Does the fact that Manchester United and Liverpool are playing their first European contest in the Europa League shows how far these two continental heavyweights have fallen? At sixth and seventh in the Premier League respectively, success in this competition is likely to be their only chance of securing a spot in the Champions League next season. Yet this could prove a defining tie for both managers.
For all that has been wrong about Louis van Gaal’s turbulent reign as United manager, setting teams up to play against Liverpool count as one of the few high points. “For me, Liverpool is a fantastic club. Because I have won every game against Liverpool,” Van Gaal said bullishly after picking up his third win on the trot over United’s fiercest foe. The Red Devils also triumphed the last time these two historical rivals faced off midway through January. However, since then, United have only managed to beat Derby and Shrewsbury away from home.
Liverpool have also been wildly inconsistent under Jurgen Klopp. They were disappointing in their Capital One Cup final defeat to Manchester City, before turning over the same opponents with consummate ease just a few days later in the league. While Klopp would have been pleased with the reaction his team showed, there would have also been underlying disappointment of ‘where was that performance when it really mattered?’.
Defeat to City at Wembley also meant that Klopp has overseen four consecutive cup final defeats as a manager and he will be desperate to put an end to such an unwanted streak in the Europa League this season, and in Roberto Firmino, who is the most in-form player in the Premier League in 2016. After a slow start, Firmino has played a direct hand in more league goals than any other player this year (11 – seven goals, four assists).
But what are the stats behind the performances of the two sides? What are their strengths and weaknesses? And how can either side gain the upper hand in the first-leg on Thursday?
After Arsenal raced into a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes when United travelled to the Emirates in October, it has been a surprise that more sides haven’t tried to simply blow United away in the early exchanges. Much of United’s demise that day was partly because Van Gaal opted to start Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield who, with a combined age of 65, had little chance against the pace, guile and exuberance of Arsenal’s front line.
Even so, with United ponderous in possession, it’s been surprising that more teams haven’t followed in Arsenal’s footsteps. United also seem incapable of carving out meaningful goalscoring opportunities and maintaining sustained attacks, which shouldn’t make teams particularly fearful of being opened up at the back. In fact, only Swansea (510) and Aston Villa (630) are averaging more passes per goal than United (434) in the Premier League this season, which, to put into context, is 134 passes per goal more than United’s averaged in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final league campaign at the Old Trafford helm (300).
Morgan Schneiderlin was an unused substitute in United’s defeat at Arsenal and his influence in the middle could be crucial for the away side if Liverpool try to adopt a similar approach that Arsenal used, and one that gave Liverpool so much success in their 3-0 win over City at the start of the month.
A feature of Liverpool’s style under Klopp is how they defend from the front. Allowing defenders to pick the ball up in deep areas from their goalkeeper before the likes of Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana and Emre Can and co. hunt them down in organised packs has become a staple of Klopp’s brief tenure, and it should really test how far Chris Smalling has come on the ball under Van Gaal.
It doesn’t bear fruit on every occasion, but it’s notable that Liverpool have won possession in the attacking third at least eight more times than any other team in England’s top-flight since Klopp took over from Brendan Rodgers in October (107), accentuating their WhoScored.com statistically calculated strength of ‘stealing the ball from the opposition’.
Klopp would have taken particular encouragement from the way in which United’s defenders carelessly conceded possession in dangerous positions on numerous occasions in their 1-0 win over Watford earlier this month.
However, United’s defenders are not the only ones that have been guilty of mistakes, which Van Gaal will be more than aware of. Under Klopp, only Arsenal (17) have made more errors that have led to a shot at goal than Liverpool in the league (16), which explains their WhoScored.com statistically calculated weakness of ‘avoiding individual errors’. Coupled with United’s conversion rate (10.6%), which is the fifth best in the Premier League; Liverpool will need to avoid the costly mistakes that have led to their undoing in the recent months.
There is also a way in which United can negate the effectiveness of Liverpool’s counter-pressing, although that would bring Marouane Fellaini into the equation and that may not sit particularly well with United fans. By committing three or four players to the press, it leaves gaping holes in the middle of the park, which can be exploited by taking those pressing out of the equation with a long pass. In fact, United rank second for accurate long-balls per game (34.8) in the Premier League this season, providing the away side with another effective means of gaining the upper hand.
While neither of these sides are enjoying their finest moments in their illustrious history, this is perhaps one of the more intriguing encounters between one of football’s greatest rivalries, in which both teams possess the tools to inflict serious damage to each other.