Only once in Premier League history has Liverpool against Manchester United been a first-versus-second clash. Here’s where the game could be won and lost…
1) Can Rashford and Greenwood find space behind Liverpool’s full-backs?
It seems likely that Liverpool’s makeshift defence will be in trouble on Sunday. Jurgen Klopp’s team will play with a high defensive line, as usual, with both full-backs pushing on to create chances, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s preferred tactical system in ‘Big Six’ matches. United will sit deep, absorb pressure and look to counter-attack in behind through Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.
Much rests on the formation Solskjaer chooses. He has plumped for a 3-4-1-2 on all three occasions he has faced Liverpool, but after losing 2-0 last January he may feel it is time for a change. The 3-4-1-2 potentially allows for two forwards to play on the last line of defence, but it would also limit their impact on the wings – where space often opens up as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson roam forward.
What’s more, the best area to hit Liverpool from open play is on the outside of their three-man midfield, because occasionally Klopp’s side are slow to provide support to the full-backs. United won’t have the firepower to play in these pockets, or down the flanks on the counter, unless they are in their usual 4-2-3-1.
2) Will Man Utd follow Saints’ example to expose Liverpool’s centre-backs?
The big twist on Solskjaer’s usual tactical plan for Liverpool matches is the personnel in Klopp’s back line. Jordan Henderson and Fabinho is not an ideal centre-back partnership, and Ralph Hasenhuttl took advantage of this last Monday by instructing his Southampton side to pump long balls over the top as often as possible. This strategy was so urgent and consistent they ended up winning the game with a quick free-kick clipped over the top of the defence.
Solskjaer will have watched that game with interest. It isn’t often a key part of his strategy (United’s counter-attacks are more about line-breaking dribbles than long balls forward) but the Man Utd manager would be wise to instruct Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes to look more direct with their balls forward. Quick, no-look passes towards Rashford and Greenwood could have a huge impact on this game.
3) Will United’s defensive shape stunt Thiago and slow Liverpool down?
This game appears to be set up, tactically, for a famous win for Man Utd on the break – but first they need to make sure they get their defensive shape right. The most important issue isn’t just about remaining compact and standing off the Liverpool defence, but surrounding Thiago to make sure Liverpool’s deep-lying playmaker cannot dictate the tempo. That’s what Southampton did, while West Brom and Newcastle did something similar when Henderson was the metronome.
In his usual 4-2-3-1, Solskjaer can drop this into a 4-4-2 when off the ball, sitting Fernandes alongside the striker to block off passes into Thiago, who is then sandwiched by a United midfield line behind him. If he goes for the 3-4-1-2 then that front two can simply stay side-by-side to cut off the passing lane into the Spaniard.
How United look when Liverpool are calmly passing the ball around the back – how compressed they are, how disciplined they remain – will go a long way to deciding the outcome, because the longer they frustrate Liverpool the slower the hosts’ football will become.
4) Does Man Utd’s narrow shape offer Alexander-Arnold the chance to improve?
Assuming United are successful in the above, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane will be kept pretty quiet, meaning Liverpool need to search for other routes to goal. Alexander-Arnold drew a lot of criticism for his performance against Southampton on Monday, and although much of it is unfair the right-back has only produced two assists in the Premier League this season.
Perhaps this is a chance for him to rediscover form. Solskjaer’s side are very strong defensively, but if there is a weakness it is defending the flanks; their front three can get caught too far forward on the counter-attack, and in the following transition the opposition is able to isolate and overwhelm Luke Shaw. If that was to happen at Anfield on Sunday then Alexander-Arnold may find space to cross for Roberto Firmino.
United playing a back three is likely to help, of course, with Shaw as the left centre-back giving support to Alex Telles.
5) Can Liverpool make the difference from set-pieces?
Liverpool’s path to scoring seems narrow, then, although an imbalance from set-pieces could swing the contest in their favour. Of the 24 league goals Man Utd have conceded this season 11 have been from free-kicks, corners, or penalties – that’s 46%. By contrast, Liverpool have scored 11 goals from set-pieces, more than anyone else in the Premier League.
The opening goal in last season’s clash at Anfield was from a set-piece as Virgil van Dijk rose to head home from a corner. Let’s face it, this is not going to be a good game of football; with United sitting deep and Liverpool struggling to find any fluency recently, perhaps our best chance of goalmouth action is from dead balls.