Sunday afternoon sees a pair of old Bundesliga rivals reunited as Liverpool welcome Manchester United to Anfield, with reports on Thursday suggesting that a defeat for Louis van Gaal could put him under considerable pressure in his position as Red Devils manager—providing a stark contrast to Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.
Citing the Times, Mark Critchley of the Independent suggests that "United officials are becoming increasingly concerned by the club’s form and the prospect of failing to qualify for next season’s Champions League."
With United just three points ahead of the Reds heading into the weekend's Premier League action, defeat for Van Gaal's side would see their grip on the league's top four continue to loosen, while boosting the chances of a major rival.
"Van Gaal’s future is not dependent on beating Liverpool at Anfield this weekend," Critchley continues, "but a defeat would test executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward’s faith in the 64-year-old manager."
Having met four times while in charge of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund respectively, Van Gaal and Klopp are equal in terms of results, with two wins apiece, but how will this north-west derby play out on Merseyside?
To gauge the atmosphere of the managerial skirmish, it would be wise to focus on the history Van Gaal and Klopp shared during their time in the Bundesliga.
At the helm of Bayern between 2009 and 2011, Van Gaal arrived a year after Klopp had been appointed as Dortmund manager, in 2008. Having proved himself at Ajax, Barcelona and the Dutch national team, Van Gaal joined Bayern as a highly experienced managerial talent, with six league titles and one Champions League title to his name.
Contrasting that to Klopp, as the young, relatively unproven upstart just one year into his reign at the Westfalenstadion, Van Gaal had the upper hand; Klopp guided his side to sixth in the Bundesliga in 2008/09, having spent the previous seven years in charge at Mainz.
Initially, this proved to be influential, as Bayern defeated Dortmund on both occasions in the 2009/10 season, scoring eight goals and conceding just two.
But as Klopp quickly gained a foothold at BVB, his talented side helped tip the balance, and Dortmund returned the favour in 2010/11 with two wins, and a 3-1 away victory in February all but ended Bayern's hopes of sealing the Bundesliga title.
Klopp's side finished 2010/11 as champions, 10 points above Bayern in third place; by that time, Van Gaal had been sacked.
This title win earned Klopp the undying respect of the Dortmund supporters, and this has translated to his life at Liverpool—something that cannot be said of Van Gaal at United.
This season, Van Gaal has endured widespread criticism that his side plays turgid football, and the Dutchman even agreed with this after this month's 1-0 win over Sheffield United in the FA Cup, telling reporters, including the Telegraph's Pete Oliver, that "there [are] matches where I'm very bored or angry because we are not disorganising our opponent’s defence, but that is football."
In its essence, Van Gaal's admission alludes to his side's lack of attacking verve, with jeers raining from the stands at Old Trafford on a regular basis this season.
This could not be more different at Anfield, with supporters taking to Klopp immediately, and their growing adulation can be heard from the Kop by the game—the deafening roar that erupted following Joe Allen's late equaliser against Arsenal on Wednesday night served as proof of this.
Almost seven years after they first faced off against each other in the Bundesliga, perceptions of Van Gaal and Klopp have morphed. The latter is now seen as the seasoned, widely respected managerial star, and the former has reverted to the role of cantankerous purveyor of non-football.
In equal measure, however, modern managers must win over the media, as legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson attested at a recent TechCrunch event in London, as relayed by Matt Law of the Telegraph:
You have to win twice on a Saturday. You have to win the game and you have to win the press conference. Some managers fail, simply because they lack experience or they’re emotional.
You have to gather yourself. I used to wash my face before a press conference. Sometimes you’re forced to go to the press conference immediately and you have to be thinking quickly about how you deal with it. It’s an important part.
You have to give a message to your fans because they’re watching. They want to see their manager come out with a positive attitude and not a beaten man.
From his first press conference as Liverpool manager, Klopp has enthralled the media with his infectious positivity but, like Ferguson, is also spiky when required. By contrast, the 2015/16 campaign has seen Van Gaal dissolve into the farcical and the juvenile, with BBC Sport reporting how he referred to one journalist as "fat man" following Tuesday night's 3-3 draw with Newcastle United in the Premier League.
The immense pressure on the shoulders of Premier League managers is, by and large, unnecessary, but with scrutiny on Van Gaal largely due to his side's poor performances on the field, his outbursts are bemusing.
This season, for example, the majority of United supporters' ire has stemmed from Van Gaal's persistence with an out-of-form and arguably past-his-prime Wayne Rooney.
The England captain has made 16 league starts out of 21 games so far this season, with only four United players—Juan Mata, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and David De Gea—making more. But as former Liverpool vice-captain Jamie Carragher attested when serving as a pundit for Sky Sports (h/t the Independent) earlier this month, Rooney's performances haven't matched this standing in Van Gaal's squad.
"I just think he's been playing so long now that maybe it's 30 on his birth certificate but in terms of games played he's a 35-year-old player," Carragher explained. "I think for Rooney to answer his critics or show he is still the man to play centre forward for Manchester United he maybe needs a run of 10 games—scoring maybe seven or eight goals."
Having been afforded a lengthy run as United's No. 9 this season, however, Rooney has scored just five goals, while Van Gaal's failure to get the best out of two of the players ostensibly signed to lighten the load on the former Everton man is similarly damning.
Both Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial have been marginalised as a result of Van Gaal's misplaced faith in Rooney, and Mata—regarded by large sections of the Old Trafford support, including B/R's Paul Ansorge, as one of the club's best players—is regularly substituted while Rooney remains on the field.
This is largely due to Van Gaal keeping his faith in a 4-2-3-1 formation this season, and it is this lack of tactical flexibility that could see Klopp gain an advantage on Sunday.
Liverpool have endured centre-forward struggles of their own in 2015/16, with Christian Benteke's lethargic approach to leading the line jarring with the fluid, high-tempo attacking football that Klopp's sides employ. But, unlike Van Gaal, the German is not unwilling to drop his No. 9.
So far under Klopp, Benteke has started just 10 games out of a possible 20 in all competitions, and as with Wednesday night's draw at home to Arsenal, this is typically due to his manager preferring to field another Bundesliga export in Roberto Firmino.
Firmino's versatility and tactical harmony under Klopp's charge has allowed the former Dortmund manager to experiment with formations—while 4-2-3-1 remains his basis, Klopp has employed 4-3-2-1, 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3 setups at points this season, too.
Remarkably, while United's position in the Premier League table at present highlights that, despite his flaws, Van Gaal is stubbornly effective, and with Klopp evidently still learning on the job at Merseyside, the German has secured his side more points than his adversary since taking over at Liverpool.
In the 13 games since Klopp's arrival, United have picked up 18 points, while Liverpool have taken 19.
On form, both managers head into this side knowing this is a must-win, but unlike Van Gaal, defeat for Klopp would be far from disastrous.
Klopp's stock is much higher than Van Gaal's, with the club and its supporters understanding of the building job at hand, while, as Critchley relays, a loss at Anfield could prove costly for Van Gaal.
At different stages of their careers, Van Gaal and Klopp find themselves in contrasting situations: one struggling under the shadow of Ferguson, the other likely to follow him into the realms of the Premier League's legacy managers.
While a strong United side could win on Sunday, Klopp is likely to win the battle of the dugouts.
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