It's always one of the biggest matches of the Premier League season when Liverpool travel to Old Trafford to face Manchester United and that's especially true when it's a game that could have major ramifications at the top of the table. A win for Jurgen Klopp's visitors would open up a seven point margin between them and the Red Devils, who would find themselves playing catch up early in a season where three teams look like they could streak ahead. Here's what I'll be keeping an eye on on Sunday:
Solskjaer springs a surprise
Another game, another bizarre win and yet more criticism, more of it fair than not, about the footballing identity or lack thereof that Manchester United have under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. When his side collapsed into a two goal deficit against Atalanta, and then rallied magnificently, but in the sort of fashion that seems sustainable to them alone, his response was to herald the result as one in keeping with the "DNA of this club." No one would expect him to chastise his players or go into great depth about the problems his side are facing, but some acknowledgement of the latter might help.
His refusal to do so is made all the more galling as those issues are so easy to identify. Stretch his defense out with attack minded defenders on the wings -- as Atalanta did and Liverpool will do -- and they buckle under the pressure. Scott McTominay and Fred do not plug the gaps, the wide forwards do not track back and the opposition can consistently overload United out wide.
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On the occasion below, where Atalanta scored their first goal, McTominay has dropped into defense to deal with the pressure there. However with Fred late to spot that Josip Ilicic has moved deeper, leaving the front line, the forward has time to pick the right pass. With Marcus Rashford trailing (and hardly moving at the speed required to catch up), there simply is no one left to deal with Davide Zappacosta's overlapping run. From there it is a training ground exercise, a cutback to Mario Pasalic to score a simple goal.
It has been a pattern in recent matches. Ricardo Pereira was a menace for Leicester in their 4-2 win at Old Trafford, hitting the post with one shot. Little wonder. Whenever the Foxes gained the ball back in good positions Shaw was left with a headache as to whether to leave his center backs man for man against Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho or deal with the threat out wide. Naturally he drifted to the spot nearest danger and then gave the Portuguese international the run of the right wing with Jadon Sancho trailing in his rearview mirror.
All of these issues will raise their head again on Sunday. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane will form a narrow front three with Roberto Firmino, presumably dragging their full backs infield to give Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson space to create out wide.
Whether you believe he is a coach worthy of United or not, few can contend that Solskjar will be blind to the evidence of recent weeks. How could anyone miss them?
His track record suggests that when pitted against the best opposition domestically or in Europe he tends to tailor his plans relatively effectively. In a 0-0 draw with Chelsea in March Solskjaer put together a pressing system to nullify Chelsea's build-up through central areas, instructing Fred and McTominay to man mark the Blues' inside forwards whilst Bruno Fernandes harassed their double pivot. Against RB Leipzig his midfield diamond ran amok in what might be, from a tactical perspective, his best result in the Old Trafford dugout.
How Solskjaer goes about addressing his weakness and trying to nullify Liverpool's clearest strength is rather harder to get a clear read on. The obvious answer might be to give himself an additional defender, either an anchorman who allows him to match Liverpool's 4-3-3 system or by switching to a back three that would mitigate overloads in the central areas.
That is all easily done on paper but in practice Solskjaer has a dressing room to manage as well as a game. Cristiano Ronaldo has to play because it is too much of a story to drop him for the biggest game of the season (and also the pesky fact that he keeps scoring all those goals). That probably means United can chuck any serious attempt at pressing from the front in the bin. Bruno Fernandes belongs on a list of undroppables too. If Solskjaer wants to mitigate the risks faced by David de Gea and company that might mean just one more starting spot for a half dozen big name forward players.
Perhaps it is best to fight fire with fire. Atletico Madrid managed to quell Alexander-Arnold by parking Joao Felix in the spaces he would vacate if he ventured forward. Rashford could do the same, though it did not stop Zappacosta. It also seems rather risky to try to outshoot a team that includes Salah and Mane. But then what is not a risky approach for United against Liverpool?
Roberto Firmino is Liverpool's difference maker
In the story of what is shaping up to be a thoroughly impressive season for Liverpool, the narratives are already fixing themselves to the biggest names. This is Salah's moment, the season when he rises from top 10 in the world to arguably the best player there is. After his struggles last season, Mane proves the doubters wrong.
Roberto Firmino? So far there has not been all that much attention given over to the other member of the front three. He is still battling Diogo Jota for a guaranteed spot in the side, after all, and until he scored a hat trick in last Saturday's win over Watford his goal return was hardly overwhelming. And yet, dating back to last season, there are welcome signs of recovery in attacking play from the forward. When he is trusted from the outset, he has tended to deliver. In his last seven starts in the Premier League and Europe he has scored six goals and provided two assists, numbers which may have swelled further if he had been able to continue against Chelsea last month.
His performance against Watford of course accounts for a rather large percentage of the goal tally, but Firmino's creative exploits should not go unnoticed either. According to Opta he has created 13 chances in those seven games and been involved in 45 attacking sequences that ended in a shot. In the absence of Curtis Jones, Thiago and Harvey Elliott he has looked to pick up some of the ball progressing slack.
This game might be one to suit him with and without the ball. When Manchester United have possession watch for Firmino blocking up the out ball as his fellow forwards press high up the pitch. This was something he did quite excellently in the 4-2 win at Old Trafford earlier this year, at times baiting Dean Henderson into the pass to McTominay by dropping behind the midfielder, ready to pounce.
Meanwhile, he promises to be a danger man from Liverpool's set pieces at a time when United look incapable of stopping anyone from scoring at dead ball situations. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, Firmino has scored the fourth most headers in the top flight (13) and of those with five or more headed goals to their name he has the sixth highest on target percentage (46.6 percent). He scored a header in a match winning display against the Red Devils last season. Don't bet against him doing so again.
Liverpool set a quirky new record
All the statistical omens point in one direction ahead of this game. Manchester United, the team without a clean sheet in nine straight home league games, against Liverpool, who have scored more goals in their four away Premier League matches this season than 15 teams have scored across the entire top flight season so far. Solskjaer's side are on a woeful run of league form against the Reds with just one win in their last 10 meetings, and that is to say nothing for their travails against the other teams they have come up against of late.
If this game goes according to form -- and that is certainly not guaranteed -- then it seems Liverpool are destined for a particularly intriguing place in the history books. According to Opta, Klopp's side are unbeaten in 25 games against a team with 'United' in their name. A point or more at Old Trafford would see them match the record previously set by Brentford between October 1998 and November 2000. Liverpool hardly need anything more to motivate them against their great rivals with a chance to burnish their title credentials. But if they did...a place in the (extraordinarily esoteric) history books is on the line.