Liverpool’s trip to Manchester United on Sunday will likely be the most watched and fiercely debated match of the weekend in the Premier League, but in a sense there is feeling of it being something of a damp squib.
Perhaps it would be different were fans allowed into Old Trafford, but for the time being they remain absent.
Make no mistake, both teams still have particular ambitions to achieve this season. It’s not quite a dead rubber.
But regardless of achieving their respective current targets – reach the top four for Liverpool, and United securing second place in the assumption Manchester City won’t suddenly capitulate – there will still be a sense of unfulfillment.
United want more, Liverpool expected more.
Realistically the best Liverpool can hope for now is fourth, and even then that looks a tough ask, while United will seemingly have to settle for second. Although by no means a poor season for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men, the Red Devils’ fans will surely never be entirely happy with second, especially when it’s their neighbours finishing above them.
City have, for the majority of the season anyway, been considerably better than the rest. So what can United and Liverpool do to potentially bridge the gap next season?
Seek more from the right side of the defence
In recent years, when United have had issues with their team they have perhaps been too willing to chuck a load of money at the issue – maybe that’s the solution here, or maybe there are young talents coming through who are ready for the next level, only Solskjaer really knows that.
Nevertheless, an area where United can improve is the two right-hand berths of their defence.
While Aaron Wan-Bissaka has proven himself a very capable defender, it’s fair to say he’s still lagging behind in the attacking department. His 26 chances created isn’t horrendous, but there’s undoubtedly a lot of room for improvement.
For example, Wan-Bissaka’s 78.7 touches per 90 minutes this term is only slightly fewer than Luke Shaw’s 82.2, but the left-back has played 130 (196 compared to 66) more passes into the penalty area. He’s far more forward-thinking and at the moment that gives United a certain predictability in the final third.
No one would say Wan-Bissaka is a lost cause, but currently he has no competition. Shaw’s improvement since having Alex Telles to put pressure on him has been considerable – perhaps such encouragement would work for the right-back as well?
Wan-Bissaka’s lack of effectiveness in attack is certainly not their only issue in defence, however – Victor Lindelof appears to have hit a ceiling.
Although stylistically he seems a decent fit for Solskjaer’s system as he is comfortable in possession – as evidenced by his 13 goal-ending open-play sequences being bettered by only Maguire among Premier League centre-backs – teams tend to target him because he’s far less domineering.
Not since 2016-17 has Maguire averaged fewer than three aerial wins per game: Lindelof’s never even reached three, while there have also been concerns about the Swede’s positioning.
That’s highlighted by the fact he averages considerably fewer interceptions per 90 minutes compared to Maguire (0.9/1.8).
Get an actual right winger
Again, it remains to be seen whether United’s move here would be to buy or trust youth – after all, they did spend a small fortune on Amad Diallo last year, though his influence has been minimal at most since linking up with United in January.
Mason Greenwood seems their best option on the right at the moment and his form has picked up significantly of late after an underwhelming first two-thirds of the season. His ineffectiveness at times this term paved the way for Daniel James to get back into the side, and few United fans would consider the Welshman to be anywhere good enough as a long-term, first-choice option.
While Greenwood has certainly been an effective presence out on the right at times, he’s not exactly been an effective creator – nine players (to have featured at least 10 times) in the United squad can better his chance creation frequency of 0.8 per 90 mins.
Now, perhaps that’s partly skewed by his early season form, yet only Bruno Fernandes (3.3) averages more shots than Greenwood (3.2) each game.
With Edinson Cavani reportedly set to stick around for another season, United might opt to begin moulding Greenwood to become his replacement, thus freeing up the right-wing slot for someone else.
Facilitate a Pogba and Fernandes partnership
You’d think this would be simple, and recent evidence has strongly suggested they can coexist – after all, both were excellent against Roma on Thursday.
But since Fernandes joined, United have only won 55.2 per cent of games across all competitions in which they’ve both featured, as opposed to 72.2 per cent when one or the other has been missing.
Few would disagree that they are United’s two most talented players, but occasionally squeezing them both into the side has resulted in Pogba being shunted out wide. While still functional there, that’s clearly not the best use of his talents.
Developing their partnership may require Solskjaer to loosen the strings of pragmatism a little. He likes to play Fred and Scott McTominay together in the midfield when some feel they might be better off with just one of them.
Now, whether that’s because he doesn’t truly trust Pogba and Fernandes off the ball, or if he’s actually not convinced enough by Fred nor McTominay defensively, only he knows.
But allowing Pogba and Fernandes to consistently thrive in the same team would surely work wonders for United in the final third.
Provide better cover for Alexander-Arnold
If there’s one Liverpool player who’s shouldered the most criticism in this underwhelming title defence it’s arguably Trent Alexander-Arnold.
But some of the flak has been a little harsh, whether it’s been focused on his attacking productivity or defensive positioning.
Granted, his chance creation is down from 2.5 to two per 90 minutes and that’s understandably been reflected in an assists decrease from 13 to five.
But the flipside to that is in 2019-20 he massively over-performed his xG value of 9.7, whereas this term there’s only a 0.8 difference (five assists, 5.8 xG). This suggests that, where he was benefiting from his team-mates’ brilliant finishing last term, in 2020-21 that’s not been the case.
As for his defensive output, there’s little evidence to suggest he’s doing worse. On the contrary in fact, he’s actually averaging more tackles, tackles won and interceptions than in 2019-20, while only one perceived error by Alexander-Arnold has led to a shot this season. He was guilty of three in the title-winning campaign.
The key thing we have to consider when analysing Alexander-Arnold’s season, however, is the extent of Liverpool’s defensive injuries.
It would be fair to assume that he’s not been quite as much of an attacking threat because he’s been playing in an often-makeshift defence, holding back a little because the threat of an opposing attack is greater without the likes of Virgil van Dijk.
Presuming Van Dijk and Joe Gomez stay fit next season, that in itself is a much more solid base. That may, in theory, provide Alexander-Arnold with the necessary assurances that encourage greater attacking impetus.
Get more from Thiago
Another Liverpool player whose ability has been called into question a lot this season is, remarkably, Thiago Alcantara. A key cog of Bayern Munich’s all-conquering 2019-20 side, but on Merseyside he’s had to contend with plenty of doubters.
While he was initially seen as the final missing weapon to Klopp’s arsenal, the kind of player who could provide greater creativity in a midfield that beforehand was more functional that fun, many have since gone full revisionist.
Many of the concerns have related to suggestions he’s not the right fit for Liverpool’s intense style of play, particularly how high up the pitch they press.
But there is very little evidence to back such claims up. PPDA data suggest it’s actually nonsense. PPDA is the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team’s own defensive third divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third.
Liverpool’s this season is 10.6 whereas Bayern’s last season was 9.8, indicating that Die Roten actually press slightly higher than the Reds.
No, the far likelier cause of Thiago’s underwhelming season is probably the human side of football. It can be easy to forget sometimes that footballers are people too. Having your first season at a club mired by injury problems, which also affected you, and contracting coronavirus cannot be the ideal situation.
We’ll surely only get a better grasp of Thiago’s suitability at Liverpool next season.
Refresh the frontline
As Mohamed Salah continues to thrive, his excellence not only highlights himself, but also casts a shadow of doubt over Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
While critics have been unconvinced by Firmino for some time, despite clearly offering a lot to the Reds when at the peak of his powers, questions over Mane are a rather newer phenomenon.
In 2019-20 he had a hand in 25 Premier League goals (18 scored, seven set up), but he’s on less than half of that at the moment (eight goals, five assists).
Having outperformed his xG by 4.4 last season, he’s now 3.9 under his xG value of 11.9 for 2020-21. Firmino’s under-performance in 2019-20 was five, this term it’s 4.4.
For Mane, this means that where he was proving to be remarkably deadly in 2019-20, he’s now wasteful – Firmino is spurning more opportunities than he should, again.
Nevertheless, Mane’s form over the previous two seasons probably has him quite a lot of credit in the bank – if anyone’s at threat, it’s Firmino.
Diogo Jota has proven a versatile and dependable alternative to all of the front three, but Klopp might prefer more of a focal point at the tip of the attack in the long run.
If there’s anywhere in the team attack where the Reds might feel that can get someone better, it’s probably in the place of Firmino.
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