TO BE more specific, does it really matter if six of the last ten clashes involving Manchester United and Liverpool have ended in low scoring draws when the first of them in 2016 had Karius and Sturridge lining up for the Merseysiders, while United had Daley Blind in their starting XI with Mourinho scowling on the touchline?
What relevance do these individuals have to this weekend’s encounter at Old Trafford? Very little, it has to be said.
Even so, it matters, this pattern of disappointing stalemates, as too does the 1.4 goals-per-game ratio we’ve endured across the ten bore-fests. It certainly explains why it’s hard to get too revved up about this forthcoming contest that is widely considered one of the most compelling on the footballing calendar. It has form for underwhelming.
Here’s another poser, related in a way to the first. How much importance can be placed on a narrative that surrounds a game? Should Manchester City beat Crystal Palace on Saturday lunchtime it would only take a Liverpool win here for the Blues to be officially crowned as champions. So, does that mean United will go that extra mile to ensure it doesn’t happen?
No, of course not. It would be hopelessly naïve to suggest that either team has an additional five per cent reserved for one-off incentives when facing down a hated foe. Yet contradicting this, it does raise a suspicion or two that the home side will be more amenable to grabbing a point, if only to put off this inevitable coronation for another week.
If truth be told, assessing a fixture’s track record and second-guessing motivations can act as useful entry points to gain a better understanding of what potentially lies ahead, but linger on them for too long and they will tie you on knots.
Instead, then, let’s focus for a while on Liverpool and their ongoing decline into ordinariness, not that this line of enquiry is any more straightforward. Indeed, trying to make sense of this current stuttering beast is akin to nailing jelly to a wall.
It’s the defence: that’s what was initially blamed for their startling regression as the losses and insipid draws began to accumulate past an acceptable amount for a title winner perhaps suffering from a touch of complacency. Injuries to Virgil Van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez left the recently mighty Reds threadbare at the back and with Trent Alexander-Arnold woefully out of form for a good chunk of the campaign that resulted in clear avenues for opponents to get in behind them. Unquestionably it was the defence.
Only then a new theory emerged, one that pinned the guilt onto misfiring strikers and to this end stats dutifully did the rounds, illustrating that Liverpool were still creating a copious number of chances, but solely Mo Salah was converting them with any degree of regularity. The Egyptian has already surpassed his league total from all of last term and can absolutely hold his head up high. But Firmino? Mane? Up to this point last season Sadio Mane had found the back of the net every 152 minutes. This time out that has drifted to a goal every 305 minutes.
Mo Salah has previously scored three times against the Red Devils and is fancied here to be the first goalscorer at 22/5
But wait, what about the midfield? That’s the latest problem area identified and again statistics lend the shout a good deal of credence. As per Footbal365, Liverpool have the third highest proportion of goals scored by forwards but the third lowest by their midfielders and it’s telling that to this juncture last season Jurgen Klopp’s team boasted 17 different goal-scorers whereas in 2020/21 that has dwindled to just 12. It’s the lack of penetration from the likes of Thiago and Wijnaldum then that’s the root cause of their struggles, along with peripheral talent no longer chipping in.
Except it isn’t that, not exclusively, just like the makeshift defence and wasteful attack cannot be wholly held responsible. Rather, it is a combination of all three failings and if this is frustrating for us, as we attempt to pinpoint a key weakness that Manchester United might exploit so we can tailor our bets accordingly, worry not because there is a fourth concern for the reigning champions, one that the home side are primed to take full advantage of. They can’t stop conceding late goals.
“Teams always have a chance against us,” Andy Robertson candidly admitted at the weekend after Liverpool once again dropped points courtesy of a last-gasp sucker-punch. “They always build in confidence the last 10 minutes and believe they can get something.”
This is true, and furthermore, they do get something. Since succumbing to a late equalizer against Brighton back in November – the game that first turned their slump in performances from a blip to a crisis – Liverpool, have conceded 23 goals. A staggering 43.4% of them have been scored after the 80th minute.
This would be an unfortunate habit to take into any game, a defect that festers in player’s minds and because of this increases the chances of it occurring again. But against United? Against United it is fatal.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have scored 103 goals in total across all competitions this term. Thirty-one of them have been slotted home in the final ten minutes.
To what extent does a fixture’s heritage influence the outcome of a game yet to be played? A bit; enough to offer up some clues at least. But when one side has an ongoing, undermining weak spot and it dovetails perfectly with an opponent’s strength, then we’re really in business.