The Premier League returns from the international break with one of the biggest games of the season so far: Liverpool vs Manchester United, at Anfield. Liverpool were held to a 1-1 draw away to Newcastle United in their last game, while United completed yet another four-goal hammering in a 4-0 win over hapless Crystal Palace at Old Trafford. The two teams come into the game in contrasting moods: United are flying high, level on points with Manchester City at the top of the table, while Liverpool are seven points behind already, seven games into the season, having lost their early season form and momentum, with a hamstring injury picked up by the influential Sadio Mane on international duty further adding to the sense of gloom around Anfield.
These two teams served up a stinker the last time they met at Anfield, with Mourinho parking the bus, handbrake applied, on the way to a 0-0 draw. The rematch in January 2017 at Old Trafford also ended in a stalemate, albeit a 1-1 draw, with an early James Milner penalty forcing United to take the initiative, and after a match where they dominated, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a late, late equalizer. United don’t have him available for this fixture, but instead they have their new number 9, Romelu Lukaku, who has been banging in the goals since his arrival in the summer. Equally important will be another summer signing, Nemanja Matic, who has single-handedly transformed United’s midfield. Jurgen Klopp’s summer acquisitions haven’t fared as well, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, most notably, failing to live up to expectations. We take a look at the probable teams and their approaches, and where the game may be won or lost.
Expected lineups and formations
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet; Gomez, Matip, Lovren, Moreno; Henderson, Can, Coutinho; Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Firmino
Manchester United (3-4-3): De Gea, Jones, Bailly, Lindelof; Valencia, Matic, Herrera, Young; Mkhitaryan, Martial, Lukaku
Mane’s injury is a big blow to Liverpool; his speed and directness are integral to the way Klopp’s Liverpool play, and they have struggled in his absence since he moved to Anfield last summer. Klopp is expected to bring in Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Coutinho staying inside in midfield. Roberto Firmino should get the nod up front for his work rate, especially after Daniel Sturridge did not play well against Newcastle last time out.
Manchester United have injury worries of their own, with Marouane Fellaini also being injured on international duty. With Paul Pogba and Michael Carrick injured as well, Jose Mourinho only has two frontline central midfielders available. This, along with the fact that Jose usually shuts up shop for big away games, leads us to believe that he will play with 3 men at the back, handing Victor Lindelof a first start in the Premier League.
Ander Herrera’s role
Ander Herrera would have probably played this game even if Pogba and Fellaini were fit, for he has been United’s ultimate big game player over the last couple of seasons. He was Man of the Match in the Europa League final, and did a superb marking job on Eden Hazard as United beat Chelsea at Old Trafford earlier in the league. Expect him to be used in a similar role on Saturday. He will be playing to the right of Nemanja Matic in United’s midfield, which would make Coutinho his direct opponent. Coutinho is a similar player to Hazard; he loves receiving the ball on the half turn and then spinning and dribbling past players, and he is dangerous from long distance as well. While Matic will probably sit in front of the defence and deny space, Herrera will be active, sprinting and snapping into tackles, and generally making life difficult for Coutinho, before winning the ball back and playing perceptive passes for United’s rapid front three.
United suited to counter-attack, could exploit Liverpool’s right
Manchester United have played a lot more on the front foot this season, dominating possession in most games and playing with an attacking swagger that has been missing since the days of Sir Alex. However, expect those attacking impulses to be tempered. Jose Mourinho is probably the best manager in the world with regard to setting his team up for a one-off game, and he will not want to lose to Liverpool. He will look to deny Liverpool space in which to play their rapid passing exchanges, and the three centre backs, allied with Matic, will form a compact block which will make it difficult for Liverpool to play through them. However, this United side aren’t only up for spoiling. Anthony Martial should start, given that Marcus Rashford started against Palace and has played two internationals for England since then, while Martial was left out of the France squad. United’s front three are terrifyingly quick, and the side will look to sit and soak up pressure before springing on the counter. Liverpool will play either Joe Gomez or Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back, both of whom are callow and young, and United should look to try and get Martial one-on-one against Liverpool’s right back, especially since Mohamed Salah isn’t known for his defensive work rate.
Liverpool should try and exploit space out wide
The downside of playing a three-man system at the back is that you concede space out wide. Liverpool possess a pacy front three of their own, even in Mane’s absence, and United’s centre backs are vulnerable to pace in behind. Liverpool will look to isolate United’s wider centre backs against their wingers, with United’s wingbacks being pinned back by their fullbacks overlapping, and Roberto Firmino moving across to either flank to create overloads. This should be especially true down Liverpool’s left, where Alberto Moreno will look to fly forward. Jordan Henderson is extremely capable of switching the play from one flank to the other, so Liverpool’s best bet of doing well is by exploiting the space out wide.
In conclusion, United are expected to line up with three centre backs, while Liverpool are expected to stick to their usual formation. United will look to sit back, with Herrera harrying Liverpool’s midfielders, especially Coutinho, before looking to pounce on the break through their rapid front three. Liverpool will try and isolate United’s centre backs wide, allied with the movement of their fullbacks and Roberto Firmino, and use Jordan Henderson’s passing ability to facilitate quick switches of play.