On Saturday, the two most successful clubs in English soccer history square off in a battle ... for second place. Despite seemingly different trajectories—Liverpool soaring, and Manchester United struggling to stay afloat—José Mourinho’s side is still two points ahead in the table. Our resident Liverpool and United fans got together to work through their collective anxiety and preview the weekend’s opening game.
Ryan O’Hanlon: Micah, you’re my friend, but you’re also dirty, rotten, and you have no soul. The shorthand for that: “You are a Manchester United fan.” Your team has been in second place for nearly the entire season. You’ve got all the money in the world, you’ve got Paul Pogba, you’ve got Alexis Sánchez, you’ve got Romelu Lukaku, and you’ve got José Mourinho. You just beat Chelsea and Crystal Palace. And now you’re hosting my beloved Liverpool, who’ve lost 10 of their previous 13 Premier League games at Old Trafford. Considering all that, how many goals do you expect the Red Devils to win by on Saturday?
Micah Peters: Ordinarily I’d say it’d be a very tedious and workaday one-goal win. Ordinarily I’d say that. But I feel like if Álvaro Morata finishes that volley, the game against Chelsea goes an entirely different way—Chelsea were largely the better team, somehow. And as satisfying as it was to see Nemanja Matic—who literally only scores bangers—score a banger and put a stop to a horrible run of away form, United got off to a horrible start at Selhurst Park. I feel like Liverpool will be more punitive about those lapses in concentration, even if y’all haven’t won a league title in 28 years, Ryan.
By the way, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sánchez are cannibalizing each others’ ability to freewheel, if you ask Jamie Carragher. And both could easily be on their way out of the club in the summer, if you ask Miguel Delaney.
O’Hanlon: I appreciate your attempts at rationality—so let’s stay there for a second. [Removes clip-on ponytail made of Andriy Voronin’s actual hair.] Despite the table and despite recent history, Liverpool are the favorites here—and rightfully so. (FiveThirtyEight puts the odds at 43 percent for a Liverpool win, 31 percent for a United victory, and 25 percent for a draw.) Jürgen Klopp’s team really hasn’t put in a bad league performance since the loss to Tottenham back in October, while Mourinho’s side seems to be flipping a coin with each match, and thanks to David de Gea, it keeps coming up heads. From expected goals to raw shot totals, pretty much every number suggests that Liverpool are the better team by a significant margin. Thank you for engaging with these facts.
And yet ...
Peters: And yet in a big game you’d still want to have José Mourinho manage your side over Jürgen Klopp, or ... and yet United still have David de Gea, who’s more than likely to tally up 14 saves on Saturday?
O’Hanlon: And yet I can’t forget 2008-09, when Liverpool beat Manchester United twice, including a 4-1 win at Old Trafford, and still managed to finish four points back in second place. I can’t forget that 3-0 loss in 2014, the first emergence of de Gea from the underworld, when Liverpool outshot United 19-11 and still didn’t find the net with any of their nine shots on goal. And I can’t forget the game from EARLIER THIS YEAR, when United registered a solitary shot on target and still managed to come away with a point. Rational analysis doesn’t seem to apply when these teams meet.
Peters: I noticed that you went back three years to find an interesting meeting of these two teams, because since Mourinho took over, these games have largely been like watching paint dry. In a frozen tundra. Over the last five meetings, there have been six goals total. José prides himself on that joylessness, or at least he did before Manchester City made being fun a necessity. Look at this quote about the melancholy of a scoreless draw away at Liverpool in October 2016. He was positively tickled by it: “We controlled the game, not just tactically, but the emotion of the game. That was probably the quietest Anfield I had and I was expecting it to be the other way.”
O’Hanlon: I gotta admit, I prefer the uneventful silent film version of this story to the 2-1 loss in 2015 that did Steven Gerrard’s character dirty.
Bae: Come round to mine— Footy Jokes (@Footy_Jokes) March 22, 2015
Gerrard: I've got a football game
Bae: My parents are out. pic.twitter.com/0l0HOaWcKN
Peters: Don’t disrespect the fastest red card in Premier League history by reducing it to a meme like that. It deserves to be experienced in its full glory, and by “full” I mean “extremely shaky camera work and off-kilter fan commentary.”
O’Hanlon: But the memes were so good:
Steven Gerrard’s heat map pic.twitter.com/mKNgcrc09R— GeniusFootball (@GeniusFootball) March 22, 2015
Peters: They were aiight.
O’Hanlon: I just turned 30, and I can’t believe I’m asking you this, but the Internet turns us all into children, so: Who’s most likely to become a meme after Saturday’s game?
Peters: Wow. But actually, it’s tough to say since both Marouane Fellaini and Phil “Derp King” Jones will be unavailable through injury. Aside from that, maybe Bobby Firmino? He certainly has the funniest teeth. I don’t know! Who’s the player in your side—that plays, so not Simon Mignolet— that you trust the absolute least? That’s who’ll be the most likely to be sacrificed for retweets.
O’Hanlon: With no Mignolet and (I think [read: hope]) no Dejan Lovren, Liverpool’s negative meme potential takes a hit. I don’t know if it counts as a “meme”—is everything technically a meme now?—but I’m hoping for another canonical addition to this:
So now that we’ve laid our neuroses out there—I think Liverpool will lose because they’re playing Manchester United, and you think Manchester United will lose because they’re playing Liverpool—let’s spend a little bit of time on how the game might actually play out. If United pulls this off, what do you think that looks like?
Peters: I’m willing to bet that it looks like vintage Mourinho, so the opening exchanges might go something like this ...
... then the play opens up a bit after the restart, and after United unjustly knicks a goal somewhere around the 70th-ish minute, they park a steel-plated triple-decker bus to ride out the win. What about if the result falls in your favor?
O’Hanlon: I think you’re right. I can’t remember the last time United tilted the field for 90 minutes against a good team. Whether that’s due to mismatched personnel or the conservative tendencies of their manager, I’m not sure, but they just haven’t put in a no-questions-asked-we-deserved-the-win performance against a top-five side since Mourinho came to town. If they get the win, I think it might be an early goal after Pogba moves the ball into the final third beyond Liverpool’s midfield, and Sánchez, Lukaku, and Whoever the Third Attacker Is break down the backline, à la the first goal against Chelsea. Then, as he’s done all year, de Gea grows six extra arms and makes a handful of miraculous saves.
Peters: Sure United are bad, but they’re also predictable. And still, nine points clear of the defending champions and in second place, and owners of a solid if dull string of results against your team. It makes my head hurt, but also, beating Liverpool would make my heart sing, so.
O’Hanlon: Lemme pile on for a sec. If Liverpool wins, I think it comes in a dominant way. They won’t sit back and selectively press like they did against City. No, they’ll have most of the ball. They’ll harass Matic, Pogba, and, oh my god, can you imagine Scott McTominay going up against a Klopp counter-press? And the rotating front three of Mohamed Salah, Firmino, and Mané, along with late runs from the midfielders and width from the fullbacks just sends the United backline spinning. Maybe the scoreline ends up being close, but I don’t really see Liverpool winning a 50-50 game ... because I can’t really see this being a 50-50 game.
Peters: It’s no secret that I don’t trust Scott McTominay yet so I don’t disagree. If it is a close game, then the result comes down on our side, I think. But it will either be a controlled and boring affair, or an unmitigated disaster and nowhere in-between.
O’Hanlon: Do we think this result has any effect on whether or not either team qualifies for the Champions League next year?
Peters: FiveThirtyEight says there’s virtually no way either of these teams drop out of the top four.
So, we’re getting stressed for no reason really. Except, you know, bragging rights.
O’Hanlon: The math is telling me to calm down, but the math never had to root for Jonjo Shelvey.
Also, I just found this. Who said YouTube’s recommendation algorithm was destructive?
Peters: Will you be available for a meeting at 3 p.m. about nothing specific? (These hands.)