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Premier League: Liverpool clash will be real test of Manchester United’s newfound exuberance

In the weeks leading up to Liverpool’s goalless draw with Manchester United in October, Jurgen Klopp’s side had resumed its tumultuous relationship with defending. In the previous seven games, in all competitions, the Reds had conceded 14 goals. The club’s decision to not sign any defensive reinforcements, once its pursuit of Virgil van Dijk failed in the summer, seemed ill-advised.

Jose Mourinho, though, was a man captured by his own intellect. With seven rounds of matches played in the Premier League, Manchester United were level with Manchester City on points. At that juncture, a tight two-horse race was considered to be a likely possibility. But Mourinho stepped backwards. An overwhelmingly defensive, insipid performance at Anfield dented United’s credentials. Subsequently, City took charge of the top spot that weekend and have not looked back since.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Reuters

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Reuters

What did Mourinho fear? Were his tactics responding to reputation rather than form? A point at Anfield is usually a good result. But the lack of threat posed by United that afternoon was baffling. Liverpool had won only once in seven games, Klopp’s tenure under the scanner as weariness engulfed Anfield. Not for the first time his side were flattering to deceive. However, United did not seek the chinks in Liverpool’s armour.

With just one shot on target by his side, it seemed Mourinho had lost the forest for the trees. Where three points were possible, he sought just one. In a normal title race, that could have been acceptable. But Mourinho did not reckon with City’s pedigree. His safety-first approach was rendered obsolete by his prime title challenger, which played for wins wherever it went. Not for the first time at United, Mourinho looked a bit out of touch.

It is worth noting that, ever since he joined the club in 2016, the Red Devils’ manager has been adamantly risk-averse against Liverpool. In three matches now, there has been no winner and only four goals. Mourino seems fazed by Liverpool’s attacking prowess; it does not help that he has not settled on a reliable formation for his side either.

However, the solution may have appeared now. After comeback wins against Chelsea and Crystal Palace, Mourinho seems to have discovered a panacea for United’s ills. In a 4-3-3 formation, his side seems less disjointed and there’s little of the plodding football one has come to associate with the team. Furthermore, Paul Pogba finally has a system which makes the best use of his gifts while new signing Alexis Sanchez is at home in it too.

With Anthony Martial still doubtful, it is possible that Jesse Lingard will get a chance to test either Joe Gomez or Trent Alexander-Arnold on Saturday. Lingard’s dribbling is a distinctive element in United's offence and he could thrive in the 4-3-3. With Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic in midfield, the other attackers have been freed to explore their preferred roles.

It is remarkable that it took an expenditure of over £300m for Mourinho to figure out what his best system can be. The incoherent recruitment suggests that the last two matches could be mere accidents. But such turns of fortune are not unheard of. The best of managerial designs are sometimes serendipitous.

Mourinho will hope that the newfound exuberance is here to stay. Saturday will be a test of that against a Liverpool side which has conceded in only one of its last five matches. United do have a formidable home record this season — only Manchester City have won at Old Trafford — but it remains to be seen whether Mourinho is prepared to release his players’ exciting ideas up front.

There is also the question of second place in the league. Liverpool is two points behind United at the moment but Klopp will remember that the gap was seven last season, in favour of his side. Although that was somewhat skewed by Mourinho’s prioritising of the Europa League, despite the current points difference, the Reds do seem to have a better developed notion of their play now. There’s a sustained intent to press and blitz opponents with pace.

Liverpool’s style of play is so dear to Klopp that he chose to not replace Philippe Coutinho in January as he could not find a worthy addition. Till now, his side has justified the move. Liverpool seem to be playing better since Coutinho’s  departure; although the midfield three of Emre Can, Jordan Henderson and James Milner can offer only so much. Still, they have shown that they can make it tick in the short term.

Of course the goals usually arrive from the front trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, who offer a variety of options in the final third. The dynamism and high tempo associated with Klopp’s side would be the envy of most Premier League teams, even United. Although it can be blunted, as Mourinho showed back in October, the restrictions placed on Liverpool’s attack can be temporary at best.

Like always, the United manager will prepare well for the questions posed by his German counterpart. But Mourinho’s response cannot be predicted with confidence. He could pose trust in the rewards brought by recent wins — especially, the result against Chelsea when he chased the game in an uncharacteristically attacking fashion. Or he may revert to type. History would suggest the latter but Mourinho might be finally emerging from his shadow.

Updated Date: Mar 10, 2018 11:08 AM

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