Man Utd v Liverpool: One big game, five big questions

Alex Keble

Will Paul Pogba’s position make the difference for Manchester United or Liverpool? More big questions…


1) Is Liverpool’s high line vulnerable to United’s counters?
The general territorial pattern of this game will see the visitors hold the majority of possession and patiently probe for gaps in the final third while Manchester United hold firm and wait for opportunities to counter-attack. That is still Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s method in big matches, and even though it hasn’t been as successful this season the 0-0 draw between the sides back in January tells us the hosts will again be conservative.

Liverpool’s defensive issues have got even worse since then. Fabinho and Ozan Kabak are vulnerable, especially when they are encouraged to hold a high line by an opposition happy to concede ground. Just as Newcastle United counter-attacked easily last weekend, United ought to be able to repeat the strategy deployed by Chelsea and Leicester City recently by hitting long balls over the top of the defensive line.

Liverpool aren’t pressing with enough intensity when the ball is lost, allowing opponents to get their head up and pick out a pass. Paul Pogba in particular can look for early runners, with Marcus Rashford the key player to look out for.


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2) Can Pogba and Fernandes expose Fabinho-less midfield?
Even without resorting to quick counter-attacks in behind, Man Utd can expect to attack successfully. Liverpool are notably weaker without Fabinho in central midfield, lacking the defensive screener needed to break up the play and protect his central defenders. This will allow United to launch counters, and it should also allow them to dominate the number ten space.

Paul Pogba has excelled recently from the left wing, dipping inside to join forces with Bruno Fernandes and overwhelm the opposition midfield. United’s opener against Roma on Thursday evening was a great example of this: Pogba dribbling inside, drawing players towards him and leaving Fernandes free to make a run in behind.

Without Fabinho to shepherd his team-mates, Liverpool are vulnerable to the interactions between United’s two star players in the left-centre zone.

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3) Will Salah and TAA find space behind Pogba?
However, Pogba’s presence on the wing is causing some defensive issues. The France international has never been the best at tracking back, and indeed both Roma goals in midweek came from attacks down the flanks with Pogba either absent or too late to get back. If Liverpool can break forward quickly in the transition, they will find there are open patches of grass in front of Luke Shaw.

Mohamed Salah’s brilliant turn and finish against Newcastle spoke to his good form, taking his tally to six in his last seven matches in all competitions. Salah only needs the smallest space to punish teams, and if Pogba is absent then Shaw will likely be forced to give it to him. As Trent Alexander-Arnold gets forward, drawing Shaw out, Salah can dance into pockets in the right-hand corner of the penalty area.


4) Is the 4-2-4 better suited to facing United’s midfield?
Klopp will probably return to a 4-3-3 formation for this match to ensure his team can gain some control of midfield, especially considering the threat that Fernandes and Pogba pose in Liverpool’s defensive midfield zone. But it might not be the best strategy to win the three points, and certainly towards the end of the contest it could be worth switching to the 4-2-4 used for the first hour against Newcastle.

Man Utd’s biggest weakness is having a flat central midfield. Neither Scott McTominay nor Fred have the agility or anticipation to cope with quick interchanges through the centre; both are regularly caught flat-footed, second to loose balls and easy to dribble past. That would suggest Liverpool can really benefit from the 4-2-4, in which Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota peel off the front line together.

These two could provide Liverpool’s midfielders with simple vertical passing options through the lines, bypassing Fred and McTominay to get the visitors into dangerous positions – in turn spreading a bit of chaos that may see United’s strong defensive structure come apart.


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5) How do Liverpool’s centre-backs stop Cavani?
For much of 2021 Edinson Cavani has provided the match-winning moment for United, doing so indirectly as often as he has done by scoring the goal. Solskjaer’s side can be vague and a little flat when in possession, struggling to work out how to break teams down, but with Cavani making highly intelligent runs their midfield players have the decision made for them.

Either Cavani runs in behind, stretching the opposition to create more room for Fernandes, or – more importantly – he drops smartly into the number ten space. The Uruguayan is very good at collecting the ball with his back to goal and flicking it around the corner, in one smooth action turning stale United possession into a creative opportunity in the final third.

It is unlikely Kabak or Fabinho will have the confidence or cohesiveness to step out of the line and follow Cavani; if the game is drifting towards a 0-0, with neither side willing to take risks, then the best chance of a goal is a sudden darting movement from Cavani.