Manchester United v Liverpool: Is there more to the Reds' blip than meets the eye?

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp
With Firmino in possession Jurgen points to goal

The Reds are in a rut so will Jurgen Klopp dare to play the kids when Liverpool head to Old Trafford? Stephen Tudor wonders if that wouldn't be for the best.

"It was until recently par for the course that Klopp’s ‘mentality monsters’ would prevail over teams in the bottom half of the table."

There is a scene in Mad Men where the show's anti-hero Don Draper fumbles taking a cigarette from its packet.

It's the kind of minor clumsy act we all do often but this is Don Draper, the perfectly put together character who for several seasons has been nothing but cool, collected and in control. It is therefore strangely shocking to see him struggle like the rest of us and its meaningful symbolism is not lost on viewers who know that his wife has just discovered his real identity. Before us is a man quickly unravelling.

Which brings us to Liverpool's three draws and a defeat in recent weeks, and a failure to score in the league for 348 minutes.

By anyone's standards this hardly constitutes a crisis yet for several seasons now we've witnessed this perfectly put together team remain in control, immaculate. It's strangely shocking then to see them fumble like the rest of us.

Which begs the question: Is this a temporary blip or are Jurgen Klopp's team quickly unravelling?

Context of a 'crisis'

It is far too simplistic to view Liverpool's loss at Southampton and an inability to put West Brom, Newcastle and Manchester United to the sword as a sudden and unexpected decline. To better analyse the state of the Reds in 2020/21 it is necessary to view the big picture.

In their concluding 15 games of last season Liverpool lost on six occasions and drew twice. It was form that sharply conflicted with the astonishing and sustained supremacy that preceded it as Klopp's creation pulverized English football on a weekly basis. They won the Premier League with seven games to spare. The season before they were phenomenal too, losing just once. All told, they accumulated 196 points across the two campaigns.

Given this extraordinary spree it is understandable that this tailing off was excused, perhaps even overlooked. The job was done. The title was won. So naturally they took their foot slightly off the pedal, right?

The Reds are 7/2 to retain their Premier League crown

Jordan Henderson, Liverpool captain.jpg

Psychological wear and tear

Too few of us, however, questioned whether these uncharacteristic results suggested that Liverpool had peaked; that two years of constantly striving for rarefied excellence and the ultra-focus and exhausting drive needed to achieve it was beginning to tax the players responsible.

It is the same inevitable lag that hit Manchester City and though the Blues have picked up of late it inhibited them for just shy of 18 full months. Might the same prolonged reset be required at Anfield?

Some balance is needed here. In a world severely complicated by Covid it is wholly unrealistic to expect any side to dominate no matter their brilliance. It is relevant too that Liverpool topped the table going into this year and that just prior to Christmas they walloped Crystal Palace 7-0.

By every conceivable metric they remain the most feared team in the country

So in summary it could be said that Liverpool have lost 5% of their prowess and that's been the case for quite some time now. It has reduced them from an incredible side to 'merely' being extremely good.

This Sunday Liverpool head to Old Trafford for a fourth round FA Cup clash with Manchester United. With the fixture offering up scant excitement in recent years the 3/1 for under 1.5 goals jumps out.

A dwindling fear factor

That is not to be dismissive of Liverpool's problems and at this juncture there is a real possibility they are anything but trivial. To highlight one such example it was until recently par for the course that Klopp's 'mentality monsters' would prevail over teams in the bottom half of the table. Either it would be a routine victory from the get-go or Salah and co would strike late-on, breaking the spirit of rival fan-bases in the process.

It is a priceless trait that now eludes them with draws against Brighton, Fulham, West Brom and Newcastle intimating that when not firing on all cylinders Liverpool are no longer capable of being 'flat-track bullies'. It's pertinent that Manchester City maintained this habit during their own struggles and ultimately the ability to easily dispense with inferior opposition can be the difference between a title chase and settling for top four.

Prior to their cup commitment Liverpool face Burnley at Anfield on Thursday evening. They are 6/1 to rectify their issue with a comfortable 3-0 win

Forwards going backwards

According to the majority view the chief reason for the Reds' failure to kill sides off lies at the feet of their stuttering strikers but perhaps too much blame is allocated here.

Currently, Mo Salah is enduring a relative drought by his exceptional standards but he has gone four-plus games without finding the net in each of his previous two seasons and still managed to bag a combined 41 goals in the league alone. Right now, he tops the goal-scoring chart.

With Roberto Firmino there is admittedly a concern and his performances have been poor. He's gone from being a forward who rarely scored but who was pivotal to his team's successes to a forward who rarely scores and presently hardly creates chances either. He has carved out just 10 in his last 13 games and his many detractors who used to be so very wrong about the Brazilian are now ever so slightly right.

Yet when taken as a trio - with Sadio Mane obviously thrown into the mix - Liverpool's front three have scored 24 goals so far. Last term they had converted 23 at the same stage.

Crucially, the Reds have scored nine fewer goals in the league than last season and the chief issue resides elsewhere. Other players are no longer chipping in, namely the midfielders.

The Reds are 5/2 to continue their goal drought at Old Trafford in the away team over/under market

Roberto Firmino, Liverpool.jpg

Remodelling a masterpiece

Which can be explained predominantly by Liverpool's cruel injury plight in defence. Granted the absence of Virgil Van Dijk - though undeniably substantial - has been somewhat over-played when it's considered that in the 14 games since the infamous incident at Goodison, Klopp's men have conceded just eight times. In the 14 games prior - with the Dutch colossus very much present - they let in 23.

But with Joe Gomez and Joel Matip also AWOL this has necessitated the German coach restructuring his side, drafting Fabinho into the back-line and sometimes Jordan Henderson too. Consequently, their centre-circle craft and graft has been greatly missed.

Liverpool's rhythm has suffered with intuitive movement notably impacted. Their varied means of attack has been reduced. The midfield has too often looked a touch predictable and workmanlike.

In ensuring that his side don't leak goals Klopp has isolated his front three and left them looking toothless as a result. Most worrying of all, it's left him at a loss. "There's no easy explanation," he said after drawing another blank against United last Sunday.

United's propensity to score late means the 5/1 available on a draw/United in the half time/full time market is worth considering

United and Old Trafford

It's bizarre to acknowledge how much this season has flip-flopped.

Back in early November, United were deemed to be in crisis with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's job hanging by a thread. Liverpool meanwhile were distancing themselves from a 7-2 defeat at Villa Park and making another charge at the title.

Two months on it's United who sit pretty atop the table and they will be fancying their chances when hosting their old nemesis this weekend in the cup. It's bizarre, it really is, but that's where we are now.

With both teams priced at 13/8 for the win it's surely the wisest option to plump for the home side based on current form.

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