A preview of the biggest match of the Premier League season…
Well, kind of a big game coming up this weekend, then.
On Sunday, top of the league Manchester United travel to Anfield to face their bitter rivals and the team directly behind them, second-placed Liverpool. This has been billed as must-see TV, a heavyweight bout between two of the best teams in the league. This is the Ali-Frazier of the football season. It definitely is not hyperbole.
Last season, I wrote a preview article ahead of the title-deciding Der Klassiker in Germany, in which Bayern Munich defeated Borussia Dortmund 1-0 on their way to winning yet another league title. Despite it only being January, this game has a very similar feel to it, and I wanted to do something similar here. I will be going in depth into the match up, looking at both teams, their strengths and weaknesses, and the areas in which the match can be won.
Man United enter this match as probably the most in-form team in the Premier League, having not lost in the league since their 1-0 defeat to Arsenal on November 1st. This incredible run of form has seen United rise to the top of the league, a position they have not been in since 2013. Seeing them start the season struggling with the serious potential of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær losing his job but rising to this is quite unexpected, and it is a testament to the job Solskjær has done with this team and the performances of the players he has available. They will travel to Anfield this weekend looking to make a statement, reminding the rest of the country and the continent that Manchester United are contenders and a team to be taken seriously.
Things were not always smooth during that great league run, however, and this is where I have some concerns. While they have not lost in the league since November, that span also included European losses to PSG and RB Leipzig, which saw the Red Devils knocked out of the Champions League. It also included a 2-0 loss to Manchester City in the EFL Cup Semi-final. That league run also included difficult draws against Leicester City and Manchester City, the two arguably toughest opponents they played during that run. Much of their success came against mid-table or lower opposition, and do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with that. If you want to be a team contending for silverware, you have to win the games against inferior competition, which, especially in the league this year, is easier said than done. It does, however, cast some doubts as to whether this United team is really “for real” or not, as it does bare some similarities to the great run of form they went on when Solskjær came in as interim manager in 2018. It is entirely possible that this match against Liverpool acts as a reality check for this team. We will see how far this team has truly come under Solskjær and how far they still might need to go in order to return to true contention. But make no mistake, this is the biggest match United have played in since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. This is where we see what this United team really is.
Tactically, United have some different options when it comes to how to line up in this game. Solskjær has typically deployed a 4-2-3-1 in his time in Manchester, but they have also used a 4-1-2-1-2 and a 3-5-2 at different stages of the season and depending on the opposition they are facing. The tactics of the match will be crucial, as this big of a match will be a true tactical chess match, so how Ole chooses to set his team up will be important. I anticipate the midfield battle will be important, so I believe Ole will deploy his 4-1-2-1-2 in order to have a diamond in midfield, creating numerical supremacy in the middle of the park. With Nemanja Matić out injured, Scott McTominay and Fred will hold the places in midfield alongside Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. The midfield four will give United some stability and security, better allowing Pogba and Bruno to attack, knowing there will always be someone covering the back line. The pairing of Fred and McTominay itself is quite balanced as a defensive duo, with both able to get forward when needed but mainly allowing Fred to be the deeper-lying passer and McTominay to use his energy in the press to disrupt the opposition. The key players in this midfield will be McTominay and Pogba. While Pogba has been very good at times for United this season, we are never always sure which Pogba will show up when things matter the most. If he is able to be influential in the attack, then United will have a very good chance of leaving Anfield with all three points. McTominay will also be crucial for his energy in the press and his defensive contribution. If he is able to disrupt the Liverpool midfield and limit the influence that Thiago can have on the match, then United will be in good shape.
Now, this midfield might seem counter-productive against Liverpool in some respects, right? One of Liverpool’s strongest attacking tools are their fullbacks. Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are both very good attacking players who love to get up the pitch and can play very threatening crosses and give opposition defenses trouble. Certainly you would want to play wingers to try and pin both of them back in their defensive third, right? Well, that is true, but it is also something United can do in this formation. I imagine that in their press, United will want the two forwards to press out to the fullbacks when they get the ball, likely being joined by either Fernandes or whichever central midfielder is on that side. Scott McTominay’s energy in the press will be crucial in this regard, possibly leading to some chances to win the ball high up the pitch. The attacking potential of both midfielders could also force both fullbacks to think twice about pushing up the pitch. If Alexander-Arnold goes forward and Liverpool turn it over, then there is suddenly plenty of space behind him for Rashford and Pogba to attack. It is not the most ideal scenario, as the best way to counter attacking fullbacks is to force them to think about a dangerous winger that they have to mark, but it is something that can definitely work for United.
Elsewhere in the team, the four in midfield means United will only be able to deploy two in attack instead of three. Marcus Rashford is undroppable at this point, despite a poor performance against Burnley, but it will be Cavani partnering him up top. For one, Martial does appear to be injured and unavailable, which makes the choice for Ole slightly easier. In such a massive game, you need to go for the experience of Cavani over a younger player like Mason Greenwood. I also doubt United call on Daniel James, because while he is effective in the press, as he demonstrated against Leeds, he is just a non-factor in attack and gives Robertson more opportunities to attack up the pitch. Cavani also provides them with a more physical presence up top, able to contend with the individual battle against Fabinho and whomever partners the Brazilian while providing more of a target man presence that Fernandes and Rashford can play off of. In defense, I believe the partnership of Maguire and Bailly will continue. Eric Bailly has possibly been the most under-appreciated player for Man United this season, quietly stringing together several very solid performances and able to combine his impressive physical strength and pace with a solid reading of the game and an at least passable ability on the ball. Maguire’s tenure in Manchester has been often criticized, but he is truthfully having a good season, and he seems to be better with a more quick and physical center back next to him. Maguire-Bailly is definitely United’s best center back pairing, and I do not anticipate they will go with Victor Lindelöf. Should Ole choose to go with a back three, which I would not recommend, then the third center back will likely be Luke Shaw or Axel Tuanzebe, with both options being quicker and more mobile than the Swede.
The sort-of theme for this match, as many really close encounters tend to be, are individual battles. Specific areas on the pitch where United are weak are going to be targeted by Liverpool, and vice versa, and exploiting those weaknesses could be the difference between a win and a loss. United’s glaring weakness in this team is the left side of their defense. United’s left back selection is not quite ideal for them in this match up. While Alex Telles is a very good attacking fullback, he is not very good defensively and is prone to being caught out of position. Luke Shaw is not terrible, but he is not exactly good either. He is another player that is prone to being caught out of position, and he is not exactly a solid one-on-one defender either. Playing next to the left back is Harry Maguire, a solid center back but one that is not very mobile or very good at dealing with speed. And they will be going up against Mohamed Salah, maybe the best forward in the Premier League this season. No pressure, right?
Liverpool will likely find a lot of success attacking this left side of the United defense, and I imagine that much of their attack will focus on trying to exploit this weakness. I would not be surprised if Salah was a goalscorer in this match, or if Alexander-Arnold got an assist attacking down this side. To counteract this, United should utilize one of their defensive midfielders to help cover this wing. I imagine this 4-1-2-1-2 will look, more or less, like a 4-2-2-2 at several moments, especially when United are defending. With Fred and McTominay as the two deepest midfielders in that set up, United have the ability to use one of them to help Maguire and (likely) Shaw defend attacks down the left, while the other can be used to defend wherever needed. Again, it is not ideal, but it is probably the best solution for United to protect the weakest part of their defense.
Manchester United will likely line up in a 4-1-2-1-2, with their team being:
Now, let us talk about Liverpool. The reigning champions are coming into this match after a surprising run of poor form. After beating Tottenham 2-1 and smashing Crystal Palace 7-0, the Reds proceeded to draw with West Brom, draw with Newcastle, and lose to Southampton. It is this poor run that saw them surrender first place to United and allow Manchester City back within touching distance of the top, creating quite a serious potential title race in England. Jürgen Klopp will want a response from his team following the disappointment against Southampton, so I expect this to be a Liverpool performance that is as high-energy and ruthless as typical Klopp teams are.
Tactically, Klopp will likely play in his preferred 4-3-3 system, in which Liverpool were crowned champions of England and Europe in the past few years. Do not fix what is not broken, right? It makes a difficult decision quite simple, as it is hard to really predict how United will line up, as they are able to play in multiple different formations, as discussed before. While it could be difficult for Klopp to prepare for which United side he will face, it is still a given that he will want to play his game and dictate how the match will go. It is also the best pressing formation for Liverpool, and we all know how much Klopp loves his “gegenpressing”. In the event that United do go with a four in midfield, as I predicted, then Firmino would likely be tasked with dropping deeper at times, helping Liverpool transition the ball from midfield to attack. If Firmino’s movement is able to move around the United back line, then that will create opportunities for Mané and Salah to cut inside and score. This will also be the biggest test for Thiago in his time at Liverpool, as it will be on him to establish the tempo of the match. If United go with a four in midfield, Thiago’s passing ability, paired with Wijnaldum’s energy, will be needed to override the numerical disadvantage and make sure Liverpool are able to win that fight in defense and able to transition the ball from defense to attack without any serious issue. If Liverpool are able to press well, then they can counteract any disadvantage in midfield by being able to win the ball high up the pitch and attack an exposed United back four.
The biggest storyline of the season remains their injury problems. The incredible fortune that the Reds had last season when it comes to injuries to critical players has seemingly ran out. Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez both remain out for the duration of the season, and Diogo Jota is still a few weeks from returning to the first team. Joel Matip also picked up an injury against West Brom, and it remains doubtful that he is able to return for this match. This creates serious selection questions for a team that usually picks itself, and to a certain extent, still does in this game. Klopp will probably still play his 4-3-3. Mané, Salah, and Firmino all surely start. Wijnaldum and Thiago will both play in midfield. Henderson will play. The fullbacks will play. Fabinho will play. Alisson will play. Those are givens.
But it is the center of defense, and in defensive midfield, that provides the biggest selection and tactical questions. Fabinho will be one of the two center backs, as he has been since van Dijk’s injury, but who will play alongside him? It looks very unlikely that Matip will be fit for this match, as Klopp usually requires first team players returning from injury to have at least two training sessions before their return match and, as far as I know, Matip did not train today. In his place, they can start Henderson at center back, which did not work well at all against Southampton, or they could go with one of the very inexperienced but promising Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips. There are positives and negatives to both choices. On one hand, playing Henderson in defense gives you an experienced, veteran player in the back line that can go against a very experienced and deadly United attack. On the other hand, he was not that good against Southampton in that role, and playing him and Fabinho in defense takes away your two best defensive midfielders. On one hand, Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips are very talented and physically imposing center backs, with their respective 6’5″ and 6’3″ frames and tackling ability making them a more natural and useful fit in defense compared to Henderson. On the other hand, Williams and Phillips are very inexperienced players who can be prone to the rare error, and trusting a 19 year old kid like Williams in the heart of your defense in the biggest game of the season is a colossal risk.
I do ultimately believe that Rhys Williams will start alongside Fabinho, with Henderson playing just ahead of them in midfield. Williams is a talented player, and while it is still definitely a risk, I do think you cannot play Henderson in any position apart from midfield in this match. Going against a player as talented as Bruno Fernandes creates many difficult match up issues, and you need a physical and imposing presence in defensive midfield in order to limit the Portuguese’s influence on the match. In a perfect world, Liverpool would use Fabinho, who is one of the best defensive midfielders on the planet and has all of the traits and skills needed to be the world’s most ideal “Bruno stopper”, but the Brazilian has to start in defense. Because of this, Henderson must start in midfield, as you cannot take away your two best defensive midfielders when going against a midfield like United’s. Williams also provides more of a physical presence in defense, with that strength and height needed to help deal with Cavani. This will remain Liverpool’s main weakness, however. Just as Shaw and the left side of defense was the biggest piece to exploit in the United team, the center of defense is the weakest link in the Liverpool team. Should they play Henderson there again, then you are giving quite a bit of space and opportunity to Bruno Fernandes without a physical threat to stop him, or you are requiring Thiago to get out of his game and focus on Bruno. Should Williams start in defense, then you keep Henderson in midfield to deal with Bruno but are using a very inexperienced defender to go up against Cavani and Rashford. This is something that United can definitely exploit. Liverpool will need a career best performance from Williams to win this game, one that might turn him into a Liverpool cult hero if it happens.
Henderson will ultimately be the main key player. United’s attacking midfielders are the heartbeat of their attack, especially Bruno, but we have seen in the past how teams are able to take Bruno out of the game in order to limit what United can do going forward. This has mostly come from teams being very physical, almost man marking to an extent, with the Portuguese, and this will likely be Henderson’s job. If Liverpool’s captain plays well, then Liverpool will likely be successful. It will decide how strong Liverpool’s midfield and defense will be. If Henderson is not able to stop Bruno, then United should be able to have quite a bit of success in attack, and they could also overwhelm Liverpool in midfield as well.
Liverpool will likely line up in a 4-3-3, with their team being:
So, who wins? As I said before, this will likely come down to which team is able to control the midfield and exploit the weaknesses of their opponent. Based on past results, there are very good reasons to say either team would win or lose. United have played very well recently, but they have not had this serious of a test in quite a while. Liverpool have struggled recently, but they are only a month removed from very big wins against Tottenham and Crystal Palace.
Ultimately, I believe this will be a very big game for Mohamed Salah. That United left side is very vulnerable, and I expect the Egyptian to continue his fine form and get on the score sheet. I think Henderson will do enough to limit the United midfield, and Rhys Williams will do just enough to keep Liverpool from breaking. United are a very good team, but this will be a reality check for them. They are not quite there yet, and Liverpool are still the champions and arguably the best team in the league, even without key players.
Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United
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