THIS Liverpool team still feels like a bit of a stranger. Our sides usually reveal themselves in a few familiar guises. Time tested shapes. The balance between good, bad and average, just so.
A compelling midfielder here, a top goalscorer there. A rock at the back, a scapegoat on the wing. The script for the season has some classic motifs but our cast still seem largely enigmatic — the manager a new story, with a developing and captivating plot.
Star players yet to show true colours. Precocious youngsters offering hints as to their ceilings but no certainties. The team in its entirety at once a dream machine and soft bellied mid-rankers. No clear identity. No hint of what they might morph into.
Manchester United arrive at Anfield on Sunday. Always at the weekend. Always in the day.
We never get them on a mid-week evening in the league. Never after dark. For the longest time the kick off has been an early one. An homage to the golden age of hooliganism perhaps?
There’s not really any need for this game to be scheduled as routinely as it is.
It’s as though in someone’s mind somewhere within some bastion of the establishment that football fans remain working-class caricatures from a Lowry painting who operate only in straight lines — terraced street to factory gate, to Victorian pub, to football ground.
Heads bowed and compliant. Until they get properly aled up and belligerent.
Let them have a football match against Manchester United any time past two bells and they will be swaying, livers swelling, and blood boiling.
Whatever the motives the Manchester United early afternoon kick-off is now what we know. Just as that Arsenal game in the week felt like an archetype, so too will the Anfield setting be for United’s visit.
The vitriol that used to frame these games seems to have waned in recent times and it’s no bad thing.
Hate isn’t the essential ingredient of a great rivalry. It’s a spice, undoubtedly, but what satisfies most in winning this derby-of-sorts is the sense of achievement. The knowing that something has been proved and been proved to a highly visible and known audience.
We want to beat United. We’ll take that. But it would be sweeter if they were a touch better. Ultimately though, this contest is all about the points. Stick the bragging rights.
It is a good thing for Liverpol that United arrive at Anfield with their manager under tremendous pressure.
The whispers are that we might be cast as executioners to Van Gaal. There are probably no definitive stats on this but it’s never felt like footballers generally have the appetite for saving a manager when he’s at the edge. They put him there and their collective will to save him, despite cliched protestations, is rarely apparent.
We’ve seen this exemplified with Chelsea this season. A very good team simply downed tools. It was obvious to all in the end. The difference with Vaan Gaal and United is that the players at his disposal simply aren’t that good. It’s hard to tell if they aren’t playing for him, or just plain mediocre.
Jürgen Klopp and Louis Van Gaal went head to head on four occasions in Germany, the record between Klopp’s Dortmund and Louis’ Bayern Munich stands at two wins apiece.
They will have a very good sense of each other’s approaches to games of this stature
Van Gaal was able to surprise Brendan Rodgers last season with the controlled aggression and directness of his United team. The memory still pains but it was an impressive showing and it effectively ended our season.
A defeat at Anfield this time will probably do so again.
Klopp’s mysterious Liverpool team should not lack the hunger that characterised Rodgers’ side last March. The side has come up short away from home a few times lately but has not been slow out of the traps at home.
Van Gaal will have briefed that his team can expect to walk into a hurricane at Anfied, but that it is a wind that may well blow itself out, with legs heavy from Wednesday’s sapping 3-3 draw with Arsenal.
If a sodden Anfield pitch in midweek tested all, a hard icy one will provide a different set of challenges to Klopp’s injury-prone squad. Getting the boots right might be as important as the team selection.
Liverpool’s last win over Manchester United was the 3-0 win at Old Trafford in March 2014. Three defeats in a row have followed for the Reds.
That may play on minds.
United seem to have played talisman Wayne Rooney back into form with four goals in his past three games.
He doesn’t usually score at Anfield but he might feel that the stars are aligning enough for him to end the drought. Van Gaal will be encouraged that the front three of Rooney, Lingard and Martial looked potent on the counter at Newcastle.
Similarly, Klopp may well be coming to the conclusion that when he sends Roberto Firmino out as the unconventional spearhead of his attack that Liverpool seem to score more goals.
Christian Benteke may still be a goalscorer but this Liverpool look a team more likely to get goals without him. No accident that Liverpool have put fours and threes past Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal with Firmino, Lallana and Coutinho/Ibe, and no Benteke.
Klopp will wrestle with the conflict between wanting to reprise the tried and trusted and the need to freshen legs.
At the back new signing Steven Caulker looks a no brainer to replace the knackered veteran Kolo Toure.
Alberto Moreno will expect to keep his place depsite the looming presence of improving left-back understudy Brad Smith.
Sahko and Clyne will simply be asked to go again. For the incredibly robust Clyne that will be no problem. Sahko however will worry that he may not see out the 90.
In midfield there’s a case for resting any and all of the three who faced Arsenal.
Emre Can was excellent but faded with exhaustion. Henderson is just back from injury and must be protected, while James Milner was substituted in midweek with a knock.
Obvious understudies Lucas and Allen looked in excellent form in their last outings against Stoke and at least one of them will come into the side against United.
Given that none of the senior players will be expected to face Exeter City in the FA Cup next week, Firmino and Lallana should be unleashed again this weekend.
Whether they will be joined once more by Jordon Ibe to complete a 4-4-2 set up of sorts, or Benteke is given a chance to rough up United’s nervy back four, remains to be seen.
The talk of the Anfield night on Wednesday was the performance of Firmino. Two goals, one exceptional, and other close calls, were a glimpse of the player Liverpool had hoped they were purchasing last summer.
If this current Liverpool incarnation is to evolve into one we find more recognisable and can buy into, then it needs a star.
Daniel Sturridge won’t be that player it seems. Phillipe Coutinho doesn’t want the responsibility of both conducting and carrying the orchestra.
The side needs leading from the front. Firmino possibly grabbed that mantel. Let’s see where it can take him.
Predicted team: Mignolet; Clyne, Caulker, Sahko, Moreno; Can, Henderson, Allen; Lallana, Ibe, Firmino.