and really terrifying teams again.
The prospect of fielding Mane, Jota, Salah and Firmino at Old Trafford could be a risk, but would show Liverpool’s full-blooded attacking intent
It runs the risk of conceding, of course, but Klopp will have faith that his side still have the elite quality within their ranks to shut up shop and see out victory, if a healthy lead is amassed.
This points to starting berths for the full front four; a complete Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota set.
Cautious fans may feel this is a gung-ho approach, particularly as tactics are crucial when it comes to taking on United in their own back yard.
Solskjaer’s men can however be rocked.
It was evidenced earlier in the season, when United found solid Old Trafford form desperately hard to come by. Since, the ship has been steadied and the Red Devils surged up the table as a result.
Nonetheless, a psychological element remains. Get under United’s skin at Old Trafford and the tide can swiftly turn.
Firmino could have a vital part to play, and linked up well with Salah at Old Trafford in January
The front four for Liverpool started the recent match against Newcastle, nodding to Klopp’s current way of thinking that goals are now paramount, regardless of how the match goes.
Chances rained down as a result and Liverpool could have been out of sight. A total of 22 shots came in, with nine on target.
The front line are still kicking themselves for squandering those opportunities, though there are few bigger stages in world football to make amends than Old Trafford.
Use the width
There was something rather telling about Liverpool’s approach the last time they ventured to Old Trafford.
The two teams last met in Manchester back in January, when a five-goal thriller saw United take a 3-2 victory and progress in the FA Cup.
Liverpool scored two high-class goals through talisman Salah, which each came as a result of slick passing play to dissect the United back line.
Solskjaer’s side had given plentiful signs that they would be susceptible to this and allow it to happen, with Harry Maguire and partner Victor Lindelof showing communication breakdowns in the early stages.
United were quivering in the opening period, yet Liverpool seemingly refused to spread the play.
Last time out at Old Trafford both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were limited
Lack of action on the wings allowed Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka to gain confidence and ease themselves into the match, while lending an extra hand to their under fire centre backs.
Why did this happen? It’s impossible to say with complete certainty, but is highly likely that Liverpool’s lethal wing-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson vastly reduced their own forward play in order to provide consolidation for Fabinho alongside academy youngster Rhys Williams in central defence.
It made an element of sense, given Liverpool had struck the opening goal through Salah’s classy lob and looked to be controlling the tie.
Yet this helped United. Liverpool were indeed controlling, but no longer threatening. Mason Greenwood had equalised eight minutes after Salah and Liverpool allowed their opponents to slowly regroup and play themselves back into the match.
United dusted themselves down at half-time and re-emerged with greater attacking intent. This served to peg Liverpool back further and cast even greater down into the minds of Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
As a result, Liverpool simply did not get wide enough. United nullified the threat down the middle by delicately reshaping their formation and took the game to their opponents.
When Marcus Rashford scored the third goal of the match just after half-time, it gave a perfect example of how the Liverpool full backs were caught in two minds.
Alexander-Arnold (top) and Robertson (bottom) were caught in No Man’s Land as Marcus Rashford put United ahead, due to uncertainty on whether or to push out wide
Both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson hesitated, having pushed only half way up the field. As a result they were neither well placed to apply the necessary pressure to thwart United’s counter-attack, or get back quickly enough to stop Rashford thundering beyond the stride of rookie Williams.
They were caught in No Man’s Land, and the lack of clinical decision-making stung Liverpool badly.
This time, from the off, Liverpool will be acutely aware that the game has to be taken straight to United and their marauding full-backs must do what comes naturally.
Fellow top four contenders Chelsea face strugglers Fulham, while in-form West Ham meet Burnley and Tottenham – who are just a point behind Klopp’s side – host already relegated Sheffield.
Put simply, Liverpool have to get a result this weekend and overturn their Old Trafford hoodoo.
Defeat could see the Reds a huge seven points adrift of the top four with four games left to play.
An already sizeable gap would turn into a chasm. For Klopp, it doesn’t bear thinking about.