It’s that time of the year again. When Manchester United travel to Anfield, there is never a dull moment (at least up until the game starts). It could well be the biggest clash in the Premier League and although the first instalment has come too soon to decide anything in terms of how the rest of the season could go with absolute certainty, both managers Klopp and Mourinho have the opportunity to lay down the red coloured marker, as they say, ahead of what is going to be an exciting run-up to the new year.
From a Manchester United perspective, this is a game they simply cannot afford to lose not only because it’s Liverpool at the end of the day, but also a defeat at Anfield could trigger another losing spree like the one they suffered following the loss to City at home.
October is undoubtedly the most difficult month for Mourinho’s Red Devils and with the prospect of facing Liverpool at Anfield, Fenerbahce in the Europa League, Chelsea at Stamford Bridge closely followed by another Manchester derby, this time in the league cup, it’s quite easy to imagine why that is the case. Four games in the space of ten days in three different competitions can be daunting from the outside, but there is no doubt that Manchester United have got the squad to deal with the fixture congestion and come out fairly unscathed. But whether they have the mentality to deliver in all four games is a different conversation altogether.
This is probably one of the rare occasions when no side is a clear favorite and there usually is one in these games, for they never are at their very best in the same time (except for a brief period in the 2008/09 season). Liverpool have been very good going forward in 2016, scoring the most goals in the league and have continued in a similar vein – putting 5 past Hull, 4 past Arsenal and Leicester and 3 past Chelsea and have already scored 5 more goals than Manchester United in the league.
United, on the other hand, have not exactly been clinical enough and this has seen them drop points in games they should not have – cue the 1-1 draw against Stoke and the 1-0 defeat versus Feyenoord in Europe where they had a combined amount of 11 attempts on target but only culminated in one goal. This suggests the overwhelming need to improve in that particular area, before they are left behind.
Incidentally, the player with the best shot accuracy (more than 5 shots) at Manchester United happens to be Spaniard Juan Mata. This 27-year old attacking midfielder has managed to direct 88% of his attempts goal-wards which is almost twice the team’s average percentage of shots managed on target. Mata has also been rewarded with goals – he’s already scored twice (from 7 attempts on goal) which is a pretty handsome conversion rate for a midfielder.
It’s not just his record this season that helps his case but it’s also his general showing against Monday’s opposition which could be a huge boost for United going to Anfield. Mata has had a hand in five goals in the last four appearances against the Merseyside team, scoring three including that acrobatic winner two years back and assisting two.
Playing Mata, in preferably the number 10 role, behind the lone forward at Anfield will also mean a shift from Mourinho’s widely expected pragmatist approach to big away games against fellow title contenders and pave the way for a bolder United, which will be welcomed by the fans who have witnessed an awful lot of dire and stifling football in the last three seasons.
Regardless of how United are set up on Monday, Mourinho needs a strong showing at Anfield, for himself, but more so for the players to bring the belief and confidence back that they can go to these places and face a side with momentum and still get a good result. If they can do that with style and attacking football that Juan Mata could offer, the better.