Nobody expected this start to the season! Jose Mourinho’s men have 13 points from their first seven games this Premier League season, which isn’t bad, but ultimately, United will be playing catch-up to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, a side that has surprised everyone with 16 points in the same time frame. A win would see Mourinho’s men equal the tides, and with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City dropping points to Ronald Koeman’s Everton, United has a massive chance to reduce the gap between themselves and major rivals.
However, it won’t be easy. For the first time in a few years, both Liverpool and United are playing some exciting football, and it’s wonderful to finally feel like the two titans of England are back. Both sides, though, seem to be more tactical than ever, with Liverpool’s free-flowing 4-3-3 formation and United’s… free-flowing… 4-3-3… formation. Regardless of formational questions, though, both sides are completely different, and should make an excellent clash this week.
Looking at both sides on paper, it is easy to see where the strength is- attack. Liverpool typically sets up with a very attack-oriented 4-3-3, Jordan Henderson their deepest midfielder behind the diminutive duo of Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana. Philippe Coutinho plays off the left and uses dipping runs to create pockets of space in between the opposition midfielders and defenders. This space allows Roberto Firmino, the auxiliary striker, to tuck into attacking midfield and allow right-sided Sadio Mane to run beyond him with devastating effect.
The hardest aspect of defending against this Liverpool side is the fact that Lallana, Wijnaldum, Coutinho, Firmino and Mane all represent very quick, gifted individual footballers- while they don’t impose physically with strength, they definitely do so with pace. Jurgen Klopp has brought the best out of them by giving them freedom to roam and interchange positions, all with a collective goal- to press the opposition. With Henderson in behind, Liverpool is presented with a quick transition- he isn’t incredible defensively, but he’s good, and he moves the ball forward into the channels for an assortment of Liverpool midfielders to run into those spaces.
Coutinho and Mane create so much space, and the technical abilities of Liverpool’s five creative midfield players allow them to exploit space more than anything else. Opposition defences are therefore tasked with defending the space instead of defending men, and defending space against Mane is something no man should ever be born to do. Except for Daley Blind, that is, because the Dutchman has become the best space-protecting defender in the Premier League, able to relieve superbly when on the ball and positioning himself perfectly. Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling have the pace to step in behind him, and though I think Timothy Fosu-Mensah is a far better defender of space than Antonio Valencia, the latter will start.
Lallana and Wijnaldum may be out injured, but Liverpool’s system won’t change with the right players to cover, and therefore, United should plan as if they will be on the pitch. The best way to combat this Liverpool system is to match them for aggression and field a side adept in long-passing. In recent weeks, Ander Herrera has played an identical role to Jordan Henderson for United and arguably performed even better (not to discredit Henderson). Juan Mata has become the hardest-working player for United and is excellent in tight spaces. Combining that with his exploits at Juanfield two years ago, and he needs to start. Paul Pogba, in particular, could be key, because United possesses great attributes to hurt Liverpool in the air.
Up front, though, United needs to be sharp. Anthony Martial is great against Liverpool and Jesse Lingard has made a senior career out of channel running, and they should flank Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the most important aspect of play. Ibrahimovic will be key in relieving periods of pressure for United, with the option to play it long to him and allow him to bring others into play. Marcus Rashford is a greater asset off the bench in a game like this, with Liverpool’s defence particularly weak.
Liverpool’s strengths are stronger than United’s, but their defence is quite diabolical, with gaps of space in behind when they lose the ball. Incredibly good at winning the ball as a unit, Liverpool’s defence can be exposed individually. United’s greatest gold-mine up front could be on James Milner’s left-back flank, where Jesse Lingard and Antonio Valencia possess the potential to tear the Englishman a new one. United needs to find quick balls into the channels, and expose Liverpool’s back four. If Martial can get behind Liverpool’s midfield press and go one-v-one with their high line, United can experience tremendous joy. Pogba, Herrera and Mata are the perfect players to put him through there too, not to mention Blind.
Defensively, United must be wary of Coutinho’s tuck into midfield that allows Milner to attack the flank. If Mata and Lingard aren’t aware to cover the space, Firmino could make a joke of the defence, and even Bailly and Smalling will struggle with Mane’s pace in behind. In addition, United must defend very well from an angular perspective- pressing Liverpool’s strikers individually and leaving space will not be the answer, as aforementioned, so United needs to make sure Liverpool doesn’t have the space to drive or shoot from range.
To recap, if United can prevent Liverpool from finding space in the midfield channels and find Martial in individual battles, there is no reason why the Red Devils can’t win at Anfield. That isn’t an easy ask, though- Liverpool will be up for the occasion more so than ever, and with an incredible work ethic and team spirit, they are truly daunting opposition. That being said, after recent performances and the motivation to return from the international break, I can see United winning the match and Pogba being quite the spectacle.