Stephen Tudor takes an early look at the betting on Manchester United v Liverpool this Sunday and says the hosts are good value to beat the champions...
"Liverpool’s reliance on their front three is pertinent when assessing Manchester United’s rise to prominence because sharing out the goals is one of their biggest strengths."
As afternoon turned to evening on October 4th last year it would have taken a very foolhardy soul to predict that Manchester United would finish so far ahead of Liverpool this season. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men had just been thrashed 6-1 at Old Trafford and, three games into the Premier League season, the Norwegian's demise was widely predicted.
As for Jurgen Klopp's newly-crowned champions it was business as usual, with maximum points on the board from their opening exchanges as they continued to dispatch all-comers in typically ruthless fashion. Unsurprisingly they were short-priced favourites to retain their title as they headed to Villa Park in fine spirits.
We all know what happened next and it serves little purpose to rehash the Reds' decline and the reasons for it. It's been startling at times, so let's leave it at that.
But as this campaign turns into the home straight and Klopp's neutered 'Mentality Monsters' head to the home of their historical foe this weekend, attempting to keep alive a top four push, now is the time to ask some big questions.
Is this just a one-season implosion by Liverpool largely brought about by injuries? Or are we witnessing something more substantial?
And if the latter is true, and we accept that United are in glowing health at present with a platform to improve further, then we must ask if another power swing is imminent between these behemoths of the game. Might Manchester once again become the dominant force in this eternal duel?
It's a distinct possibility that would have been unimaginable just a few months ago. This Sunday's clash will tell us more.
Liverpool v Liverpool
All season long comparisons have been made between last year's ferociously brilliant, all-conquering side and the present incarnation that is a shadow of its former self. Frankly, these comparisons have been redundant, simply illustrating a sharp downward trajectory we've all seen with our own eyes.
Perhaps now though a like-for-like is relevant and furthermore revealing, what with Liverpool stabilizing in recent weeks and picking up some decent results as key players such as Trent Alexander-Arnold rediscover their form. Perhaps now we can really start to gauge what has changed between then and now, injuries aside.
In their last 12 games the Reds have picked up 14 points, a terrible return by their standards. In the corresponding 12 games of last season they accrued exactly double that.
At surface level this can be explained away by a poorer defensive record - seven clean sheets to three - that is logical due to their long-term absences.
Up front however, a fascinating detail emerges.
In their last 12 fixtures - that led to six defeats - Liverpool took nine more shots overall than last term's equivalent. This suggests that Liverpool still maintain a goal-threat, arguably greater than ever. Here's the kicker though: they scored nine fewer.
All of which squarely points the finger at the Reds' misfiring front-line and a wastefulness that has been immensely costly for much of the campaign. Firmino looks spent and Mane too often selfish in dangerous areas.
It is a situation that has been exacerbated by a lack of goals from elsewhere in the team. Just 16% of their league goals this season have been converted by midfielders or defenders.
United v United
Liverpool's reliance on their front three is pertinent when assessing United's improvement because sharing out the goals is one of their biggest strengths.
Last season, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood scored 44 league goals between them. This time out, that has nose-dived to 19, with Martial in particular, struggling for form.
Others though have stepped up, most notably Bruno Fernandes with 16 goals and 11 assists, while all told, nine different midfielders and defenders have got onto the scoresheet.
The 13-time Premier League champions have notched eight more than at this stage last season, a consequence of being multifaceted and a more complete package.
Since taking the reins at Old Trafford, Solskjaer has been belittled as some sort of caretaker; a temporary solution in lieu of a genuinely elite coach. Perhaps after this season, that disparaging take can finally be readdressed.
In his three years at the club he has taken them to a sixth, third and now very likely second-place finish and all while off-loading the deadwood and building a squad of real substance and quality. There are foundations in place now and, with a successful summer of recruitment, who knows what might be feasible.
Klopp was never going to be all-smiles this season, with his team mired in crisis, but even so, his muted demeanour is concerning. Last week he was unforgivably thrown under a bus by Liverpool's owners as he faced flak for their Super League aspirations. For a manager's position, such things can be as impactful as consistently poor results. Should the Reds fail to secure a Champions League berth, and fail to bring in top-class alternatives for an attack in need of a major refresh in the summer, then who knows what lies ahead.
That though is resorting to speculation, which is beneath us. What we can say for sure is that only time will tell whether United usurp Liverpool but right now the stability and potential lies up the M62.
Once more unto the breach
United go into this one 13-games unbeaten and with a young striker in Mason Greenwood who's in a rich vein of goal-scoring form. In his last four league appearances the teenager has scored every 72 minutes and he will constantly be looking for space between Andy Robertson and Ozan Kabak.
Greenwood's movement could well be rewarded via through-balls courtesy of Fernandes who will be in his element should Fabinho be stationed as a makeshift centre-back. Don't discount the possibility of a penalty deciding the contest. Spot-kicks are habitually given in this fixture and it's telling that only West Brom have conceded more than Liverpool in 2020/21. By contrast, United have been awarded eight, a joint high alongside Leicester.
Late drama can also be anticipated. The visitors have been breached on 10 occasions this term in the final 10 minutes while last-gasp goals have been a trademark of Solskjaer's side from the get-go.
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