Penalty debate, the defence & a long break – 5 key questions ahead of Liverpool vs. Man United

It’s a fixture one always look towards at the start of every season and the first encounter arrives on Sunday with Liverpool aiming to leapfrog Man United at the top, and there’s a lot to ponder.

Jurgen Klopp‘s men have been a shadow of their champion self in recent weeks, picking up just two points from an available nine to allow United to move ahead of them at the top of the table.

It presents what many would have thought to be an unlikely state of affairs at the start of 2020/21, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side No. 1 and the Reds No. 2 heading into the game.

It leaves plenty to think about for Klopp and Co. but while it has not been smooth sailing for Liverpool, as the old adage says form goes out of the window in a derby.

But there remains question marks over the centre-back situation, how Liverpool will react after a long break and if Fortress Anfield can come up trumps once again.


Thiago to help inject the spark?

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 30, 2020: Liverpool’s Thiago Alcantara during the FA Premier League match between Newcastle United FC and Liverpool FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It’s no secret that the Reds have lacked creative impetus since the drubbing of Crystal Palace prior to Christmas, with only one goal finding the back of the net in three league outings.

The trip to Aston Villa to meet a youth side in the FA Cup did little to inspire and ease any apprehension over the issue and now an injection of drive is required.

While part of the midfield trio who struggled at Southampton, Thiago has now got 135 minutes under his belt in the last two games and is slowly but surely finding the all-important rhythm Klopp stresses over.

The Spaniard’s introduction at Villa Park saw him make an instant impact having been on the front foot, eager to deceive the opposition and lay claim to two pre-assists.

Thiago is all but certain to start at Anfield, for what would be his home debut, and his world-class capabilities give Liverpool the much-needed X-factor which made his signature so lucrative.

Xherdan Shaqiri could be another the manager turns to in a move to reignite his attack, but there can be no overlooking that this could be where Thiago‘s game-changing credentials see United given a show at their expense.


Will Man United’s penalty record steal the spotlight?

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Friday, January 1, 2020: Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes (L) and Anthony Martial during the New Year's Day FA Premier League match between Manchester United FC and Aston Villa FC at Old Trafford. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government putting Greater Manchester in Tier 4: Stay at Home during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It has dominated the pre-match debate, with Klopp trading barbs with ex-referee Mark Clattenburg and Marcus Rashford describing his side’s approach in the penalty area as “savvy.”

The numbers don’t lie, with United having been awarded 30 penalties since the start of the 2018/19 season while Liverpool have had 30 since Klopp’s arrival in 2015.

The boss was well within his rights to bring up the disparity after the Reds’ defeat at Southampton, but Liverpool will need to be cautious in not allowing referee Paul Tierney to have reason to add to their tally.

A man in the middle who has blow the whistle for five spot-kicks to United and none to Liverpool in his last 10 games in charge.

Bruno Fernandes is lethal from the spot, scoring 15 from 16 during his time at United but the Reds cannot allow such a narrative to steer them away from the task at hand.

And to do so the Reds’ centre-back pairing of choice will need to be focused and on their toes.


Will Matip be fit to feature?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 27, 2020: Liverpool's Joel Matip goes off with an injury, replaced by substitute Rhys Williams, during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and West Bromwich Albion FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It has been the talking point since the Reds’ last league fixture; will Joel Matip be in contention to start against United?

With the visitors having the pace to burn and a knack for playing in-behind the opposition’s defence, Liverpool’s centre pairing needs to be able to match such traits.

Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips struggle in that department, with their abilities not entirely suited to Klopp’s style of play, while Jordan Henderson‘s presence can take away from the midfield battle.

It leaves the Reds sweating on Matip’s fitness, who the manager said was “close” prior to his presence in training on Friday, but having shown a reluctance in the past to rush a return from injury, doubt remains over the No. 32’s presence.

The likelihood is that it could be left to the last opportune moment for a decision to be made, but there’s no questioning that Liverpool would be stronger for Matip in the XI next to Fabinho.


Can Liverpool be better after the long break?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 6, 2020: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp reacts during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Wolverhampton Wanderers FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It’ll have been nine days from Liverpool’s last game to kickoff against United, a period of time which will do little to ease the nerves of the Reds faithful.

That is because from 2016/17 to 2019/20, Liverpool have lost 42.9 percent of their games after a break of between eight and 11 days. A somewhat alarming figure.

This comes from a small sample size of 13 games, but the trend itself is one which makes you stop and take notice – one which was present in the 1-1 draw against West Brom which arrived eight days after the win at Palace.

Such a break disrupts the aforementioned rhythm that Klopp holds dear and suggests when the Reds’ backs are against the wall they return better results – and the hope will be that their training block will not be in vain.

United, on the other hand, will have had five days to prepare, and it is vital Liverpool make use of their fresher legs and start to turn their fortunes around after an extended break.


Anfield advantage to prove decisive?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, December 1, 2020: Liverpool's Curtis Jones celebrates after scoring the first goal during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Liverpool FC and AFC Ajax at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It is a contest between the Premier League‘s best home side and the division’s best travelling team, and one will likely take a hit to their credentials.

Their records are currently equal in such respective feats this season, with seven wins and one draw to their name – where United have not lost on the road in the league since this very same fixture in January 2020.

A run which is then pitted against a 67-game Anfield league unbeaten record, so choose your fighter.

There will, of course, be no fans present with the UK in lockdown, but Anfield providing the backdrop could be just the answer to the Reds’ current run of form.

It’s a fortress and on Sunday it will witness a contest where Liverpool have a point to prove, and they have not previously backed down from such a task so why would they start now.

There is a team to topple and a title to retain, get into these Reds.