Derby Week Preview: Manchester United vs. Liverpool

I saw an article on ESPN FC recently that irked me as a United fan. It was called Role Reversal between Merseyside and Manchester.  While it is a decent narrative, because Liverpool are genuine favorites at Old Trafford for the first time in a long time, it is a bit inaccurate and while the league table says it’s an 11 point gap, the teams might be a bit more even than previously thought.

When these two teams played each other in the third game of the season, the game was about as interesting as anecdotes on the history of mite research.

Daniel Sturridge scored the game’s only goal in the 4th minute from a poorly defended corner, and there was hardly a chance created afterwards.  Apart from a fluffed chance for van Persie and Nani’s long-range drive being  tipped over by Simon Mignolet, United hardly created a genuine moment of danger despite having 57% of the ball.

United did get a 1-0 win  in the Capital One Cup in an almost identical situation to how Liverpool scored in the league meeting. Javier Hernandez was unmarked on an early second half corner and touched the ball past Mignolet.  United were able to play a bit more on the break, but Liverpool did have a couple of great chances to equalize.

So while it appears that the winning side in both fixtures was able to take advantage of a set piece and essentially sought to deny the other team space, both sides have changed quite drastically since then, particularly in February. Manchester United in the league have kept three consecutive cleansheets and Liverpool have become a more gung-ho team taking a “we can score more than you” approach in recent weeks

Liverpool Strengths and Weaknesses

While Brendan Rodgers used to be very possession oriented in his first season at Liverpool, he has since accepted that his team can be a lot more dangerous with quick one-touch counter-attacks and lots of combination play between Sturridge, Suarez, and Sterling.  Here have been Liverpool’s respective possession statistics in the past six games, and they’ve only drawn once.  Rodgers still likes Liverpool to build from the back and he likes the midfield to stay fairly tight together to create passing triangles, but he is pragmatic enough to change this as he sees fit.

39 v Everton, 50 v West Brom, 43 v Arsenal, 69 v Fulham, 53 v Swansea, 43 v Southampton

Last season Liverpool had the third highest possession average in the league. This year they’re down to 7th in that category, but they seem perfectly okay with that since they’re getting more space and scoring more goals.  Sturridge has played more centrally so that he can play off the last defender’s shoulder when Liverpool are quickly breaking.  Suarez and Sterling start wide but cut inside and frequently swap positions.  They aren’t pressing from the front as often, so Suarez often drops deeper when Liverpool don’t have the ball which effectively makes Sturridge or Sterling the out-ball.

The midfield trio of Coutinho, Henderson, and Gerrard is somewhat interesting.  It has a lot of attacking potential, but is somewhat suspect defensively.  Coutinho started as a wide player/attacking midfielder this season but has since moved infield to provide an extra body in the center.  Gerrard can still hit his trademark passes from deep, but he doesn’t quite have the awareness of a defensive midfielder and often lets runners go unmarked, leading to more shot attempts from midfield.  Jordan Henderson has somewhat shed his ‘flop’ tag by finding a new role within the team.  He complements the creativity with a more “English” style of play (hard tackling, hard running, and disciplined positioning).

Defensively, Liverpool started the season strong with a series of 1-0 wins, but have since become rather exposed.  Since the start of the New Year, Liverpool have kept just 3 clean sheets, and while that was partly due to Daniel Agger’s injury and a couple of howlers by Kolo Toure, it does hint that Liverpool are taking more gambles going forward and allowing more space for smaller teams to exploit.  While Manchester United aren’t in much better shape in that department, it does give hope that if United’s creative attackers can get space, Liverpool are there for the taking.

How United should play

I’ve talked earlier about how Moyes should generally prepare his sides to counter-attack, and I still believe that he should use that approach since Liverpool have conceded more goals when they dominate possession; however, he shouldn’t be afraid to press Liverpool’s defenders in certain situations such as goal-kicks.  Martin Skrtel isn’t very comfortable with the ball still and forcing Gerrard to drop deep to pick up possession will limit his range of influence.  Coutinho is a dangerous player in the final third and Henderson will get forward in support so it’s important to get two midfielders who are willing to tackle and track them.  Fellaini and Fletcher would be a good central midfield pairing for this kind of job.

Rooney vs. Gerrard would also be the main battle-ground.  If Rooney can stick tight to Gerrard and force him into mistakes or hurried passes, United will have space to break into for United’s attacking quartet. Valencia has generally had the beating of Jose Enrique and Aly Cissokho isn’t the quickest LB either so regardless of who plays, Valencia and Rafael should be able to combine effectively.  Januzaj against Flanagan might also create a favorable matchup since he offers a more varied threat, although Shinji Kagawa has had very good displays against Liverpool in the past.

Defensively, enough has been said about Suarez and Sturridge so it will be a very hard job and one that will require intelligent play and communication among the back 4.  Playing a packed defense will be tougher for Liverpool to break down, but it’s unlikely that United will come out defending in a game at Old Trafford unless they felt they were grossly outmatched.

This is an unfamiliar position for many United fans, but for several years Liverpool were not close to United’s level yet they still won.  United will need to do the same and I expect this game to be like most other derbies.

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