Joel Matip was seen in training for Liverpool on Friday but it is not yet known for sure whether or not he will be able to start against Manchester United
With the 2020/21 season approaching its halfway point, Liverpool is set to face what is undoubtedly their biggest match of the campaign so far.
Any game with Manchester United is important for all manner of reasons, but the clash on Sunday is the biggest between the sides for quite some time; England’s two most successful clubs are locked in a tussle for the title at the top of the table.
One of them will be leading the way in the Premier League depending on the result, so which players are selected in which tactical formation will be crucial.
With the Reds rocked by injury problems in the middle of their defence and United the top-scoring away team in the division, the pairing of centre-backs Jurgen Klopp fields can expect to have a huge bearing on the outcome of the match.
Liverpool has already had to employ 14 different combinations in central defence across their 27 matches this season.
Based on their record to date, Klopp will, of course, hope that Joel Matip is fit to return from his fifth separate injury absence of the campaign to partner Fabinho.
With the Cameroonian stationed alongside the redeployed defensive midfielder, the Reds have conceded just one goal (at Fulham) in 465 minutes.
Joel Matip had not resumed team training on Wednesday but was back amongst his teammates in Kirkby on Friday afternoon, making it likely he will start.
But that is by no means guaranteed.
So what should Klopp do if Matip cannot play? The difficulty for the German is that Joel Matip has been touch-and-go all week, so planning ahead would not have been simple.
It seems safe to assume Billy Koumetio won’t be making his second appearance of 2020/21, so Klopp would have to choose between Jordan Henderson, Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams for the berth alongside Fabinho.
Phillips is very much an old school style of the defender, in the ‘see the ball, head ball away’ mould.
While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side has scored five headed goals in the league this season – only five teams, one of whom is Liverpool, have netted more – they do not rely upon crossing to create chances.
Tottenham and Southampton are the only teams in the Premier League who have averaged fewer crosses per game than United this season (per WhoScored), so this doesn’t appear to be an opponent who’s primary tactics will align with Phillips’ strengths.
United rely far more upon using their pace and quick passing on the break. They will sit deep in order to deny Liverpool space, then look to slice through the Reds’ high defensive line when they can recover possession.
We saw at Villa Park last week that this can prove problematic for Williams.
Once Louie Barry had broken free of the defender shortly before half-time, it never looked like the young Liverpool centre-back was going to catch him, and the Aston Villa forward was able to slot the ball past Caoimhin Kelleher.
This is exactly how the visitors will look to play on Sunday.
United have both created the most chances and assisted the most goals via through balls in the 2020/21 Premier League, which is why they lead the way for goals scored from counter-attacks.
By this logic, it would seem that Liverpool’s captain will get the nod to start alongside Fabinho, just as he did in the recent defeat at Southampton.
Yet he is obviously not a defender by trade, and he will be sorely missed in the midfield where negating the influence of Bruno Fernandes will be vital.
Most of the starting XI will be easy enough for Klopp to select, yet the success they can have will hinge upon the decision he makes in central defence.
It’s far from a straightforward decision for the sake of the balance of the team, but it looks like Jordan Henderson will be the sensible choice.
Klopp’s preference, though, would be that 29-year-old Joel Matip is fit enough to make the team.