Manchester United vs. Liverpool – A Tactical Preview

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The importance of the match for both David Moyes and Brendan Rodgers – albeit for very different reasons – and the nature of the rivalry between their respective clubs may mean that Sunday’s encounter between Manchester United and Liverpool is more of a battle of stealth than strategy. However, here’s a quick look at how the sides, if they continue with the game-plans that have brought them success in recent weeks, may approach the game.

David Moyes has, rather staggeringly, failed to name the same starting eleven in two consecutive matches since the start of his Manchester United tenure. Nevertheless, a desire to examine the credentials of young defenders, ahead of a summer of upheaval, and some promising away performances from his front six may convince the Scot to redeploy the side that secured victory in United’s most recent match, at the Hawthorns. The main decision Moyes will have to make is whether or not to rest teenager Adnan Januzaj, knowing he will be shorn of the cup-tied Juan Mata with goals required when Olympiakos arrive at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. Ryan Giggs, Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young are all waiting in the wings.

Lucas Leiva’s two-month absence due to a knee ligament injury has seen Brendan Rodgers uncover a hugely successful formula, and there is no reason for the Northern Irishman to divert from it on Sunday. Captain Steven Gerrard will be the deepest on a midfield three completed by Jordan Henderson and Phillipe Coutinho. The trio will be charged with providing the ammunition for ‘The SASAS’ – Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling. In the absence of Jose Enrique and Aly Cissokho, Glen Johnson is expected to again deputise at left-back.

There was much made of the fact Moyes has predominantly stationed Juan Mata on the right flank, since his January arrival from Chelsea. However, in United’s last two matches, the Spaniard has been granted much more freedom to drift inside and get involved his side’s build up play. The heat map below, from the Red Devils recent 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace shows that Mata played almost as a second Number 10, helping his side to dominate proceedings.

mata heat mapOn Sunday, Moyes may look for more of the same from his £37million man, to combine with Wayne Rooney and overwhelm Steven Gerrard. While the deployment of the England captain in a deeper role has allowed him to showcase his exceptional distribution, it has also highlighted his defensive frailties. This was most noticeable during last month’s encounter with Swansea City, at Anfield. Gerrard’s inability to get to grips with ex-Red Jonjo Shelvey allowed the 22-year-old to lead his side back from 2-0 and 3-2 down, before they eventually succumbed 4-3. Much has been made of Rooney’s inability to link up with strike partner Robin van Persie in recent weeks, but if Liverpool allow the ex-Everton man to interchange with Mata, they could be in trouble.

This season has seen Brendan Rodgers shed his loyalty to the possession-based philosophy that probably got him the Liverpool job, in favour of a more direct, counter-attacking approach. The effect of this shift has often been devastating; the Reds have thrashed both Everton and Arsenal at Anfield, with an aggregate score of 9-1, yet in both matches, their opponents had the majority of ball possession. The key to the Merseysiders’ success in these matches was Rodgers’ carefully constructed pressing strategy – designed to concede possession in certain areas, but spring into action and win it back once it reaches others.

On Sunday, there is unlikely to be a shortage of ‘triggers’ – a player or area to which the ball is played, which induces all 10 outfield players to apply intense pressure to their marker – for Rodgers to use to kick-start this aggressive strategy. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were Moyes’ centre-backs at the Hawthorns, and while the pair are generally sharper on the ball than the aging Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, they would likely struggle to play quality passes with Suarez and Sturridge nipping at their heels. Even if the centre-backs are granted the freedom to play, the languid Michael Carrick and clumsy Marouane Fellaini will almost certainly find their time on the ball extremely limited. The off-form Tom Cleverley and 40-year-old Ryan Giggs are also available, but the pair would likely struggle even more against such a high-tempo strategy. The pedestrian nature of United’s build-up play so far this season indicates that Liverpool’s pro-active defensive style – led by the revitalised Jordan Henderson – could pay real dividends at Old Trafford, provided Brendan Rodgers is brave enough to employ it.

Sunday’s match is likely to be an oddity; in this era where possession is often perceived as nine tenths of the law, the side who has less of the ball here will be most likely to win. David Moyes will be keen to provide Rooney and Mata with constant service, but without a commanding midfielder capable of playing around a dynamic pressing style, he is likely to be happier if Liverpool are forced to take the game to his side. When the Merseysiders dominate possession, the tempo of their play drops, and The SASAS find themselves with less room to manouvre; they’re simply a different animal on the counter-attack.

Arguably Manchester United’s best result of the season, a 1-0 home win over Arsenal in November, came thanks to a compact and resolute defensive display, combined with an ability to make the most of their limited attacking opportunities. United’s approach that day was trademark Moyes, and a repeat performance represents their best chance of success on Sunday.

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