League leaders Liverpool entertain Manchester United at Anfield tonight. The Merseysiders are top of the table with 61 points from 21 matches, having played two fewer matches from their nearest rivals Manchester City who dropped two more points last night against Crystal Palace.
Liverpool's lead has now stretched to 13 points. But, while Manchester City appear far in the rearview mirror, the visitors don’t even figure in the frame. One would need to use a backward projecting periscope, that can go cartoonishly long so even see Manchester United on the horizon, on 34 points from 22 games. And they would be found at a pitstop.
Since the start of this season, Manchester United fans are in a perpetual state of faithlessness and the on-brand atheism that only a bad season can bring.
In a research conducted by the University of Manchester on collating geolocational Twiter trend data since its inception, Manchester, as a city, hasn’t talked less about Manchester United and this more about politics.
As if broken from their slumber in a footballing wonderland, the citizens are waking up to ground realities of everyday life. Without the morale boost of a Premier League title in the near feature, the people of the city feel more aggrieved than they ever have in the past decade as the afterglow of success kept fading into wisps of memory. And they say football is just a sport?
This Manchester United reminds us of the story of the Ugly Duckling. Or an ugly caterpillar who is still due to go in the state of chrysalis: The hard outer shell made by its own spit that it retires to. We are still unsure if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can effect the splitting of the chrysalis and the unfolding of wings.
It’s not just the inconsistency that bothers us - this Manchester United setup feels spiritually off-key to the tune of yesteryears. As if they are deliberately self-unaware of what’s holding them back. This lack of self-consciousness has coincided with a lack of identity. Like the team they are facing tonight, Liverpool too had to derive identity from their past glories until recently. The general feeling is that Manchester United are closer to the start of that gruelling journey than near to the end of it.
No other manager in the last 30 years has had a worse win percentage than the Norwegian manager. He faces a Liverpool manager who is felling record like pins in a bowling alley. Crash, there goes down another record in favour of the gregarious German, Jurgen Klopp. The matter of intrigue builds regardless.
As Gary Neville said, Liverpool could be playing Manchester United in a relegation battle and it’ll still be the most televised match in the world. That will be little to do with quality and more to down to the magic of this encounter.
“I was told Liverpool versus Manchester United is the biggest game of the season and having experienced a few I can accept that,” Jurgen Klopp confirmed.
Manchester United fans will remind their Liverpool fans that they were the only team that could take any point off the league leaders. And that if they could do it once, they can do it again.
Jurgen Klopp is fully aware of the threat United possess: Despite Marcus Rashford not travelling for the fixture due to injury, United are brimming with counter-attacking talent. Scott McTominay and Fred can, on their day, prove to be the perfect slingshot for Anthony Martial and Daniel James’s ammunition. They will sleep and soak pressure and then break away.
Klopp had a successful trial run of his new ‘Plan B’ against Jose Mourinho’s deep-sitting, defensive Tottenham Hotspurs. He anticipates needing to launch the same against a low-lying Manchester United.
In the 1-0 win versus Tottenham, Klopp instructed his deeper midfielders and defence to keep recycling the ball in their own half after they had the lead. This brought to the forefront the possession-keeping talent of this Liverpool midfield, and the sheer technicality that Gini Wijnaldum commands.
Even under duress, the Netherlands international prevailed from his ghost-in-the-machine role in Jurgen’s juggernaut to the role of a gear-box. To see Wijnaldum spin on the ball is to see time turning. His standing for is the minute’s click, his sweeping foot the second’s hand, his hip the swivel, while his head keeps the old Odin hours. Scott McTominay, Jesse Lingard and Alex will need to be Liverpool’s clockwork through Wijnaldum.
This Liverpool team has learned restraint, like how a painter like Mondrain evolved from expressionism to minimalism. Earlier they would be like hurricanes with studs on, laying wreck to teams who would attack them, but were unable to counter teams that defended deep. Now they move like lines drawing triangles and triangles forming rectangles.
Manchester United’s defensive onus undermines their own talent, said Klopp in not so many words in the pre-match press conference.
Mohamed Salah stoked the fire in an interview when he jokingly said that the only reason that United were able to make Liverpool drop points in Old Trafford earlier in the season was that he wasn’t playing. This is to say that Salah is keen to make up for the lost time and burying the stat: Manchester United are the only club in the Premier League that Salah hasn’t scored against.
This cheeky taunt from the Egyptian should fire up United. However, if United come to Anfield to simply play reactive football instead of a proactive one, it will signal an end of an era.
The pro-Solskjaer faction of United fans puts Liverpool fans in a place of deja vu of a mental state when Brendan Rodgers and Kenny Dalglish (the second coming) were at the helm. Groundhog days of false dawns.
Solskjaer would need to look inwards tonight and find the self-belief to let United play with the abandon that capsised Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham. It would buy him time and the second sewing of his fabric in United’s folklore.
It is to be noted that some caterpillars out too late.
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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2020 14:57:52 IST