Manchester United square off against Liverpool in a critical early-season Premier League clash with big implications for both teams. Both teams have just seven points from their first four games meaning that this rivalry, arguably the most combustible in English football, could be a season-defining clash for two under-pressure managers and their still unconvincing teams.
Manchester United have stumbled out of the gate this year, and rumors of unrest in the dressing room have only added to a campaign that already has a slightly farcical edge. Accusations of rifts and a player mutiny in some quarters, van Gaal came out fighting at his weekly press conference at Carrington on the eve of Manchester United's home game against Liverpool.
''Rooney and Michael Carrick came to me and said: 'The dressing room is flat,'' the Dutchman said. "But now it was Carrick and Rooney and that was alarming for me because they are the captains. That's why I went to the dressing room. But all the players are communicating with me. They are coming to my office. Believe me, it is like that. I am not a dictator - I am a communicator."
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Under Louis van Gaal, Manchester United have spent some $387 million to totally remake their team -- including a whopping $55 million on an unproven French teenager -- and still look a side missing several pieces. Genuine A-listers, such as a Gareth Bale or a Paul Pogba, could not be tempted by Ed Woodward and the brain trust at Old Trafford, and it might be argued that the best business the club did was in the kabuki theater surrounding the mooted transfer of goalkeeper David De Gea to Real Madrid.
De Gea did not end up moving back to Spain, and put a difficult summer behind him by signing a lucrative four-year contract worth $308,000 per week. One of the unresolved questions ahead of this game is whether or not the goalkeeper will appear in his first match of the season or whether van Gaal will prefer the erratic Sergio Romero. Another question is whether or not the aforementioned teenager, 19-year-old Anthony Martial, will also get a run-out up top from the start.
But the big, big question -- and one van Gaal has yet to answer satisfactorily -- is whether or not United can reclaim their old swagger, and play the kind of flowing, cutting football that won them both fans and titles. The problems begin in the back, where Daley Blind may be many things, but he does not appear to be a credible centerback. Bastian Schweinsteiger has the look of a player whose best days are behind him, while Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin show promise, but not consistency.
Up top, Wayne Rooney has utterly failed to catch fire. The fact that Rooney is being paired with Marouane Fellaini as a strike partner speaks volumes about United's lack of ideas. Against Swansea, in a damaging 2-1 loss, the Red Devils were astonishingly reduced to lumping the ball upfield in the hopes of finding the big Belgian. What are United trying to do? I'm not sure even van Gaal knows -- but it is not working.
One should infer from this that a loss to this gaggle would be very damaging to Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, but he too has issues. The post-Luis Suarez, post-Raheem Sterling era has not been a happy one, and while van Gaal has set a new mark for suspect spending, Rodgers' acquisitions have not been uniformly glorious, either. And since he has lost two of his stars (to Barcelona and Manchester City, respectively) and seen a third, Daniel Sturridge, repeatedly hobbled by injury, Liverpool have looked toothless.
The Reds have scored just two goals to date this season, a tally that is about punchless as, well, Manchester United's. Christian Benteke was supposed to help that, but so far he looks like a man who fits uneasily into Rodgers' preferred style of possession-play. But the real issue for Liverpool may well be in the back, where the defense looks pitifully inept at times.
Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel were embarrassed by West Ham last time out -- a team that had not won at Anfield since the Beatles were regularly charting -- and Rodgers doesn't seem to have many ready options to plug the gaps. Philippe Coutinho is also suspended for this game, meaning Jordan Henderson is likely to be pressed immediately back into service despite a nagging injury.
Up top, Rodgers will have to choose between Roberto Firmino or Jordan Ibe. While Firmino has yet to show anything close to his performances at Hoffenheim, the Brazilian playmaker likely to get the nod over the younger and fleeter Englishman.
"We still have quality and we still have players we can bring in with a high-level of technique," Rodgers said about his team earlier in the week. "We are still only early in September. Even the season we nearly won the league (2013-14) we didn't play that brand of football until December time. We have the talent and focus."
Unfortunately for both of these teams, the truth is that while this game will bring bragging rights, it's unlikely to do much in the race for the title. Manchester City have flown out of the gate and are likely to get the edge on an improved Crystal Palace side that remain mysteriously frustrating at Selhurst Park. What it is likely to do is increase the pressure on whichever manager is unlucky enough to lose this game.
Right now both van Gaal and Rodgers are fighting on multiple fronts, with discontent in the dressing rooms, on the terraces and in the local papers. A win buys one lucky manager a week of breathing room. A tie is likely to only deepen the grumbling.