So little about this Manchester United season has been extreme. This is a team with rounded edges, who send watching supporters and journalists into an slumber.
The attacking is stodgy and subdued, the defending often abject but rarely spectacularly so. At least not until Phil Jones scores an own goal.
Given United’s miserable league position, the lack of any fervour is pretty impressive. The club’s form is wretched, six wins in 17 matches since beating Young Boys 3-0 away in the Champions League in September. It is as if fans have been sent into such a stupor that they cannot even manage to mutiny.
Hated, adored but never ignored? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t switching off. It is rare to get emails offering deals on tickets at Old Trafford, such is the magnitude of the club’s support in England and abroad. Those emails are now a regular occurrence.
Forget the Europa League and EFL Cup victories, Jose Mourinho’s greatest achievement at Manchester United lies in his management of expectations to the point that the current performance level is not seen as cause for outright protest. Those who can witness United’s general on-pitch malaise and believe either that one expensive central defender would have solved the issues or that Mourinho’s own performance has merited such financial faith are guilty of Mourinho blindness. It is an affliction that supporters at his previous clubs have suffered. Mourinho’s personality demands extreme emotional investment from supporters that can be hard to shift.
But on Sunday, Manchester United’s result and performance could well provoke an extreme reaction. Mourinho has retained the support of some who have pitched this as a battle between manager and club and cannot bear to side with United’s hierarchy.
This is a fixture of opposing styles, and very few paint Mourinho in a flattering light. It is all-action vs inaction, defensive resilience vs defensive disarray, a manager who supporters believe is one of them vs a manager who has become an army of one. Mourinho trusts no one and fears everyone.
Perhaps the most obvious contrast between Liverpool and Manchester United lies in their fringe players. After Mourinho made a number of changes for United’s trip to Valencia in midweek and missed the chance to top their Champions League group, Mourinho once again bemoaned the output of those who missed the chance to impress.
Contrast that with Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp. Alisson, Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah may collect the plaudits and generate the headlines, but Klopp has a wonderful knack of keeping players held in reserve motivated and ready to hit the ground running. If there is one theme running through Liverpool’s improvement over the past 18 months, it is fringe players taking their chance and thus becoming hard to shift from the team: Joe Gomez, Andrew Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner, Xherdan Shaqiri. Who scored the winner at the death in the Merseyside derby? Divock Origi.
Liverpool’s challenge is to produce a performance in this fixture that becomes season-defining. Their two landmark victories over United in the last decade (4-1 at Anfield in 2009 and 3-0 at Old Trafford in 2014) were both precursors to eventual disappointment. In 2008/09, Rafael Benitez’s team eventually lost out to United in the title race. In 2013/14, they beat United in the middle of a wondrous 11-game winning run in the Premier League under Brendan Rodgers, but were pipped at the post by Manchester City There are only two black marks against Klopp’s tenure at Anfield: The lack of silverware and his record against Manchester United. His ten fixtures against them - pitted against Mourinho and Louis van Gaal - have produced a single victory in the Europa League and five defeats. If the absence of bragging rights has been superseded by Liverpool and United moving in different directions over the last two years, Klopp will yearn for such a landmark victory. He is well aware that this is more than just another game.
There is an argument that this might be the best match for Manchester United. If Mourinho has indeed lost his ability to motivate key players, they should need no geeing up for this fixture. Rarely will United ever have been longer odds to beat Liverpool, and Mourinho has typically flourished most when able to paint himself as the underdog. A draw would be considered as a satisfactory result, and the mind inevitably turns to the 0-0 draw in the same game in October 2017 when Mourinho’s bus parked squarely on the edge of the Anfield penalty areas.
But there’s equal reason to consider this as exactly the match that Manchester United, in this state, could do without. Can Ashley Young cope with a resurgent Salah? Can United’s central defensive combination deal with the movement of a fluid front three? Lose heavily, and no amount of expectation management can squirm Mourinho away from his own guilt and the last wisps of faith in his management will surely dissipate amid a vast cloud of unease.
Nothing emphasises the demise of Liverpool and Manchester United’s quite like the gap to their most hated rivals. The largest points difference between these two clubs in Premier League history was 37 in 2011/12, Alex Ferguson’s final hurrah coinciding with Liverpool’s dire Roy Hodgson experiment.
Home victory on Sunday would increase Liverpool’s lead over Manchester United to 19 points after only 17 matches. If it took a change of ownership, two changes of manager and an overhaul of the club’s ethos to bring Liverpool back from that 2012 brink, there is a demand for systematic change at Old Trafford six years on. Jose Mourinho deserves to be one of the first out of the door.