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Heart Of Football

Don't expect another 3-3 as caution reigns

The last time that Manchester United visited Liverpool at Anfield was explosive, although maybe the word should be implosive.

Steven Gerrard came on as a substitute knowing that it would be his last chance to fire up the Reds against the Red Devils. But Stevie G was gone in precisely 38 seconds. He was too hyper, too fired up by the weight of the history over this fixture, too much the Liverpool lad raised on the enmity of this northern English fixture.

Gerrard came on at half-time last March. He wore the captain's armband, and was told to lead by example. The first thing he did was spread a pass 35 yards from left to right onto the chest of a team-mate.

The next two actions were brutish. He lunged, late and high against Juan Mata, with his studs catching Mata just below the knee cap. The ref waved play on because - well, because this kind of foul and reckless play is taken as a given when Merseyside and Manchester collides.

Herr Halner presumably feels he has 750 million reasons to criticise because that is the sum total, in British pounds, that adidas has agreed to pay United over the coming decade.

Moments later, Gerrard stamped on the calf of Ander Herrera. This time referee Martin Atkinson had no option. Gerrard was red-carded.

Maybe it is just as well that there will be no player on either side today who might remotely be considered to be playing for his boyhood club. Wayne Rooney is the closest to it, but Rooney was born on the other side of the city to Anfield, the Everton side before he was sold as a teenager to United.

For the rest, despite the long injury lists that inevitably follow the Christmas and New Year fixture congestion, the line-ups are more likely to feature imports from Brazil, Spain or Ivory Coast than anywhere within the 56km catchment area between Liverpool and Manchester.

Even so, the managers are aware of the history of this fixture.

"We need to be aggressive, but also under control," says United manager Louis van Gaal. "And that is difficult because of the passion to play these kind of games."

"I like these kind of games," adds Liverpool's Juergen Klopp, "we like to say a derby match is the salt in the soup."

The managers, like the bulk of the players, are outsiders to the Merseyside-Manchester grudge contests.

They are also struggling to put their stamp on their teams. During last week, Liverpool came back strong at the end to draw 3-3 at home against Arsenal, and United fell away at the end to drop points in another 3-3 tie, at Newcastle.

If those scores are an omen for this game, it should be compelling viewing.

But don't count on it. Before the Arsenal game, Liverpool had barely mustered a goal a game at Anfield this season. And before the Newcastle thriller, United had been accused of such boring performances that even the team's kit sponsor joined in the public chorus of condemnation.

"The football is not exactly what we want to see," said Herbert Halner, the chief executive of adidas.

We are all in trouble if the sponsors decide they can dictate how football should be played. Herr Halner presumably feels he has 750 million reasons to criticise because that is the sum total, in British pounds, that adidas has agreed to pay United over the coming decade.

The promise of more than 1.5 billion Singapore dollars presumably comes with strings attached. And they might even have pulled van Gaal's strings to jolt him out of the heavily cautious method that was grinding out goal-less draws.

Klopp, by contrast, arrived at Anfield in October with charisma, and with exciting, fast forward football from Borussia Dortmund on his CV.

Even van Gaal said this weekend "You can see a very aggressive and pressing kind of play from Liverpool. I think the fans shall love it."

They should. But the transition from Brendan Rodgers to Klopp is very far from complete. The German has had 102 days in England, and Liverpool has crammed in 21 games, meaning that time on the training field is less than time spent playing or travelling.

"What is my record here?" he asked the press at his last conference. "Fifty per cent? OK, its not good, not bad, like a lot of life, eh?"

Klopp's personality is a breath of fresh air around Merseyside. He engages the media and the fans. He realises that Anfield's Kop is akin to the "Yellow Wall" of Dortmund with the fans driving on the team.

But Liverpool remains close to where Klopp found it, in midtable. His renowned "gegenpressing" game, requiring players to run the extra kilometres at high pace, might be the reason why 12 players, including the vital ones like Philippe Coutinho and Martin Skrtel, are struggling with injuries.

This happened towards the end of Klopp's time at Dortmund, and is happening early in his Liverpool tenure. It might be coincidence, or the abrupt emphasis on almost Olympian faster, higher, stronger effort.

There again, United's tempo under van Gaal dulls the adventure of the Alex Ferguson years. Yet Manchester's injured have been as numerous as Liverpool's - and many blame van Gaal's double training sessions.

It could be more than the salt in the soup.

Today's fixture has a legacy to fulfil. Liverpool and United are the two most successful clubs in English league history, but not lately.

The feelings of resentment between the two has roots older than any of us, and they have to do with the cities of Liverpool and Manchester, not just the teams. For what it is worth, not only did Sir Alex's Red Devils break the era in which Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley's Reds dominated the league, but United have won six of the last eight games against Liverpool.

Today would be a good day to change that. But if I have to make a choice, it would be on a draw, and definitely not 3-3. Those results usually induce caution, unless the players have simply got tired of being boringly cautious.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2016, with the headline 'Don't expect another 3-3 as caution reigns'. Print Edition | Subscribe