Don’t look now but Liverpool have slowly crept back into the race for a Champions League place after a dismal start to the season. With losses by Newcastle United and Tottenham on Saturday, the Reds can climb within two points of fourth place. But with a critical match against Manchester United on the Sunday, how can Jurgen Klopp ensure that his side avoids another collapse like allowing five unanswered goals to Real Madrid in Champions League to lose their first leg in the round of 16 5-2 (you can catch all the Champions League action only on Paramount+).
Liverpool: Alisson; Andrew Robertson; Virgil van Dijk; Ibrahima Konate; Trent Alexander-Arnold; Fabinho; Jordan Henderson; Harvey Elliott; Mohamed Salah; Cody Gakpo; Darwin Nunez
Manchester United: David De Gea; Luke Shaw; Lisandro Martinez; Raphael Varane; Diogo Dalot; Fred; Casemiro; Marcus Rashford; Bruno Fernandes; Antony; Wout Weghorst
The defense has been slightly better as of late keeping four consecutive clean sheets in the Premier League but when three were against sides in the relegation battle and the other was against a ten man Newcastle United side, those should be taken as a blip rather than a return to peak defensive form. Despite injuries, Liverpool’s attack has been fine scoring the sixth most goals in the league, but the defense has been concerning when up against top attackers like they’ll face in Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United.
It’s a twofold issue as Liverpool have allowed teams to play through the center of the pitch, which is something that their press has prevented in past seasons but when they mix it up and try to sit deep they also lose what they’re good at, still allowing goals. The keys start at the tip of the attack where the loss of Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich last summer has changed their setup, as Darwin Nunez isn’t as aggressive a presser as Mane was.
That’s compounded by the fullbacks not having the same level of support they used to when Thiago isn’t playing, which has been a lot. He’s only been available for 24 of the club’s 37 matches so far this season. And he won’t be fit to face Manchester United due to now missing time due to a hip flexor injury. Young midfielder Stefan Bajcetic has stepped up as of late to steady the ship, but lining up against Manchester United, it will take more than just him to keep things going.
The good news is that Diogo Jota will help both with the press and having a more fluid from three, likely at the expense of Cody Gakpo. Gakpo has scored two goals in the Premier League since joining Liverpool, but not being a true nine, he can get caught in similar spaces ad Darwin Nunez.
Jota, has played all over the front three and learned to accommodate Mane floating inside, so his presence allows a freer usage of space for Nunez while also adding another creative attacker to help feed Mohamed Salah. Alone it won’t be enough to defeat Manchester United, but if Liverpool can catch United on an off day while also finishing their chances, a Nunez, Jota, and Salah front three can be the key to success.
It won’t stop Marcus Rashford from cutting inside against Trent Alexander-Arnold or Wout Weghorst from occupying the center backs but at this stage of the season, defense should be an afterthought for the Reds. With United’s self-belief to get back into any match, Jurgen Klopp will need to turn up the attack and put as many goals past David De Gea as possible. It wouldn’t be a major shift for the squad from a press happy approach but to topple top sides, Liverpool needs to recognize their deficiencies and cover for them.