Returnees, absentees and cooling a cauldron – how Liverpool can make the most of their trip to Old Trafford

The nature of the contest and its cast may be trickier to predict than on many previous occasions, but Liverpool will know they can tick some big – and new – boxes, whatever the context, come 4.30pm on Sunday afternoon.

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It feels a tad picky – perhaps even spoilt – to be making such a point. But, then again, marginal gains are what we – and Jürgen Klopp in particular – want to be all about. That’s what can make all the difference for us all.

There aren’t many hurdles the Merseysiders have yet to fly over under the German. Winning at Old Trafford is one of the few, though. That is the enticing target this weekend sets. The wider set of skills that doing so often requires arguably represents a more meaningful marker, however.

The consistency with which Liverpool have achieved results in a variety of different contexts and under notable pressure over the last year or so is testament to both their great collective progress and level-headedness. Arguably, though, taking three points on Sunday from what can be expected to be a highly-charged Old Trafford would represent another step forwards.


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Put simply, the primary reason for this is that the Reds haven’t won at the home of either of their two most intense local rivals in the Premier League since Sadio Mané’s late winner at Goodison Park in December 2016. That stat doesn’t change if you factor Manchester City into that list, which feels more than justifiable in 2019.

These tend to be the hottest atmospheres that the Anfield side come up against over the course of a Premier League season. They are certainly capable of neutralising them. Indeed, they have only lost one of the five games at either Old Trafford or across Stanley Park since – a 2-1 defeat at the former in March 2018. But cooling such cauldrons – at least partly – before imposing your game on the hosts and beating them represents a step further.

That, of course, is much easier said than done. It is quite sensible to defend one’s own ground before attacking the opposition’s in such high-pressure circumstances. Stalemate often results. But with the blend of attributes – and experiences – now acquired by Klopp’s side they now feel better stationed to do so than previously.

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They have gone to Bayern Munich and won since the last time either of these two fixtures were played, for instance. The fact they have already gone to a place like Stamford Bridge and won in 2019/20 also feels highly beneficial, especially given the late storm they had to weather.

Similarly stony ground has now been covered. The slightly more jagged edges presented by the likes of this weekend’s destination now feel like less of a giant leap.

On the ‘edge’ topic, it feels like Liverpool have slightly more of one going forward at present than they did at the same stage of last season. Slightly less defensively tight? Maybe. But it has certainly represented a worthy balance thus far. And it’s one that we now know can be adapted.

Something that brings us onto the topic of personnel. And it feels a hot one. That’s because both Alisson Becker and Joël Matip – fresh from the signing of his new five-year contract – could well be back, while Mohamed Salah looks like he should be sufficiently recovered from the knock sustained late against Leicester.

The reintroduction of those first two could make the backline notably more water-tight. An exciting thought given Adrián and Dejan Lovren’s recent contributions have been firmly within the ‘solid’ category.

Salah, meanwhile, can make the pitch feel that bit bigger for the Reds’ midfielders in possession and is another reason United may well choose to station themselves deep when they don’t have the ball. Whether that will be a help or hindrance is perhaps debatable.

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However, on turnovers, particularly if one follows a Harry Maguire venture forward – and thus out of his inside-left defensive station – the Egyptian will be as keen and able as anyone to burst into any space left behind.

The likely return of the relative dynamism of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw in the full-back positions represents a considerable boost for the hosts given that potential pattern. Just how much that will sweeten the sourness of David de Gea’s probable absence will be interesting to observe.

While Paul Pogba remaining out also removes a big threat in the central-third, Anthony Martial’s availability means a gameplan based around soaking up pressure and then utilising the pace of the likes of the Frenchman, Marcus Rashford and Daniel James further up the pitch looks all the more logical for Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson will have to be as balanced as ever.

Managing that threat and – in the appropriate moments – maximising our own, appears the most likely route to the most satisfying of marginal gains.

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