Football Features

No “better time” to play Liverpool? Why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is so confident about Man Utd’s chances

By Harry Edwards

Published: 17:16, 14 January 2021 | Updated: 18:10, 15 January 2021

For the first time since the final day of the 2012/13 season, Manchester United have ended a post-Christmas gameweek top of the Premier League.

It’s been a long and arduous journey for the Red Devils since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, one which has seen four different managers try and, so far fail, to bring a 21st league title to Old Trafford.

Although Man Utd leading the table at this stage hasn’t actually won them anything, it shows the progress they have been quietly making under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

But up next for the Red Devils is a trip to Anfield to face their bitter rivals Liverpool who, incidentally, sit in second place, three points behind Man Utd.

It’s a clash that has fans excited and one that could go some way in deciding where the Premier League title ends in May. While some managers may choose to play down the significance of these games, and any form going into it, Solskjaer has spoken with confidence.

“It’s a brilliant position to be in,” he said after Man Utd’s 1-0 win over Burnley took them top of the league.

“We know we are going to the champions, so we know that it is going to be a difficult game, but we are ready for it. We couldn’t have asked for a better time to play them because we are in great shape and good form.

“These boys are hungry and they want to get better. It’s another test of our character and quality.”

But how right is he? Is this the best time for Man Utd to face Liverpool?

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Recent form

It’s no fluke that Man Utd find themselves top of the Premier League table as the Red Devils currently have the joint-best form in the division over the past five games. They have won four of those previous five outings in the league, drawing only with Leicester City, and it’s a similar case across all competitions, with a defeat to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup the only blemish in five.

It’s form that has been quietly building since Man Utd’s 1-0 defeat to Arsenal at the start of November. That loss left Man Utd in 15th, leading to talks of Solskjaer’s future and whether he would be able to lift the side out of their slump. Since that defeat, Man Utd are unbeaten in 11, the best current run in the league and only bettered overall by Liverpool this season (12).

But Liverpool’s 12-game unbeaten run, following that 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa, was brought to an end at the start of January by a 1-0 loss to Southampton, a result which has summed up the Reds’ recent poor form. Across all competitions, Liverpool have won just three of their past eight games, one of which was a 4-1 win over a very youthful Aston Villa in the FA Cup.

In the league alone, Liverpool are winless in three, with draws against West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United preceding that Southampton defeat. One of the biggest reasons for the slump is due to the Reds’ ill-luck with injuries this season.

Already missing Virgil van Dijk for the rest of the campaign, Liverpool have also been without Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, forcing them to line up with two midfielders at centre-back. In contrast, Man Utd’s biggest injury worry for their first-team is Victor Lindelof, though they do still have Eric Bailly to call upon in his absence.

However, the most important unbeaten run that Liverpool have kept going this season is the one at Anfield. The Reds have still not lost a Premier League home match since April 2017 when Crystal Palace left Anfield with a 2-1 win, 67 games ago.

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Head-to-head stats

While form can sometimes be important in predicting how easy or difficult a game might be, you must also look over the season as a whole, and some key statistics, to get a more transparent picture.

Now that both teams have played an equal amount of games, they can be more fairly compared, and Liverpool do have the slight advantage at both ends of the pitch.

Both sides are averaging at least two goals per game in the Premier League this season, but the Merseyside club boast a slightly better record than their Manchester counterparts (37 goals to 34).

Liverpool have also managed more shots on target than Man Utd at 102 to 101, while their expected goals (31.72 to 27.5) show that Jurgen Klopp’s players have been getting themselves into better goalscoring positions than Solskjaer’s. However, Man Utd have been outperforming their xG slightly more than Liverpool (6.5 to 5.28), showing that Solskjaer’s men are better at finishing their best chances.

Liverpool’s better xG will undoubtedly have come as a result of their players getting into the box more, forcing the goalscoring opportunities. So far this season, Liverpool players have had 583 touches in the opposition box, over 150 more than Man Utd’s 428, and have scored a league-high 34 goals from inside the box as a result.

Klopp’s Reds have also enjoyed better success with their dribbles (184 to 181), but overall Man Utd are more successful in overall duels, winning 50.57% to 47.55%, which will also include tackles and aerial battles.

One of the big reasons for Man Utd’s duel success rate being better will be the form of Harry Maguire at the back, who has won 72 aerial duels in the Premier League, more than any other defender, losing just 22.

But this hasn’t stopped Liverpool from having a better defence. Despite keeping the same number of clean sheets (five), Liverpool have conceded fewer goals than Man Utd (21 to 24), and both are remarkably low considering they have suffered heavy defeats this season.

Unfortunately, both sides are slightly underperforming against their expected goals conceded in the Premier League this season, though the difference for each is less than three.

Key matchups

For all the wonderful stats and data you can, and should use, to analyse football, it will all come down to what happens on the pitch and certain matchups. And it’s no different for Liverpool vs Man Utd.

Possibly the biggest, and also the most obvious, is the battle of defence and attack, which in this game we expect to largely happen down the wings.

That’s not to say the likes of Anthony Martial or Roberto Firmino won’t be doing any damage, or Maguire and Fabinho will not have anything to do. But the full-backs will have their work especially cut out for them.

In the Liverpool corner is arguably the best full-back pairing in Europe right now: Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. It’s a pairing we haven’t actually seen much this season, nor to its full ability, due to injuries, but on their day they are fantastic at both ends of the pitch.

The duo will make sure Man Utd’s own full-back pairing of Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are pinned back as much as possible, joining Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah in the raids down the flanks. But Alexander-Arnold and Robertson will also have to keep an eye on their own defence with Marcus Rashford and (most likely) Mason Greenwood looking particularly dangerous going forward,

These battles can go one of two ways. Either both wings cancel each other out, forcing play through the middle, or they give fans one of the most open games in the Premier League, attacking at will.

Regardless of what happens on the wing, though, the midfield battle is just as important, and both sides have two excellent passers who will be vital in helping them control the game.

For Liverpool it will be Thiago, arguably one of the best midfield passers in the world and one that has unfortunately been robbed from Premier League fans so far due to injury. But the Spaniard has returned to fitness at the perfect time, starting against Southampton and playing 45 minutes in the FA Cup.

Restricted to just 242 minutes in the Premier League so far this season, Thiago is averaging 101.53 passes per 90 minutes, with a remarkable accuracy of 90.48% (failing just 26 of his 273 attempts). And the Spaniard isn’t just passing sideways either, with 51 of his 247 passes being played into the final third.

In a similar role, Man Utd are likely to be reliant on Paul Pogba who, against Burnley, played well alongside Nemanja Matic as the deeper two midfielders in Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1. Now, Pogba doesn’t match up against Thiago in that he is a more attack-minded player, but the Frenchman’s pass accuracy of 82.77% should not be sneered at. He also averages 62.21 passes per 90 minutes, though again that is significantly lower than Thiago’s due to the role he has often played.

The final battle we have chosen to look at is Georginio Wijnaldum vs Bruno Fernandes. Again, these two are completely different players, but this battle is more about how Wijnaldum deals with Fernandes.

Of the Liverpool midfielders, Wijnaldum is the one most likely to be handed the task of marking Fernandes, helping Klopp’s makeshift backline. But it hasn’t been easy to keep the Portuguese quiet, with Fernandes being directly involved in a goal in 11 of his 17 Premier League appearances so far. Burnley did manage to stop Fernandes in midweek, but a depleted Liverpool defence may have more problems, especially if the rest of the team decide to attack.

Overall, Solskjaer might be onto something. It’s not going to be an easy game and, if we’re being cynical of course there are better times to play Liverpool, but this might be Man Utd’s best opportunity to end a four-game winless run against the Reds.