A lot can change in three months. When Manchester United last faced Liverpool, they produced the kind of display that had many questioning what had become of a great institution once inextricably linked with the concept of positive, attacking football.
Jose Mourinho’s decision to send his side out with an ultra-negative approach at Anfield in October attracted huge consternation, and deepened the concern of many that the Portuguese was uncertain as to what his best team looked like. Heading to Merseyside with his new United side in seventh place and boasting only one win in four games, the former Chelsea boss was scrambling around for answers to a serious of conundrums.
It was understandable, perhaps, that Mourinho erred on the side of caution that time around. Not only were his side still finding their feet under their new manager, but Liverpool were beginning to unleash hell on their opponents. The relentless attacking force that Jurgen Klopp had been threatening to build at Anfield was starting to really show itself, and Mourinho’s kneejerk response to throw up the barricades proved fruitful.
But when Klopp brings his team to Old Trafford for Sunday’s return, he will do so with a significant shift in the dynamic. Yes, Liverpool are in second place with United still trailing in sixth. Sure, the Merseysiders retain a sharp attacking threat. But Mourinho’s old magic is beginning to rub off on the 20-time English champions, with a nine-match winning run the proof that a corner has been turned in west Manchester.
And key to that has been the greater attacking pedigree on display at the Theatre of Dreams of late. While once they were struggling to make clear opportunities in the final third, they are now creating chances from multiple angles. A few months ago they seemed unwilling or unable to play to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s strengths, but suddenly the Swede’s qualities are being catered to to stunning effect.
The manager is no longer scuffling for answers in the attacking department, with the likes of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and – most notably – Henrikh Mkhitaryan beginning to truly flourish in the forward line. Even Wayne Rooney, while not anywhere near the top of his powers, adds something new to the United cause whenever he is used.
The 53-year-old has also finally settled on a steady back four and found a place in his plans for Michael Carrick, allowing the former England midfielder to thrive in front of the central defensive pairing. His ability to dictate the pace of the game has helped United to both excel offensively and cope better without the ball.
Nine wins have been collected over the past six weeks, and not by luck. It is that greater balance, the assured approach of a confident unit, which has led the team to the brink of breaking what had previously appeared to be an unbridgeable gap to the top five spots in the Premier League table. The worst thing Mourinho could do on Sunday is to revert back to old ways.
He has occasionally dropped his side back into a defensive pattern late in games to protect narrow leads during the recent upturn in form, but at no stage has he reverted to all-out Alamo as happened in October. United have made the rest of the country sit up and take notice since early December not with Rashford and Ashley Young being used as full-back foils, but with Mkhitaryan, Martial, Mata, Paul Pogba, Ibrahimovic, Jesse Lingard and many more besides asking probing questions of opposition defences.
And given Liverpool’s varying woes at the back, the worst thing United could do is curb their own attacking enthusiasm. Whether Loris Karius or Simon Mignolet is in goal, they need testing. If Joel Matip is fit or not, there are questions hanging over the Liverpool back four which could be addressed by a few bursts from in-form attackers. Never has a game been better set up for Mourinho and his men to really lay down a marker.
Old Trafford is waiting for its first really huge celebration post-Sir Alex Ferguson. A Premier League title triumph still appears some way off, but a swaggering success at Liverpool’s expense to record a 10th straight win would go down well in the meantime.
Mourinho asked this week for the home faithful to step up and make Old Trafford a cauldron when Liverpool come to town. If ther players make things similarly uncomfortable for the visitors, then a statement victory could signal the true turning of a page in Manchester United’s recent history.