Five-time title winner also hails Harry Maguire's impact under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and describes Aaron Wan-Bissaka as one of the best one-on-one defenders he has ever seen
Thursday 16 January 2020 15:20, UK
"This was always my game," Wes Brown tells Sky Sports with a chuckle. Sunday's meeting between Manchester United and Liverpool at Anfield conjures up special memories for the former defender, but he watches on as a fan nowadays and that's not all that has changed.
Manchester United, so dominant over their old rivals for the duration of Brown's time at Old Trafford, now sit 27 points behind them. Liverpool, already European and world champions, are hurtling towards the Premier League title at record-breaking speed.
As Brown well knows, however, these games are rarely predictable.
"I always loved this fixture," he says. "It's the one I always looked out for as a player and I still do now. Liverpool are excellent at the moment. They are top of the league and they deserve to be there. But in these games, it doesn't really matter where you are. There were times when we were top and they still beat us. You never quite know what could happen."
Manchester United head to Merseyside as the only Premier League side to have taken points off Liverpool this season. To halt their year-long winning run at Anfield, though, will take an even greater collective effort than the one they produced in October's 1-1 draw at Old Trafford - not to mention an appreciation of just how much the rivalry means.
"This is the one game where the manager didn't need to tell me anything, just because of the history and how much it meant," says Brown, who spent two decades with Manchester United, winning five Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues before retiring in 2018 following spells with Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers.
"It has always been a game where everyone has to play well and everything has to be put in," he adds. "It's going to be difficult against this Liverpool side, but I'm sure the lads will want to win it. We've beaten some of the best teams this season and I think we have a chance of doing it again."
That outcome would be a considerable boost for everyone associated with the club, not least Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian's first full season in charge has not been straight-forward, but Brown is adamant that his former team-mate has put Manchester United back on the right path.
"It was fantastic to see him come back and it has been great to see him bring back some of the old values I was used to as a player there," says Brown. "Ole learned most of his trade off Sir Alex Ferguson, so he's bringing through some of the young lads and he's trying to everybody back up to the high standards we all expect at Manchester United.
"That's what he was like as a player, always expecting the absolute best from everyone, and I'm encouraged by what we've seen so far. The performances have been mixed. We've been brilliant at times and very sloppy at other times. But I think as time goes on, it will only get better. Everyone talks about transfers, but he's working with what he's got and bringing through youth. It's just about finding that consistency."
There is plenty of work ahead for Solskjaer if he is to convince his doubters that really he is the man to take the club forward in the long-term, but one area in which he has undoubtedly improved them this season is in defence. United conceded 54 goals last term - their highest total in the Premier League era - but their record this time around is equal to Manchester City's.
It is, of course, an area of expertise for Brown, a player Ferguson once described as one of the "best natural defenders" he had ever worked with, and he puts much of the recent improvement down to Harry Maguire, who became the world's most expensive centre-back when he completed his £80m move from Leicester during the summer.
"I actually think it seems quite cheap nowadays," says Brown, who was speaking from the Marriott Hotels Seat of Dreams at Old Trafford.
"I think he's brought a calmness to the whole defence. He's still relatively young, but he's very experienced already. He has an awareness about him and he's very good on his positioning. There are games where you don't really notice him, but that's just because he's doing his job. He's winning his headers, he's laying it off. We're more solid with him at the back.
"He gives you a kind of, 'we can do this' attitude and that's especially true when he has been playing with Victor Lindelof. They have complimented each other well. Sometimes it can take time to figure out which players work with which players, but those two have formed a good partnership."
They have been helped by Aaron Wan-Bissaka, another summer recruit, who has swiftly established himself at right-back following his arrival from Crystal Palace. Like Maguire, the 22-year-old has made a big impression on Brown, who split his time between right-back and centre-back as a player.
Defensively, in one-on-ones, he's definitely one of the best I've ever seen. He's settled in so well and I don't think there are many players who have got past him this season.
"What else can you say about Aaron Wan-Bissaka? I've not really seen many like him and that's the honest truth. Defensively, in one-on-ones, he's definitely one of the best I've ever seen. He's settled in so well and I don't think there are many players who have got past him this season.
"Yes, there are times when he has made mistakes, like when he dived in to concede the penalty against Watford, but he has learned from them. Since that game, he has just gone back to his normal level. The errors will happen every now and again - they happen to all players - but he's just got straight back into it and that's a good sign.
"It's at the point now where, whenever he comes up against someone in a one-on-one scenario, you're more than confident that he will end up winning the ball or clearing it. That shows his confidence as well as his ability. That, really, is all you can ask for in a right-back defender."
Wan-Bissaka is not the only United player still learning his trade. In fact, Manchester United's squad is one of the Premier League's youngest this season. The presence of so many young players and academy graduates in and around the starting line-up underlines that Solskjaer's side is still a work-in-progress, but it is also a source of pride for the club and a cause for optimism about the future.
"I'm a fan as well now, so I love to see young players coming through like I did," says Brown. "Ole has brought a lot of them in - in tough games as well - to see if they can handle it, and a lot of them have. I'm sure they will be able to handle it at Anfield as well."
Marriott Hotels, Official Hotel Partner of Manchester United, is upgrading three fans at each home Premier League match to the Marriott Hotels #SeatOfDreams. Fans will watch the match from the best seats in the house at Old Trafford and be joined on the sofa by a Manchester United legend.
Watch Liverpool vs Manchester United live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Sunday; Kick-off 4.30pm