Looking ahead to the Manchester United game

More of the same, please

The biggest game in British football will be played again this Saturday, and it’s all set to be a cracker. Of late, Liverpool –Man Utd games have been characterized by high-scoring but somewhat conservative football, with most of the goals coming either from moments of brilliance, defensive errors, penalties, or a mixture of the three. But this one has the potential to be a lot more open. Man Utd have looked unstoppable for a good part of the season, with bursts of attack and inspiration coming from all over the pitch. Phil Jones has been fantastic going forward from defence, Ashley Young has added another dimension to United’s wing-play, and Nani has just been sensational. In addition, there is an element of fluidity in United’s game that was not present in the last few years, even with Ronaldo. However, United have compromised a bit defensively to achieve their quick attacking game, and their rivals have had plenty of chances in the last few games. So what are these weaknesses and how can Liverpool take advantage of them?

Man Utd Weaknesses
1. Defensive Organization – With so much of Man Utd’s time spent attacking, their defence has not been tested as much as in previous seasons, and thus many of their defensive weaknesses have been glossed over. One of the most noticeable changes in their defensive structure compared to previous seasons is the lack of it. With Phil Jones marauding forward at every opportunity, the back four doesn’t retain its shape as much. Add to that Evra’s natural tendency to advance the ball from the left hand side, and there’s a chance that unless Man Utd are actually sitting back, like they did against Chelsea after going 3-0 up, they won’t retain their defensive shape.
2. Susceptible to the Counter – Another weakness that arises from spending a lot of time in the opposition half, and using both central midfielders and a couple of the defenders to advance the ball, is the increased danger of being caught out with a quick counter attack. With both Jones and Evra joining in the attack, this danger is exacerbated, and a quick counter can prove really dangerous for United.
3. Little defensive solidity in midfield – Man U are one of the few genuinely top teams to still play with only 2 central midfielders, and even their most defensive one, Darren Fletcher, is not an out and out defensive midfielder. Their centre hasn’t really been put under too much pressure this year, and Liverpool could make some inroads by pressuring them when they have the ball and forcing them to make defensive errors. Also, by employing either Kuyt or Bellamy in a four-man midfield, Liverpool can outnumber Man U in the centre of the park, because one of them could help out Gerrard and Lucas in the middle. In addition, the fact that United have no out and out defensive midfielder means that Suarez or Kuyt could exploit the space between the defence and midfield.

Strengths
1. Wings
– United have a history of some of the best wingers in the league, and this year it’s no different. Young has gelled in really well, giving United real width on the left hand side despite being right-footed. Nani is in the form of his life, especially so when he cuts in. One mistake that a lot of teams seem to be making is not closing down Ashley Young quickly enough. Kelly or Johnson will need to ensure that Young doesn’t get too much space to run at them because he will most likely get the better of them.
2. Multiple channels of attack – Because of their reliance on Scholes and Giggs last year, Man Utd had limited modes of attack since neither attacked the goal directly as much. Both used their passing ability and game intelligence to create goal-scoring opportunities. As a result, United’s mode of attack was predictable, with Evra moving the ball from the left, and Nani or Valencia from the right. This year, however, not only are the defenders getting involved more, United are actually moving the ball forward from the centre with slick passing. This is why they have been so lethal – it is impossible to stifle United because they move out of trouble with quick short passing and movement. It’s Evra and Young moving the ball from the left, Nani and Valencia from the right, and Jones and either Cleverly or Anderson from the middle. And I haven’t even mentioned the strikers yet.
3. Options – Not only do United have a fantastic starting XI, they also have players that can change the game, or the playing style. Giggs, Berbatov, Owen, and at least one of Park, Young and Valencia will be on the bench. They can provide Man Utd that much needed boost.

Lucas will be a key player for Liverpool

What Liverpool need to do
1. Lucas has to have a great game –
Of all the defensive-minded players, Lucas will be the one who will make the most difference. Nani has caused a lot of damage running into the middle of the park, where he has usually found a lot of space. He scored against both Chelsea and Norwich cutting in. It is up to Lucas to cut down that space. In addition, Lucas will be needed to help out both Enrique and Kelly/Johnson deal with the wingers. And he will be needed to keep possession in the middle if Liverpool do take the lead (which is a very important role for a defensive midfielder as it helps tire out and frustrate the opposition), and even initiate counter-attacks.
2. Find the perfect balance between pressing and sitting deep – Rooney and Hernandez’s pace, and Carragher’s lack of it, and the fact that Man Utd have looked weak on the counter would suggest that Liverpool should sit back, absorb Man Utd’s pressure, and look to counter. However, this would mean that Man Utd could bombard the Liverpool penalty area, and force an error, and there is no team better at doing this than United, as they have shown countless times when they need a goal in the last few minutes. If Liverpool press too much, however, United can play a quick ball forward, as they have also shown quite a few times this year, and most people would have their money on Rooney, Hernandez, Nani, and Young beating the opposing defender. Thus, Liverpool need to ensure that they get a perfect balance. United’s midfield in particular needs to be closed down quickly, and so too the runs of Nani and Young.

What should Liverpool’s starting XI be
The last time Liverpool played (and beat) United, the starting XI was a fluid 4-4-2, with a midfield four of Meireles-Gerrard-Lucas-Maxi, and a front two of Suarez and Kuyt. I would stick with a similar system, with a midfield four of Kuyt-Gerrard-Lucas-Downing, and a front two of Suarez and Bellamy. I expect there to be a lot of movement between Kuyt, Bellamy, and Suarez in such a system, and even Downing has shown that he can play on the right wing. This movement would cause havoc in Man Utd’s young defence, as Suarez and Kuyt did the last time as well. Also, since both Kuyt and Bellamy can play in the middle, they would help out Lucas and Gerrard close down United’s midfield, and the fullbacks in dealing with the wingers. And I would favour a starting spot for Kelly ahead of Johnson since I feel he is more defensively sound.
Kelly – Carragher – Skrtel – Enrique
Kuyt – Gerrard – Lucas – Downing
Bellamy – Suarez

Man Utd’s starting XI (Prediction)
Smalling – Jones – Ferdinand – Evra
Nani – Fletcher – Anderson – Park/Young
Hernandez – Rooney

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