TACTICAL football boff Chris Bland (@blandc_1996) shares his breakdown of Sunday's showdown between Liverpool and Manchester United.
Liverpool v Manchester United | Sunday 19th January 2020, 16:30 | Sky Sports
Runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool host Manchester United on Super Sunday as Jurgen Klopp’s hosts look to continue with their imperious form at the top of the table, and remain on course for that elusive first title in 30 years.
United come into the game on the back of two straight victories over Norwich and Wolves, and will also be buoyed by the fact they are the only side in the league to take points off Liverpool this season.
However, injuries are piling up for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, and these could have a huge bearing on the game, especially with Liverpool being able to potentially welcome back key men themselves.
Often a lively affair between the two sides, Liverpool will be keen to get one up on their neighbours, and Solksjaer will have his work cut out in keeping the Reds quiet.
Red Devils to hand Liverpool the initiative again
Marcus Rashford’s injury in the FA Cup win over Wolves will have thrown Solskjaer’s tactical plans aside heading into this, as he looks to build upon the 1-1 draw earlier on in the campaign between the two sides. The English striker is out, and the Norwegian could potentially adapt to his absence is particularly interesting.
Manchester United have shown throughout the season that they perform best when asked to sit back and counter, utilising the pace of Anthony Martial, Rashford and Dan James on the break, but even without the team’s top goalscorer, it will be no surprise to see them set up to do so once again.
In the first clash, Solksjaer looked to nullify the attacking threat of Liverpool by opting for a back three, and he could be tempted to do so once again. He looked to invite Liverpool pressure onto his side, with full backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson pressing high to provide the width.
The duo left spaces in behind for United to exploit, as they did for their opener, and by packing the defensive areas, Liverpool also struggled to break down the Red Devils, although their constant pressure and overloading of the United box eventually came to fruition through Adam Lallana’s equaliser.
James and Rashford led the line centrally, looking to run the channels, whilst the width came from the wing backs pushing high. Solksjaer could be tempted to do this once again, especially with the more mobile option of Brandon Williams at left wing back, and allowing them to pack the central areas defensively and stifle Liverpool.
Centre-half forcing Solksjaer’s hand?
Liverpool are happy to cross into the box both from deep and early, but United will be confident of dealing with this threat, particularly if Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof have added cover in the centre. However, injuries at centre back could hinder the chances of United playing five at the back, with Marcos Rojo, Axel Tuanzebe and Eric Bailly all out.
As a result, if United are to play the 4-2-3-1 they have favoured this season, the balance of the midfield will be key. Without Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Fred are expected to start, but the shape of the rest of the midfield awaits to be seen.
Liverpool will look to overrun the two in the middle, and this could force Andreas Pereira to operate much deeper than normal as part of the three, and whilst this will add defensive solidity against Liverpool’s three, it does invite pressure on and would contribute to Liverpool dominating the ball, particularly at the back.
If Pereira is to press high, they run the risk of being passed around by the quick, attacking movement of Liverpool, and thus represents a delicate balancing act for Solksjaer.
Mata vulnerable in midfield?
Juan Mata is enjoying an improved run of form, including netting the winner against Wolves, but the Spaniard may get overrun, particularly when considering the energy required to keep the Liverpool break quiet, as well as coping with the excellent switches of play that the full backs can provide.
Against Wolves, he started on the right flank, but he drifted centrally throughout, and whilst it helped from a creative point of view, it does leave the full back exposed, particularly against the threat of Robertson and Mane, so Solksjaer may be tempted to go for a more defensive option than the Spaniard.
Coping with the wide threat of Alexander-Arnold and Robertson will be key for United, and although it does offer up a potential avenue of attack on the counter, especially with the defensive work of the wingers in front often questionable, their own full backs could become overloaded, particularly if one of Martial or Mason Greenwood is selected out wide.
The defensive support James offers his full back is welcomed, but problems often come down the opposite flank, and this was an area Wolves tried to target in midweek, with Mata drifting centrally from the right and leaving Aaron Wan-Bissaka exposed. Although a brilliant 1v1 defender, the constant pressure he may be under does mean it’s a cause for concern, and could be an area Liverpool target.
The threat from Liverpool is obvious, and they should see plenty of the ball as United sit off. The lack of tempo in the first meeting hurt Liverpool as they struggled to break down a resolute United side, so picking apart a potentially compact side means they’ll have to play at a much higher pace.
The midfield will be key to this, and if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is to start, he could be the driving force behind Liverpool’s hopes. Fred and Matic can be exposed if the pace of the game opens up United, particularly with a counter attack, and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s ability to drive on the ball and link could prove crucial.
The betting angles
The injury to Rashford will be hugely damaging to United’s hopes on Sunday, and although Solksjaer will be able to adapt, it will leave them short up front without.
Coupled with an impressive Liverpool defence who are well suited to deal with the counter-attacking threat with their pace allowing them to play a high line, it could be a long afternoon for the Red Devils attackers.
As a result, taking a Liverpool win ‘to nil’ does take appeal at 13/10 (Sportingbet), as although United have shown they are a capable counter-attacking side this season, Liverpool will be confident of keeping this threat quiet.
Craig Pawson takes charge of this clash, and the card markets do take appeal, particularly from a Manchester United point of view. With Liverpool dictating the play and dominating the ball for long periods, United could be frustrated for long periods and given the derby nature of the game, it could see challenges fly in.
If forced to chase the game, United will be left open to the Liverpool counter, meaning that cynical fouls would not be a surprise to see. Priced at 19/20 (Bet365), Manchester United to have the most cards stands out, whilst the combination of Mohamed Salah and Alexander-Arnold attacking down the right could cause young full back Brandon Williams a problem.
No doubt the Mancunian full back will be fired up for this, and as seen in the cup tie against Manchester City, he isn’t afraid to get stuck in, and 12/5 (BetVictor) to be booked, he is certainly the standout option.
Liverpool v Manchester United – Liverpool to win ‘to nil’ (13/10 Sportingbet)
Liverpool v Manchester United – Manchester United to earn the most cards (19/20 Bet365)
Liverpool v Manchester United – Brandon Williams to be booked (12/5 BetVictor)