Aaron Wan-Bissaka

Key battles for Manchester United v. Liverpool

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The fact that that question is unquestionably valid, the visiting Reds a heavy favorite at the home of their longtime rival, says a lot, doesn’t it?

[ PL PREVIEW: Man Utd v. Liverpool ]

Let’s start with two 1v1 jobs and end with a battle that only involves two men and their bodies.

Can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spring a midfield surprise to level tilted pitch

Make no mistake about it: Whatever midfield Jurgen Klopp trots onto the field at Old Trafford will be far superior to the one on the other side.

Manchester United boss Solskjaer was pretty optimistic when he pointed to this match as the “perfect” one to follow the Red Devils setback against Newcastle United, which seems bonkers but could serve as a proper showcase of why the club continues to back its former star striker.

So how will Solskjaer attempt to outfox the Reds without Paul Pogba as a midfield different maker? It seems likely we’ll see hard men at their hardest and most ornery in the forms of Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic, although Fred has seen plenty of playing time as of late.

Solskjaer might be best served by sitting back and trying to counter, but that doesn’t really vibe with Solskjaer’s overall “We’re Manchester United” mentality. So presuming we won’t see five at the back, it’s paramount that the boss finds a way to outduel (probably) three of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, James Milner, and Georginio Wijnaldum.

It kinda recalls “The Dark Knight” when the Wayne Enterprises lawyer tries to blackmail the company via its bankrolling of Batman. Picture Morgan Freeman offering a smirking, “Good luck.”

Maguire hopes to defy his history versus Liverpool

Harry Maguire has a quality record against many teams, but Liverpool is not one of them.

The now-Red Devils’ center back managed a goal in Leicester City’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool last season, but that point was the first he’s won against Liverpool dating back to his time with Hull City. Maguire is 1W-1D-4L all-time against the Reds.

Maguire has seen Liverpool score eight goals in its last four matches against him, all while a member of Leicester, and the scorers are familiar: Salah (3), Mane (2),  Firmino (1), Jordan Henderson (1), Philippe Coutinho (1).

With the midfield mismatched in heavy favor of Liverpool, Maguire and Victor Lindelof will need to produce one of their finest displays.

Anthony Martial and Aaron Wan-Bissaka versus their fitness

With Paul Pogba and David De Gea out of the lineup, there’s no question that extra emphasis will be placed on United’s standout players when the ball is kicked on Sunday.

Make no mistake about: Along with Harry Maguire, Martial and Wan-Bissaka have been United’s best players when healthy this season.

Martial scored in United’s first two matches and picked up an assist in the third, where he also picked up a hamstring injury. His ability to make something out of nothing, particularly from distance, is a massive asset against a team as strong defensively as Liverpool. Wan-Bissaka missed his side’s loss at Newcastle United with tonsillitis.

Both would drastically affect which battles we also find key to this match, with their pace and prowess out wide the Red Devils’ most likely avenue to keeping Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson on their toes.

Martial’s return would be especially big. With Marcus Rashford on a terrible run of inconsistency, you don’t know what you’re going to get from the youngster. Martial can only help alleviate the burden.

Premier League Preview: Man Utd v. Liverpool

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It’s been a while since a Liverpool trip to Manchester United felt like such a heavy lift for the home team, but that’s precisely the case when Old Trafford is our scene for one of the biggest rivalries in the Premier League (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

United sits 15 points behind the unblemished visitors, and will be without Paul Pogba and David De Gea for the event.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

Still, all is not lost; The Red Devils’ poor attack may see the return of Anthony Martial, who had a goal or an assist in all three of his PL matches this season before a hamstring injury cost him six weeks.

And Liverpool will be tasked with breaking down a United defense which has only allowed multiple goals twice this season (Crystal Palace, West Ham).

They’ll be confident of doing that, especially knowing that a win would match two Premier League records:

  • Most consecutive matches unbeaten in league play (18)
  • Most wins to start a PL season (9)

Those numbers also mean the Reds have won a remarkable nine-consecutive away matches in the Premier League. Not bad.


Injuries/suspensions

Manchester United: OUT — Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba, David De Gea, Diogo Dalot. QUESTIONABLE — Anthony Martial, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw, Jesse Lingard

Liverpool: OUT — Nathaniel Clyne. QUESTIONABLE — Mohamed Salah, Alisson Becker, Joel Matip


Probable lineups

Manchester United: Romero; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Young; Fred, McTominay; Pereira, James, Martial; Rashford.

Liverpool: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk, Matip, Robertson; Fabinho, Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mane, Firmino, Salah.


What they’re saying

United’s Daniel James on his regular playing time: “When I joined that’s what I wanted to do. I wasn’t coming here just to be a squad player, but for the gaffer to believe in me and play me from the start, that’s something I want to continue to do.”

Jurgen Klopp on Liverpool’s status as heavy favorites“Sky made a combined line-up and had 11 Liverpool players. That’s like a joke, like building a banana skin. The world in the moment is a circus, and we are at the center: a couple of people want us to win, a couple want us to lose. I’m not influenced by it.”


Prediction

The ball is in Liverpool’s court here, though the possible but unlikely absence of Salah would loom large. The Pogba loss won’t be as glaring if Martial is able to return. Still, this has big Liverpool win written all over it, and asks the question of how much heart the Red Devils will show on behalf of its embattled manager? Even if it’s a lot, we expect something like 2-0 to Liverpool.

Pogba, De Gea ruled out for Man United v. Liverpool

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According to our partners at Sky Sports, Manchester United’s David De Gea and Paul Pogba will not play against Liverpool this Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

This is far from ideal for a United side already low in confidence after a dreadful start to the season.

De Gea injured his groin while on international duty with Spain on Tuesday as he injured an abductor while kicking a ball against Sweden in a EURO 2020 qualifier. He is expected to have a full assessment in Manchester on Thursday but isn’t expected to be available to play against Liverpool.

As for Pogba, he suffered a reoccurrence of his foot injury before the international break and has been training in Dubai on his own during the past week to try and speed up his recovery.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already been without Pogba, Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial and Aaron Wan-Bissaka for large chunks of the season so far, as Man United sit in 12th place in the Premier League table.

“No chance,” Solskjaer said of Pogba’s availability for the weekend. “Paul had an injury, then came back, worked really hard, played a couple of games. Maybe played through the pain barrier. We had a scan after the Arsenal game and he needed a few weeks rest in the boot. Hopefully he won’t be too long but he won’t make this game, no.”

Not having their star goalkeeper and central midfielder available for this clash with bitter rivals Liverpool is another huge setback for Solskjaer, as Sergio Romero and Fred will likely start in their place.

Martial, Shaw and Wan-Bissaka are all expected to miss the game against Liverpool too as Solskjaer will at least have a valid excuse if the Premier League leaders give United a hiding on Sunday.

Liverpool, Manchester United set for injury returns

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According to reports, both Manchester United and Liverpool are preparing to welcome back a number of important players from injury for their rivalry meeting at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Most notably, the Reds will reportedly have goalkeeper Alisson ready to take his place between the sticks, having missed nearly the entire season to this point with a calf injury. The Brazilian made it just 39 minutes into the Premier League opener against Norwich City before succumbing to injury, and Adrian has filled in since. While the Spaniard has played exceptionally well in his teammate’s stead, The Guardian reports that Alisson will take back his starting place no questions asked, having rigorously tested his injured leg with intensive training to make sure he is ready.

In addition to the Brazilian goalkeeper, Liverpool is also reportedly set to see Mohamed Salah prove fit to start despite his injury scare against Leicester City just before the international break.

For the hosts, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has received welcome news on a number of players prior to the matchup. Paul Pogba, who has missed three of the last four league matches and five of the last seven overall thanks to an ankle injury, is ready to go and will be available to start. The Mirror reports that Pogba spent much of the international break training in Dubai to aid in his recovery.

Also returning for Manchester United is Aaron Wan-Bissaka who has missed the last two Premier League matches with tonsillitis. It was reported that Wan-Bissaka was ready to return for the Newcastle match prior to the international break, but he missed out nonetheless and was absent from the England national team as well. Also reportedly returning is the oft-injured Luke Shaw who has not played since late August thanks to a hamstring problem.

Finally, Anthony Martial could be ready to return from his own hamstring injury. The report is that Martial would be in contention for a place in the Manchester United18-man squad, suggesting that he may need a match or two to regain full fitness for a starting spot but would be an option off the bench if needed.

Liverpool and Manchester United meet on Sunday for the 203rd time overall and 173rd time in the top flight, kicking off at 11:30 a.m. ET from Old Trafford. The matchup is significant for both sides as Liverpool looks to maintain its perfect record and eight point lead atop the Premier League table, while Manchester United is hoping for a boost from its vastly mediocre record to this point in the season, having recorded just two wins through the first eight matches.

England struck by poor club form in qualifying blip

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What do you do as a national team manager when the best players in your group are struggling at the club level?

That’s the issue currently facing Gareth Southgate, and it’s spilled over into Euro 2020 qualification as England fell to the Czech Republic 2-1 on Friday, its first Euro qualifying defeat in ten years.

While its obvious England has a massive talent imbalance between offense and defense, the poor form plague has also struck, leaving Southgate with a host of difficult choices both up front and at the back. It has become such a pestilence that Southgate was left with no choice but to admit it after the match.

“In terms of the players, I think there are players who are not playing well for their clubs, but that is the situation we are in at the moment, certainly in a couple of positions,” admitted Southgate in the post-match press conference. “We collectively have to accept the result, but of course, as the manager, then I have got to accept that as well, absolutely.”

The England boss has some serious pondering to do up and down the pitch. Marcus Rashford has become a problem for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the suddenly stagnant Manchester United attack, and he gave way in the England starting lineup to young Jadon Sancho, who was unable to lift England on the day. In midfield, a now-broken Dele Alli was a guaranteed starter at the World Cup two years ago but was left out entirely this international break as Tottenham continues to flounder, while fellow Spur Harry Winks was relegated to the bench. Harry Maguire in defense has begun his Red Devils career well, but beside him was Michael Keane who has been downright poor at Everton thus far. Ross Barkley has lost his place at Chelsea and was left among the substitutes in Prague as well in favor of the in-form teammate Mason Mount, but with England misfiring Barkley was unable to change the tide off the bench.

The problem for Southgate is two-fold, and he’s damned no matter what. In the case of players like Alli, Rashford, and Winks, the England boss chose to replace them with less experienced players, which clearly upset the balance and cohesion within the squad. Yet he chose to stick with Keane, who has started every Euro qualifier thus far, in favor of a younger Joe Gomez and that backfired as well, as Keane toiled ineffectively in Prague. Gomez himself has lost his place at Liverpool to Joel Matip, and would have been another questionable option.

Injuries also played their part no doubt. Key players in Aaron Wan-Bissaka, John Stones, and James Maddison were axed due to injuries or illness, while Callum Hudson-Odoi was not selected as he recently returned from a long-term problem himself. Still, Wan-Bissaka’s absence left Southgate with no choice but to select a replacement, choosing Kieran Trippier on the edge of the back line, who has seen an up-and-down start to his Atletico Madrid career. Even Stones had dipped in form at Manchester City, falling completely out of the matchday squad in favor of Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi before succumbing to an unspecified muscle injury.

These problems caused issues tactically for a squad that suddenly had to deal with a deviation from the norm. Southgate deployed a 4-2-3-1 with Mount in the central creative role, but according to Yahoo’s Kieran Canning, the national team has not played in such a formation in two years. Southgate mentioned multiple times in his post-match press conference how displeased he was with England’s off-ball structure and movement, a direct product of mixing and matching. “We tried something [in the second half] to make ourselves a bit more solid without the ball, and that didn’t happen,” he said. “We didn’t look any more solid, and we were poor at using the ball in the first half. That said, at 1-1, at half time, we were able to change that. I think we were better in the second half and we created chances to win the game.”

To make matters worse, the few players in good club form didn’t live up to standards on the international stage. Declan Rice, maybe West Ham’s best player so far this season, was miserable in a pivot with Jordan Henderson and hauled off in the second half. The Mirror says between the midfield pair, they made just one successful tackle through the entire match and completed just 11 passes in the opening 20 minutes of the game. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has been one of many fantastic Liverpool players this season, was bafflingly left on the bench in favor of Trippier.

The issues facing Southgate are a stark reminder how long two years truly is. This England squad felt far more solid and secure with depth as it reached the semifinals of the World Cup just two year ago. Now, there are glaring holes and numerous questions at a host of different positions. With the starters floundering in Prague, Southgate’s choices off the bench have thinned considerably, and Rashford’s injection of quality off the bench two years ago in Russia 2018 is no longer to be found as he came on with 17 minutes to go on Friday. The rock solid World Cup back-three of Stones, Maguire, and Kyle Walker is nowhere to be found despite the presence of all three in the setup.

Little has changed personnel wise for England, and yet two years on after a promising World Cup run with a host of players in their prime, the squad now feels in flux again as key individuals are forced to fight for their places. Gareth Southgate does not sit in an envious position, looking for answers while keeping faith in some key squad members while making necessary changes elsewhere hoping not to upset the squad chemistry. A visit to Bulgaria on Monday represents a quick turnaround between two road matches, an opportunity to right the ship amid the necessary distraction of travel. Anything less than a convincing performance will allow lingering questions to fester for another month, plenty of time for the sudden dysfunction to become even more chronic.