In an era of increasingly widening inequalities, the Premier League is ahead of the curve. With a clearly demarcated top six emerging across the last few years, the team who eventually lifts the trophy at the end of the season is more likely to be determined by their performances against their five closest rivals.
Manchester United and Liverpool offer the starkest contrast in this regard: in the 2016/17 Premier League season, Liverpool’s strong showing against their top six rivals was enough to earn them a place in the Champions League. Manchester United, by contrast, performed poorly against the league’s elite and could only manage a sixth-place finish.
Of course, both clubs had had their issues against the bottom fourteen sides last season – problems which Jose Mourinho has seemingly ironed out in the course of the summer break and which Jurgen Klopp continues to struggle. But as before, it seems likely that the final arrangement of the top of the Premier League will be decided by the head-to-head performances between the top six.
On the face of it, it will be Mourinho who will be the happier going into the fixture: his team are flying, level on points at the top of the table with their rivals across the city. But Manchester United’s irascible manager will still have a worry at the back of his mind – his club still haven’t played a side higher than 12th in the table at this point. And, for all their record against the clubs towards the lower end of the league, Liverpool humbled a number of the Premier League’s best in the course of the last season.
With the tie finally poised, then, which of these two managers goes into the fixture as the favourite?
Head to Head
Going by the seven matches in which they have faced one another, Jurgen Klopp goes into this match the clear favourite. In those seven meetings, Jose Mourinho has only managed to beat Klopp on one occasion – in the second leg of a Champions League semi-final which Klopp’s Dortmund went into with a 4-1 advantage and ran out eventual 4-3 winners on aggregate against Mourinho’s Real Madrid.
In the Premier League, Klopp remains unbeaten against the Portuguese manager who rivals him for personality. Drawing on both of their meetings in the league last season, their only other encounter came the season before with Liverpool beating a beleaguered Mourinho’s Chelsea as he entered into his infamous final months at the club.
Over the course of their Premier League careers, though, Mourinho carries the edge. Through his two stints at Chelsea and his time at Manchester United, the self-titled ‘Special One’ has played 256 matches with an impressive win percentage ratio of 64.0%. During his tenure at Manchester United, this win percentage has dropped markedly to 53.4%, a figure which is still an improvement upon Klopp’s 50.7% win ratio across his 75 Premier League games to date.
This suggests that, where Klopp can squeeze good results out of his team, Mourinho has more of a long-termism to his game which works itself out over the course of a season. This fixture, then, is more than simply a clash between two teams: it is a struggle between two competing ideologies.
These two ideologies make for entirely diametric approaches to the game of football. For Mourinho, the team is built from the back – sort out your defence and the rest will follow. Klopp, on the other hand, builds his team from the front, developing his own brand of high pressing (labelled gegenpressing) which encourages his players to begin closing down in forward positions.
This difference in tactical approach is reflected in the stats: Klopp’s swashbuckling attacking play has led to Liverpool conceding goals at a rate of 0.72 goals per game contrasted to Manchester United’s more conservative 0.69 under Mourinho. When it comes to goals scored, though, Mourinho still retains the advantage: his Manchester United team scoring at a rate of 1.67 goals per game as opposed to Klopp’s 1.21 goals per game at Liverpool.
Of course, it should be taken into account that, on this season’s form, Mourinho’s United have scored far more heavily than in the previous season with the Reds scoring four goals in a game six times in the space of 8 weeks at the beginning of the season.
That notwithstanding, it appears that Mourinho’s cautious deep block mixed with blistering counter-attack is still in rude health where the Premier League is concerned. The same, it must be said, is less true with Klopp’s high press, the defensive frailties of which have been well-documented in the course of the opening matches this season.
A War of Attrition
In addition to the tactical differences between their teams, Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho can also be distinguished in terms of the players that they favour. Most notably, Mourinho’s squad is currently the second tallest in the Premier League indicating his preference for more physical players.
Physicality, though, comes at a price with the Portuguese coach missing a couple of key players through injury going into Saturday’s game. Both Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini are missing in midfield area, joining Michael Carrick, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo on the injury list.
In the absence of Pogba, one of United’s most creative outlets, Mourinho had turned to Fellaini more often than not, opting to play the ball long up to the tall Belgian who could then bring it down or lay it off to his compatriot Romelu Lukaku. With both Pogba and Fellaini unavailable, the question will be: how will Mourinho approach the game tactically?
For Klopp, his team’s physicality comes in the form of fitness and stamina. There can be little surprise, then, that both Sadio Mane and Adam Lallana are missing to hamstring injuries as the high press begins to take its toll. With Mane’s pace and goal-scoring missing, along with Lallana’s creativity, this is a much less threatening Liverpool than Mourinho might have been expecting.
This is a battle, then, between Mourinho the canny pragmatist and Klopp the ‘big match’ motivator. Will it be United’s cold, hard realism that wins out? Or will idealism push Liverpool over the line?
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