Just as the international break came at the perfect time for a Manchester United side that struggled last time out against Swansea, the fixture list has been kind enough in providing the perfect opportunity for United to get back on track – this weekend they face Liverpool at Old Trafford. No further motivation needed for a good performance and three valuable points.
Ahead of the game there are a number of selection debates for the manager. Michael Carrick’s calf injury picked up on international duty might mean he misses out, with Morgan Schneiderlin favourite to anchor Manchester United’s midfield. Marcos Rojo should be in contention to start having featured for Argentina in the past week, but the big news is in goal. Following the collapse of his move to Real Madrid, David De Gea is in line to return to the side against Liverpool and his return will be heralded by all United fans following Sergio Romero’s underwhelming display against Swansea.
Before that game against Swansea, it seemed likely that the midfield battle would hold the key to victory for either side as both United and the Swans place such importance on dominating possession of the ball. That won’t change against Liverpool; Rodgers’ side has become known for its ability to keep the ball and for playing a certain brand of football. Yet ahead of kick-off on Saturday it seems there will be much more emphasis on what either side can do at the top end of the pitch rather than the outcome of the battle in the middle of it.
Starting with Liverpool, they’ve really struggled for goals all season. They’ve failed to score in their last two matches and last time out against West Ham they were comprehensively beaten at Anfield by three goals to nil. The biggest issue for the Merseyside club has been incorporating Christian Benteke into the side. At £32.5million pounds he was the most expensive of Brendan Rodgers’ signings and with just one goal so far (one that was offside, too) the Belgian needs to become a more influential player as the spearhead of the attack if Liverpool are to be successful this season.
His passing statistics against West Ham make for disappointing reading if you are Liverpool fan. He often gave the ball away, had just two shots all afternoon (one was blocked, the other went wide) and was rarely involved as the home side struggled to break down the resilient West Ham back four.
This passing map shows just how little Benteke was involved during the 90 minutes. Not only did he make such a small number of passes, his involvement in the penalty area is the really worrying bit. Aside from the two shots, he made one successful pass in the area, that’s it. As a target man and the focal point of a fluid and creative attacking side, this is not good enough.
When Benteke is involved, again the result is not good enough. Liverpool’s passing accuracy on the day was 85%, Benteke’s was much lower at 76% and would give the ball away so often that he would hinder rather than enhance Liverpool’s attacking play. Ultimately what it boils down to is Benteke has failed to adapt to Liverpool’s style of play, but also Liverpool have failed to play to the strengths of their new number 9.
It’s a direct clash of styles. At Aston Villa Christian Benteke thrived on crosses in the box and a high proportion of ‘low percentage’ passes, typically long passes or aerial balls. Under Rodgers’, Liverpool have never tended to play this way and many thought they would have to change their style to accommodate this kind of service for Benteke, but they haven’t.
Last season they made the fewest crosses per game, played the fewest long balls per game and were heavily reliant on a high number of short passes each game.
What is remarkable is in the opening period of this season, nothing has changed. They make even fewer crosses per game, play even fewer long balls per game and are still heavily reliant on their short passing style. Benteke has been unable to adapt and so far, Liverpool are toothless in front of goal. Something has to give.
Unfortunately for United fans, Saturday’s match is a tale of two strikers.
This season, for the most part, Manchester United have been dominant in possession, solid defensively, created a fair number of chances but haven’t scored too often. Domestically at least.
Like Benteke against West Ham, Rooney struggled against Swansea. Unlike Benteke, Rooney’s problems at Manchester United run a bit deeper.
Rooney’s pass completion rate was okay, he was more heavily involved than Benteke and had more shots, one of which forced a save from Fabianski, but it was an underwhelming performance. His lack of involvement in the penalty area was a problem for United who’s style under van Gaal really needs a consistent spearhead and focal point in order to be truly effective. The very fact that Rooney was comfortable in possession in deeper areas, linked up with his midfield well and influenced the game in that middle third, whilst simultaneously remaining a non-existent threat in the oppositions penalty area suggests a massive problem and furthers a long-standing debate about Rooney.
Where is his best position?
His performances this season suggest he isn’t an out-and-out number nine and could be more comfortable as a no.10 behind a central striker. But is he better than anyone United already have? Would you be able to argue for Rooney over Juan Mata as the creative force in that central area? It would be difficult too. Rooney needs to step up and perform for his side otherwise this United team will start to struggle.
So there it is. For all the money spent in the Premier League and all the investment at both Anfield and Old Trafford this summer and it boils down to one position. The central striker. For all the talk of formations, tactics, philosophy, playing style and any other concept by which you judge a football team, these two clubs are still missing the one thing every team has always needed. Someone to score goals. I believe there will be goals on Saturday and I believe it will be an entertaining game at Old Trafford. Where are those goals going to come from? I have no idea. But I wouldn’t mind betting that neither Wayne Rooney or Christian Benteke will make the highlight reels. Whoever solves their problem first will come out on top; Messrs van Gaal and Rodgers have a lot of thinking to do between now and kick-off.