For both Manchester United and Liverpool, the international break will have likely felt like an interminable one. While both clubs began the Premier League season solidly enough, their last outings saw them suffer painful reversals that mean the two great rivals will be desperate to make amends when they clash at Old Trafford on Saturday.
With seven points from three games, Manchester United had seemingly built some solid foundations early in the campaign, even if they were lacking in inspiration and fluidity going forward. But against Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium, they were overwhelmed by a second-half tactical shift from their opponents. Not only was the attack still faltering, but the backline, including goalkeeper Sergio Romero, was crudely exposed.
The performance brought United’s transfer activity this summer back into sharp focus. And the climax of the transfer window a few days later was to bring more scratching of heads. Despite allowing Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Adnan Januzaj to join the likes of Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Angel di Maria in leaving the club, only 19-year-old French forward Anthony Martial was recruited up front. The £36-million transfer fee for a player with just 29 league starts to his name and only 15 total career goals raised eyebrows aplenty and gave rise to accusations that the club had panicked in what had become a desperate search for more firepower to support Wayne Rooney.
But perhaps an even bigger story was David de Gea’s dramatic failed transfer to Real Madrid. With the speculation over his future ongoing, manager Louis van Gaal opted against selecting the club’s Player of the Year for the past two seasons in any of United’s early games this season. Yet with the Spaniard now having to remain at Old Trafford at least until January and likely until the season’s end, he could now be brought back into the fold. The shaky performance last time out of the man who has replaced him will have only helped his cause for a recall. And speaking after keeping a clean sheet for Spain in their Euro 2016 qualifier with Macedonia on Tuesday, the 24-year-old stated he was hoping to feature again for Manchester United.
“I felt good, I really wanted to play,” he said, according to The Guardian. “Now I need to keep working and see if I have some good fortune at my club as well. My future will be the same as now: remain calm, keep working and improving. In concrete terms, enjoy my football. I am happy.”
Liverpool had no such drama on deadline day, having spent significant sums earlier in the summer. Still, plenty of scrutiny remains on the strength and balance of Liverpool’s squad and whether Brendan Rodgers is the man to maximize their talents. Like their next opponents, Liverpool took seven points from their opening three games. And, while they had been far from inspiring in wins over Stoke City and Bournemouth, the long-time problem area had shown signs of improvement on the back of three clean sheets.
Any optimism from that improved performance, however, was ripped apart in a chastening 3-0 home defeat to West Ham. Dejan Lovren endured a particularly challenging afternoon, while Philippe Coutinho earned a red card that rules him out of the clash at Old Trafford. The contest is also unlikely to feature Daniel Sturridge. The England forward, who missed much of last season with a succession of injuries, had originally earmarked the match with Manchester United for a potential comeback. Yet next month is now thought to be a more likely return date.
With the Europa League also getting underway next week, midfielder Lucas Leiva believes the next month could be crucial for Liverpool as they attempt to overcome the loss to West Ham and work toward an improvement on last season’s sixth-placed finish.
“I think this result shouldn't happen but it happens,” he told Liverpool’s official website of the defeat to West Ham. “We just have to move on and learn and hopefully going forward we don't make the same mistakes. That's what we need to do now, we have a busy schedule and this could be an important month for us.”
Prediction: Both teams will know that they can ill afford to suffer a defeat and it could make for a cagey encounter. Liverpool could well approach the match in similar fashion to their most impressive performance so far this season, when they sat back and countered Arsenal to good effect at the Emirates Stadium. But, under Van Gaal, United are far more cautious going forward than Arsenal, which should limit Liverpool’s effectiveness on the break. Despite United being far from scintillating going forward, Liverpool’s defense is vulnerable and Van Gaal appeared to get the better of Rodgers last season.
Predicted score: Manchester United 1-0 Liverpool