It would have seemed inconceivable just a few months ago, but when Liverpool and Manchester United meet at Anfield on Sunday, it may be the visitors, not the hosts, who have the best chance of finding weaknesses in their defense. opponent.
Liverpool’s recent successes under Jurgen Klopp have been built on solid foundations. But they were plunged into crisis when they lost Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez to serious knee problems earlier this season and their problems were made worse by an injury to Joel Matip in the recent 1-1 draw. with West Brom.
Matip remains in doubt for Sunday’s game and if he misses a chance it will be Liverpool’s fourth in a row without a senior center-back available. They welcome United to Anfield after going three Premier League games without a win for the first time since May 2018.
Their stammering form saw Ole Gunnar’s Solskjaer side open a three-point lead in the Premier League. And although Liverpool’s defensive problems hampered them, United’s contrasting form owes a lot to defensive improvement.
Klopp looks for a defensive solution
It is to Jurgen Klopp’s great credit that Liverpool were still top of the Premier League after two months without Van Dijk and Gomez. But Matip’s injury made his job even more difficult and now Manchester United is watching the rest.
Klopp has tried three different center-back combinations in the three games since Matip limped at Anfield last month.
His immediate response against West Brom was to throw at academy graduate Rhys Williams. The 19-year-old has made all six of Liverpool’s Champions League group matches this season, either as a substitute or a starter, but his appearance against West Brom was only his second in the Premier League.
So it’s no surprise that he had some rough times.
Williams is considered an exciting prospect at Liverpool, but prior to this season his only senior experience had come on a brief loan spell with Kidderminster out of the league. He handled the progression impressively, but it would be hard to expect much more from him in the short term.
Klopp opted for a little more experienced Nathaniel Phillips in Liverpool’s next game against Newcastle, and while the Reds kept a clean sheet at St James’ Park, the 23-year-old didn’t do enough to keep his place in the squad against Southampton five days later.
Instead, Klopp used Jordan Henderson at center-back. It wasn’t the first time he had played it. In fact, he shone in the post at the Club World Cup last season. But he was partly responsible for Danny Ings’ winner at St Mary’s and his presence was missed in midfield, where Liverpool were overpowered by industrious hosts.
Liverpool could add yet another center-back to their ranks before the January transfer window ends, but where would they be this season without Fabinho?
The Brazilian has been their only constant in position in recent months, starting Liverpool’s last 11 games in all competitions alongside a series of different partners and serving as the glue for a makeshift defense together.
Its influence is visible in the statistics. Fabinho ranks among Liverpool’s best players in tackles, interceptions, clearances, jumps and blocks in the Premier League season. Its shape was the most important factor in limiting the damage of their injury crisis.
That’s quite a feat for a central midfielder who had only served as center-back a few times before this season, and Liverpool will need him to be at their best against Manchester United again on Sunday – especially if Matip stays away with Van Dijk and Gomez.
Bailly’s return strengthens Man Utd
As Klopp continues to search for defensive solutions, Solskjaer hopes he has found one.
Eric Bailly has had an unsuccessful start to the season, marking his long-awaited return to the side with an error-ridden performance in Manchester United’s 6-2 loss to Tottenham.
But his rust in that game was perhaps forgivable considering it was his first Premier League start since February – and his first at Old Trafford since April of the previous year. Injury issues have been a lingering theme of the Ivorian’s time at United and soon he was sidelined again.
But Bailly has always had the potential to be successful at Old Trafford – in fact, United’s win rate is considerably higher in the games he started than in those he hasn’t since debuting in 2016. – and he certainly delivered that potential. since his last return to form before Christmas.
Between the Carabao Cup victory over Everton on December 23 and the Premier League victory over Aston Villa on New Years Day, Bailly started four straight games for the first time since September 2017.
United have won three of those games, leading to the other, with Bailly impressing throughout, his exceptional moment against Villa at Old Trafford, when he heroically blocked a Keinan Davis shot in the dying seconds to keep the United 2-1 lead.
A vital intervention which earned him the recognition of his teammates, who assailed him in celebration after the final whistle, and that of his manager. “His physique, pace and bravery are truly second to none,” Solskjaer said at his post-match press conference.
These qualities have unfortunately worked against Bailly in the past. He injured himself while throwing himself into challenges that other players would avoid. At just 26 years old, his career was once cut short by hamstring, shoulder, ankle, knee and thigh problems.
But he shone again in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Burnley, meaning United have kept four clean sheets in the six games they have played since returning to action, and his performance at Turf Moor has provided further proof that he is a more suitable partner for Harry Maguire than Victor Lindelof.
Indeed, in addition to being brave, dominant and strong in the challenge, Bailly possesses a formidable pace – an attribute that other center-backs United lack. “If he stays in shape he cements his place,” said Sky Sports expert Gary Neville on Tuesday. “Maguire seems more comfortable around him with his pace.”
Whether Bailly is back for good remains to be seen. His history of injuries calls for caution. But his pace will certainly come in handy when Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane show up in United defense on Sunday. His presence, in what is now a problematic position for Liverpool, could even give the visitors the advantage.
Watch Liverpool vs Manchester United live on Sky Sports Premier League HD from 4pm on Super Sunday; kick off is 4:30 p.m.