Venue: Old Trafford, Manchester
Kickoff: 12th September – 17:30 Hours, BST; 22:00 Hours, IST
Manchester United play host to Liverpool this Saturday, when Barclays Premier League action resumes after the first international break of the season. Both these clubs didn’t enjoy a good finish to the month of August, as they drew and lost their respective league fixtures heading into the international break. With both clubs looking to get back to winning ways, we could be in for an engrossing Premier League encounter, though you can expect it to be a bit cagey and tactical.
The brand of football played by these two clubs so far has been very unlike of them and I believe that the new signings have played a part in their teams’ palpable lack of cohesion. The likes of Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Christian Benteke, Roberto Firmino – to name a few of the new faces in both these sides – have not come up with big performances yet and have been the reasons behind their teams’ insipid displays too.
Both Louis van Gaal and Brendan Rodgers have a crucial phase of the 2015/16 campaign coming up, with European football, United in the UEFA Champions League and Liverpool in the UEFA Europa League, beginning next week and expected to pose major challenges to the acumen of the two managers. Van Gaal did win both of his meetings against Rodgers last season, with the 1-2 win at Anfield being one of the highlights of United’s 14/15 season.
Taking into account these aspects – managerial tussles, one eye on European action, current forms of both the clubs – ahead of the game, Saturday evening’s match-up does promise to be an intriguing one.
The questions are: what will be the crucial facet of Saturday’s game? Can Liverpool continue to be good away from home – like they showed against Stoke City and Arsenal? What kind of impact will Anthony Martial have on this game, more importantly?
Answers and much, much more to follow…
The Red Devils had done well to rack up results and points until the Swansea game, in which they actually played better than their first three games. But, as van Gaal put it after going down to Garry Monk’s side, five frenetic moments of play – just after the hour mark – changed the entire course of the game. The Welsh side had looked threatening in the first half as well, but it felt like United had the game under control in the second half. And it is the manner by which they went down to the Swans, that would have had van Gaal’s head spinning in bemusement. Swansea are a good side, but from United’s perspective, to lose from the position they were in would have dealt a serious blow to the psyche of the players.
United’s backline faced its first major test against Swansea, and it is fair to say that they did not fare particularly well against the Bafetimbi Gomis-led Swans attack bereft of Jefferson Montero. Sergio Romero between the sticks, did not do a good job either and it remains to be seen if van Gaal injects David de Gea, who signed a new four-year deal earlier today, into the starting lineup for Saturday’s clash against Liverpool. Overall, however, the Dutchman would be satisfied with the performances of his defence that had kept a hat-trick of cleansheets before the Swansea game, with Chris Smalling – enjoying a 63% duel success rate in four league games so far – in particular, putting up good performances in the four games. He has arguably been their best player of the season so far too.
Shifting focus to United’s attack, they have failed to create enough chances (38 only, in 4 league fixtures) and been quite blunt in front of goal too. With Wayne Rooney playing upfront, the Red Devils haven’t had a player who can intimidate defences and pose a genuine goal threat. Depay, after scoring 22 goals in 30 league appearances for PSV Eindhoven last season, has yet to get going for his new club that desperately needs him to come good sooner than later. Juan Mata, having created 9 chances to go with an assist for Adnan Januzaj’s winner against Aston Villa, has been United’s leading creative player. But van Gaal’s men have been relatively easy to play against for their opponents, due to their lack of pace, creativity and adventure in possession.
Signing Martial from AS Monaco suggests that United are trying to address the lack of pace issue. The 19-year old, albeit very young and raw, will add a new dimension by adding pace to the Red devils’ attack – something which they have lacked since the beginning of last season and Danny Welbeck joined Arsenal during the 2014 summer transfer window. The general consensus is that Rooney will now play in the No.10 position, with Martial playing as the No.9. Rooney is better suited to playing the creative role while offering a goal threat too, by doing so.
Ahead of tomorrow’s game against Rodgers’ side, United have only a couple their players out with an injury: Phil Jones is still not available for selection with mild thrombosis, while Andreas Pereira returned from the international break with an injury and is not fit to play either. Michael Carrick has recovered from his calf problem and is fit for the home clash against the Merseysiders tomorrow.
Van Gaal’s reluctance to play Ander Herrera either in central or attacking midfield has been baffling. The diminutive Spanish midfielder scored some good goals in the league last season and at a time when his side is desperate for goals in the embryonic stages of the ongoing campaign, the 26-year old could do a job that Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin – who have played as the double pivot in United’s last two games – have not been able to. For me, the Dutch manager has to inject Herrera into his side’s starting lineup for the clash against Liverpool, a game United need to win. He will have to leave out either Schneiderlin or the veteran German midfielder, but Herrera offers goal threat that Saturday’s hosts need, to brighten their chances of winning. Other than that change in personnel and new signing Martial hopefully making his Manchester United debut, the team which strides out to the Old Trafford pitch should be a good one.
Liverpool have their own problems in attack to contend with, and, having scored a mere 2 goals in the first four league games, are not going to offer United the kind of threat Swansea did. Rodgers, however, will set his side up in a way that they are hard to beat, just as they did against Arsenal at the Emirates. With the likes of Jordan Ibe, Firmino and Benteke himself offering a threat on the counterattack, United’s attack has a challenge on its hands to score goals against the Scousers, who will not be shy of parking the bus.
Saturday’s visitors have changed their style of play from the last two seasons in order to accommodate Benteke, the £32m signing from Aston Villa. They have been more direct, instead of being fancy, this season, but the Reds and Rodgers need to find a way of being more effective. Their best performance of the season so far came against Arsenal who, playing with a central-defensive partnership of Gabriel Paulista and Calum Chambers, found it hard to cope with the tempo Liverpool played at, in the first half of that game back in August. But, barring Philippe Coutinho, who is suspended for his side’s trip to Old Trafford on Saturday, they do not seem to have a game-changer in their arsenal and subsequently, could have to work hard to accrue points this season.
Reds, like United, had done well until the home game against the Hammers, who annihilated them by 3-0 at Anfield. They enjoyed 58% possession – their highest so far this season – against the Londoners, but conceded some really soft goals, with Dejan Lovren committing a defensive blunder while his side was going in search of an equalizer. Going forward, they created 12 chances but managed to hit the target on only 1 of their 13 attempts on goal, which is an indication that all three areas – defence, midfield and attack – of their game need improving.
James Milner has done well in the quartet of games he has started and completed, creating 7 chances and completing 200 passes with an accuracy of 85%. His experience and dogged attitude are going to be crucial to Liverpool this season, but as aforementioned, they need someone to make the difference and harness Milner’s work ethic. The Merseysiders will also expect more out of Firmino, who they signed from Hoffenheim for £21.3m. He has, however, yet to complete 90 minutes in a Liverpool shirt and Saturday’s game against United could be his biggest test, especially as they will be without Coutinho and need the 23-year old Brazilian to bring flair and creativity when in possession.
Rodgers has set his side up in the 4-2-3-1 system so far this season, but I just wonder if he will opt for a back three and play two marksmen in Saturday’s game. With Benteke playing upfront, they are a bit predictable in their approach, and you wonder if Divock Origi or Danny Ings can come in and get more out of the former Villa man. As much as you can appreciate Rodgers for wanting to be flexible and sacrifice flair in order to achieve results, I think they need to take a leaf out of their exhilarating 2013/14 season that had Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge leading the line in the 4-1-2-1-2 system with Raheem Sterling playing as the No.10. Now, they are not going to have so much speed to their play this season, but Ings, Origi and Sturridge, when he returns, can make them more threatening in attack. And Rodgers needs to look at it as a serious option even for Saturday’s tussle against United.
Ahead of tomorrow’s away game at Old Trafford, Rodgers has confirmed that Sturridge, who has returned to training, will not feature for the visitors tomorrow. Club captain Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana will be assessed over the next 24 hours. The absence of Henderson in particular, will be a serious blow to Liverpool, as they are also without Coutinho for tomorrow’s game and barring Firmino, do not have a good passer in their ranks.
Rodgers, in his press conference earlier today, touched on their defensive organization that led to good performances in the away clashes against Stoke City and Arsenal. And it is a no brainer that Liverpool will try to keep a cleansheet, first and foremost, tomorrow. Yes, they need to be clever in possession and not keep giving away the ball cheaply, but defending doggedly will definitely be an integral part of Liverpool’s game plan. If they limit United to creating few chances and use the ball well when they have it, the Reds can make a game out of it. I just think Rodgers will revert to playing 3 at the back, and offer support to Benteke by playing Ings or Origi.
With such an important game taking place right after the international break, during which the managers wouldn’t have been able to work with the players as much as they would have liked, it is difficult to anticipate what sort of game we are in for. Especially with United and Liverpool coming on the back of defeats in their last league fixtures. Expect it to be cagey and both sides to be careful in possession. From a neutral’s point of view, an early goal would set the game up nicely.