Premier League Preview: Acid Test for Manchester United and Liverpool

Alex DunnFeatured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2015

Manchester United's manager Louis van Gaal takes to the touchline before his team's English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Newcastle at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Jon Super/Associated Press

As Old Trafford edges closer to completing its metamorphosis into the "Theatre of Daydreams"—with each passing mention of Louis van Gaal's "process" or "philosophy" pushing another supporter to contemplate whether it's possible to slip into a possession-induced coma—Saturday's tea-time engagement with Liverpool becomes ever more intriguing.

The Telegraph's Mark Ogden surfaced this week from his north-west bunker to lob a grenade replete with a note that described English football's most toxic derby as "just a clash between two fading empires."

Conjuring images of Van Gaal and Brendan Rodgers taking to the Colosseum in ill-fitting loincloths that barely conceal ageing paunches, Ogden's temerity had both sets of supporters in a foaming-around-the-mouth frenzy.

King Louis himself then proceeded to concede to a smattering of Manchester United season-ticket holders that talk of the title was indeed unrealistic, as the Daily Mail reported.

A hiatus provided by an international break is usually a period of inertia, an intermission in the domestic football calendar that allows clubs and their supporters to draw breath, to idly assess that which has passed and to contemplate what could follow. Seemingly, Manchester did not receive the memo.

Wayne Rooney had barely sat down to take in the applause from his England team-mates for breaking Bobby Charlton's goalscoring record, when a hefty handful of the nationals reported him as being the mouthpiece for a player revolt—albeit of the moany rather than Che Guevara variety—spearheaded by a band of disgruntled Manchester United brothers. Michael Carrick was also reportedly in attendance, presumably as extra muscle.

Accusations from camp Carrington ranged from creative players in the squad lamenting being forced to play in straitjackets (presumably this was a metaphorical rather than literal complaint) in the Daily Mail, to anger at the way Rafael was packed off to Lyon via Coventry, reported by the Telegraph. There is also a general disengagement with Van Gaal's training methods, according to the Times.

The club's "video analyst," Max Reckers, has a pretty boring VHS collection by all accounts, as he's not too popular, as noted by the Telegraph, and neither is goalkeeping coach Frans Hoek, as reported by Eurosport.

When Ander Herrera pointedly turns to the Sky Sports cameras on Saturday to reveal a Prince-style "Slave" written across his face, and Juan Mata's sulky right-wing forays are hampered by a pair of handcuffs, we'll know it's all true. Certainly, Rooney thanking Roy Hodgson for the "freedom" he's afforded him, upon raising his bat at fifty not out, via the Daily Mirror, has given conspiracy theorists food for thought.

In the interest of balance, Jonathan Wilson wrote an insightful piece in the Guardian this week, where he talks of how conflict between coaches and players is common in the Netherlands. Whereas a British manager would roll talk of revolt round his mouth like a child might an oyster, before reaching for a pistol, Dutch counterparts are programmed to be more relaxed on the issue of frank discussions.

"Debate has been part of Dutch football from at least the days of Rinus Michels and his "conflict principle" by which players were encouraged to critique one another's performances, seemingly on the logic that every pearl begins with a little grit of irritation," said Wilson.

In reality, the conflict principle is ostensibly a European version of the famous Brian Clough quote: "We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right."

 

Manchester United v Liverpool—Saturday at 5.30 p.m. BST

Regardless, Saturday's game is certainly a strange one. In the close season, with both United and Liverpool undeniably in a period of transition, no one quite knew what to expect from English football's two most decorated clubs, fallen on relative hard times.

Nigh on identical seven-point returns from the opening four matches would not normally be cause for a root-and-branch review, yet put a Scouser and a Mancunian in the same room and the only thing they would agree on is that all is not quite right at their respective clubs.

Liverpool's 3-0 Anfield reverse to West Ham United before the break was as costly as it was insipid, with Philippe Coutinho's red card ruling him out of Saturday's game.

A repeat performance of such rank abjectness in Manchester would almost certainly resurface talk of Jurgen Klopp, who this week told German publication Bild (h/t Liverpool Echo) that he is relaxed but open to the idea of returning to the dugout. Whether Rodgers is as relaxed about Klopp's plans is a matter of conjecture.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 29:  Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool is consoled by Brendan Rodgers, manager of Liverpool after receiving a red card during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and West Ham United at Anfield on August 29, 2015 in
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Rodgers will point to his side's dominance at Arsenal, at least for 45 minutes—when only profligacy prevented them from turning a point into all three at the Emirates—as cause for (quiet) optimism, even if recent travels to Old Trafford have been unforgiving.

Manchester United have won eight of their last nine home matches against Liverpool in all competitions, boasting a 67 per cent win rate from the previous six meetings between the two sides, as per WhoScored.com

Having studied Swansea's win over United at the Liberty Stadium, Rodgers will almost certainly ask Christian Benteke to fulfil the same role Bafetimbi Gomis played to such devastating effect in isolating himself against Daley Blind.

When in possession, the Dutchman provides a perfect counterbalance to the immeasurably improved, but still distribution-challenged, Chris Smalling. When Blind has to defend against power and pace in one-on-one situations, though, he is the Achilles' heel that most regularly flares in a back four that otherwise has been highly impressive.

Blind's performance for the Netherlands in their 3-0 defeat to Turkey in midweek is unlikely to have boosted flagging confidence in his ability to play at centre-half.

In a remarkable turnaround since his protracted move to Real Madrid went south, David De Gea is now in contract talks with United, via the BBC, and likely to start on Saturday. Offstage, Ed Woodward and Florentino Perez are at the hair-pulling and Chinese burn stage of any fractious relationship.

Anthony Martial could make one of the most eagerly awaited debuts of the season so far, with his eye-watering £36 million fee, potentially rising to £58 million, having been branded "ridiculous" and indicative of the "crazy world we are in"—by the man who signed him, Van Gaal, as per the Guardian.

Cheers, boss.

Invariably, unless he can transcend Thierry Henry's (the player he's been likened to by some) output circa 1999-2007 with his first touch, he'll be labelled a flop.

Maybe a more reasoned approach would be to look at Luke Shaw's performances this season, in comparison to last, and conclude it can take a little time to find one's feet.

 

Crystal Palace v Manchester City—Saturday at 3 p.m. BST 

Michael Sohn/Associated Press

Such was the incredulity at United's willingness to pay £36 million for Martial, Manchester City's quiet £55 million acquisition of Kevin De Bruyne—which in the process makes him the second-most expensive transfer in British football history—passed with comparatively little comment.

There's something ruthlessly efficient about City at present. Having been accused of standing still last season and buying badly, this time around business has been conducted at the top table—as hefty cheques have been signed with the unerring conviction of a Sergio Aguero finish. Signing Nicolas Otamendi required more than change found down the back of the sofa, too.

With City nothing less than immaculate to date, De Bruyne's first task will be to get into Manuel Pellegrini's XI.

Jesus Navas may just need a favour from his namesake if he's not to be the man who ultimately makes way for the Belgian, but the winger is a favourite of Pellegrini. His natural inclination to hug the touchline, which in turn frees up David Silva and Raheem Sterling to roam and interchange more centrally, has been a key facet of City's armoury this season. 

If De Bruyne does start, he can expect a baptism of fire at Selhurst Park. Crystal Palace are second in the table to their visitors on merit, which, considering two of their four matches have been against Arsenal and Chelsea, is all the more remarkable.

City head to the capital on the back of 10 successive Premier League victories, but having themselves won five of their last six matches, Palace will be far from cowed on Saturday.

 

Everton v Chelsea—Saturday at 12.45 p.m. BST 

The "John Stones derby" gets the weekend's Premier League fixtures underway in earnest at Goodison Park.

Those close to Jose Mourinho will have reminded him of the adage "it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," but if his back four defend on Saturday anything like they have done thus far (they've conceded two goals or more in four straight league games for the first time since 2006), it's almost certain he'll spend most of the afternoon making goo-goo eyes at Everton's No. 5.

If he resorts to blowing kisses and making Gareth Bale-style heart shapes, the fourth official may have to get involved.

While Saido Berahino has gone full-on Arthur Scargill (not sure they'd get on) since his switch to Tottenham Hotspur was thwarted, Stones, if anything, has seen his stock rise both during and since the close of the transfer window.

He's been largely imperious in his performances, for club and country, in the aftermath of Chelsea's ill-gotten pursuit. At 22, the assured calm he conveys on the field has seemingly been mirrored off it.

We may only be four games in, but Mourinho will be acutely aware he needs to get Chelsea back on track immediately, having overseen their worst start to a season in 20 years.

They travel to Merseyside some eight points behind leaders Manchester City and in the knowledge Everton have beaten them in four of the last six encounters played at Goodison Park.

From the lacklustre Eden Hazard to the broken Branislav Ivanovic to the laboured Cesc Fabregas to the angry (not in a good way) Diego Costa, Mourinho has issues all over the pitch.

It's feared Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois' knee injury, relayed via the Daily Mirror, could sideline him for the best part of two months, with £8 million summer signing Asmir Begovic now given an unexpected opportunity to prove he didn't move to west London simply to collect £200 and pass go.

Roberto Martinez's men are hardly flying themselves and boast just two victories from their last eight Premier League matches, drawing a blank in their previous two.