THE overwhelming narrative ahead of Liverpool v Manchester United is all the pressure is on Jurgen Klopp.
That is partly because he has just passed the two-year anniversary of his tenure at Liverpool, a meaningless landmark but one that inevitability causes comparisons with his predecessor to be drawn.
Brendan Rodgers v Jurgen Klopp is a wonderful argument to generate reader interest.
Liverpool are in precarious form and have all manner of defensive questions to answer. Klopp’s side have won one of their last seven games in all competitions and not kept a clean sheet in any of those matches.
The club’s inability to get Virgil van Dijk’s transfer over the line has had its effect but changing the personnel isn’t the only way to achieve success or at least shouldn’t be. Liverpool defending, with the same personnel, is getting worse not better.
There is also pressure on Klopp and Liverpool to maintain their fine record against the best teams in the Premier League. Last season Liverpool won five and drew five of their 10 games against the rest of the top six.
More astonishing still is that in a table of matches between the top six last season Liverpool actually conceded the fewest goals. Given their propensity to drop points against the weaker teams has continued into 2017-18 so must their record in the biggest matches.
Yet Klopp is not the only manager who desperately needs success in the biggest matches. Jose Mourinho’s career has been defined by success on the biggest stage, a man who comes alive under the glare of the spotlight.
Yet United’s record against the other teams in the top six was appalling by Mourinho’s usual standards. In 2014-15, when Chelsea won the Premier League title under Mourinho, they lost one of their 10 games against the big six. Last season United won two and lost four.
United’s away record was even worse – they scored once away at a top-six team last season. That came in May, at the final time of asking, when they lost 2-1 at White Hart Lane.
There are mitigating reasons for that record, not least Mourinho’s decision to sacrifice league form from March onwards to concentrate on the Europa League, but it is a record that certainly needs improving this season.
A team can afford to perform poorly against their closest rivals and still hope to sustain a bid for a top-four finish. They cannot do so if they have designs on winning the title.
There is also a question over how Mourinho chooses to tactically approach Saturday’s game. The other reason for Manchester United’s dismal goalscoring record away from home against the best teams in the league is their manager deliberately chose to play defensively in those matches.
Against Liverpool at Anfield, again in October, United suffocated and strangled the match. They registered just 35% of possession, their lowest in a Premier League game since Opta began collecting the data.
There is a misinterpretation that Mourinho’s pragmatism makes him a defensive coach but he is actually nothing of the sort. Instead, a true pragmatist looks for the strategy that is most likely to be successful, just as Mourinho did with United’s season as a whole.
Last season United’s defence was the highest-performing element of their team and so Mourinho relied upon it. This season United’s highest-performing element has been their attack or more exactly the mix of skill (Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata) and pace (Marcus Rashford) used to service Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini.
So will Mourinho stick to that plan, look to invite Liverpool on to them and attack on the counter but also look to be far more progressive than they were last season?
Or will he be spooked by the absence of Paul Pogba and Fellaini and pack the midfield with Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and Daley Blind?
The answer to that question might define the game’s result. If United truly are serious about their title challenge they will know relying on City dropping points is a dangerous business when Pep Guardiola’s side are in this kind of form.
Adraw would clearly not be a damaging result for Mourinho and United but victory and attacking football at Anfield would make a statement to all of their likely title challengers. That will require a definite shift from their big-game tactics of 2016-17.