Tactical Preview: Liverpool — Manchester United

Posted Jan 15, 2016 by Tyrrell Meertins
Once deemed the biggest match in the country, Liverpool’s clash with Manchester United has followed a contrasting route in recent seasons.
Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney scores during their Premier League match against West Ham Uni...
Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney scores during their Premier League match against West Ham United in London on March 22, 2014
Carl Court, AFP/File
Neither side seems destined to make a late title challenge, but the match still remains significant with both sides aiming to finish in the top four. Still, following entertaining midweek draws, defeat for either side would serve as a massive psychological blow. Jurgen Klopp’s initial title triumph at Borussia Dortmund was at the expense of then Bayern Munich manager, Louis van Gaal, witnessing the Bavarians failing to cope with the former’s counter-pressing.
This should be another difficult outing for a United side that is determined to dominate possession, yet the Red Devils showcased a hint of pragmatism at Newcastle, as they preferred to play on the counter-attack. This would be a wise approach at Anfield — both sides have struggled scoring goals from open play when forced to break down the opposition, and the risk of being hit on the counter would prove costly.
With that being said, the opening stages of the match could be very frenetic with Liverpool aiming to attack directly in transition when they win possession. United have struggled to start matches well this season, often taking their time to build attacks, which could explain their first half goal-scoring issues.
Therefore, gaining control of the opening half hour could prove decisive, and Klopp will be hoping his side — from an offensive perspective — replicate their start against Arsenal.
"From the performance against Arsenal, we have to improve -- see what we can do similar, what we can do better, what we shouldn't do again," Klopp told his pre-match news conference on Friday.
"If we take the right information, we can do better -- and we will need to do better. I enjoyed it against Arsenal but I think we can do better. Everyone who was in the stadium on Wednesday, if he or she could get a ticket, let's do it again."
The Reds will be without several key players (Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi, Martin Skrtel, Dejan Lovren and Philippe Coutinho) but positive midweek performances ensure Klopp may persist with an identical front four. But while Adam Lallana was positive between the lines and James Milner combined well with his teammates via quick combination passes, Jordon Ibe’s fitness, and overall midweek display, could lead to the inclusion Joe Allen or Lucas Leiva, along with a switch to a 4-3-3.
Elsewhere, Roberto Firmino has performed well in recent weeks — surging into half-spaces behind the United full-backs to combine with teammates — and two midweek goals justify a start. Although United’s defence struggled severely against Aleksandar Mitrovic’s physicality and link-up play Klopp will likely persist with Christian Benteke as an effective super-sub if the Reds need a late goal.
The real issue for Liverpool lies in midfield. Lucas Leiva didn’t feature against Arsenal, thus resulting in Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil creating good opportunities behind Emre Can and Jordan Henderson. With United aiming to dominate possession with either Ander Herrera or Juan Mata operating as a no.10, Klopp may prefer to deploy the two energetic shuttlers ahead of Lucas.
Liverpool’s midfield have thrived this season when instructed to disrupt play in central areas, and though it would create congestion, a system alteration would suit the Reds. Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger are still unavailable, leaving Van Gaal with limited creative options in midfield. Van Gaal may consider dropping Herrera deeper, after Morgan Schneiderlin and Marouane Fellaini’s failure to influence at Newcastle, and it’s evident that United are currently feeble in this area.
Ultimately, there’s very few ground-breaking changes Van Gaal can make. The back-line should remain unchanged unless the Dutchman prefers youth, but the attack isn’t so straightforward. Wayne Rooney is rediscovering his confidence and goal-scoring form and will start upfront, whereas the returning Adnan Januzaj offers selection issues behind the striker.
Mata’s preference to drift into central areas would see the Spaniard as a liability unless he plays in his preferred no.10 role. Alberto Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne may maintain the caution displayed against Arsenal, but they represent an attacking threat if space is available. United may be better suited offering direct players in these wide positions, but if Liverpool persist without a holding midfielder, the Dutchman may be encouraged to field the Spaniard off the right.
At Newcastle, Van Gaal placed Jesse Lingard on the left to cope with Daryl Janmaat’s threat from right-back, and the youngster may retain his starting spot despite a key second half miss that should have sealed three points for the Red Devils. Memphis Depay may also be rewarded with a start in place of Lingard following two positive performances off the bench.
Nevertheless, Liverpool’s key absentees insist United are slight favourites here. Though United may encounter issues with Liverpool’s pressing, they possess various attacking threats that could prove decisive. Martial and Memphis’ intent to cut infield from the left and make runs beyond the defence would fluster Klopp’s men, while Liverpool lack a reliable goal-threat in the final third.
The overall match, however, should be fairly tight due to a potential battle in midfield, combined with a lack of creativity and penetration from both sides in open play. But where Liverpool’s back-line and goalkeeping have been questionable all season, United still remain the team with the most clean-sheets, and arguably the best defensive shape out of possession.
Van Gaal may be suffering without the tempo-setting Schweinsteiger and Carrick, but United pose the bigger goal threat, and identifying the right balance in the final third will be decisive.