Sunday's early Premier League clash sees a resurgent Liverpool take on high-flying Manchester United in one of English football's big occasions. United are clear favourites at 1.85 to win, with a draw at 3.75 and Liverpool at 4.35. This is no surprise considering United's recent form, especially at home, where the Old Trafford club have won seven on the spin since their shock defeat to Spurs back in September. Liverpool, though, will be desperate to put a dent into United’s lead to help prevent them getting their 19th league title.
The big team news for United is the absence of Wayne Rooney through injury. Javier Hernandez came in for him away at West Ham in the FA Cup, but I suspect we'll see Danny Wellbeck play off Robin van Persie. Wellbeck offers a more assured tactical option given his work-rate and ball retention, whereas Hernandez is more about goals. Alternatively, Sir Alex Ferguson may consider opting for Shinji Kagawa to give his side more solidity against a ball-playing Liverpool side.
Liverpool will continue to be without left-back Jose Enrique, meaning that Glen Johnson will come in at left-back whilst Andre Wisdom will continue to deputize on the right. Daniel Sturridge will likely start on the right wing, with Luis Suarez down the middle and Raheem Sterling on the left. These three front players will look to interchange and cause the United back four problems with their pace, movement and trickery.
A key feature of United’s play this season has been their use of width. In most games they have opted for Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young as touchline-hugging wingers, which allows the side to really stretch the game. Given Enrique's absence, United may feel like they can have a lot of joy in these areas. Johnson is a capable left-back but he hasn't come up against many wingers who are as direct as Valencia, who had a lot of joy at Anfield earlier this season. In fact, both of United’s goals that day came down their right (Liverpool’s left), with Rafael bagging United’s first. Johnson was playing at left back then, suggesting this could be a key area. If we observe the average position Valencia (No.7) took up against West Brom a few weeks ago we can see how much width he provides:
As a result of this threat from Valencia, Johnson will have to carefully time his runs forward or risk being exposed. The full-backs for United will of course be more than willing to join in attacks and thus Sterling and Sturridge will have to do a defensive job, covering their full-backs. Neither young forward is particularly adept at this, however. Any lapse in concentration from either player could be costly.
Liverpool's front three versus an uncertain United back four
Despite United being so successful in attacking down the flanks, they have been incredibly weak at defending the same areas. Against West Ham, for example, both goals came from wide areas, a theme that has developed throughout the season. Evra and Rafael have looked vulnerable, particularly in the space between themselves and their respective centre-backs. Sterling and Sturridge will likely look to get into these sorts of positions, stretching the United back four with their movement, which in turn could open up space for midfield runners such as Gerrard.
Despite being the central striker, Luis Suarez's movement is unconventional at times. His heat map from the recent 3-0 victory over Sunderland shows this:
Suarez covers a lot of the attacking areas of the pitch. This will make him difficult to mark but also mean that he can pull players out of position, opening up space for Sturridge to move into. We might see Suarez and Sturridge regularly interchanging aganst United.
United's back four do not like players running at them, as we saw in their home loss against Spurs. Rodgers' side could profit here, given that Suarez and Sterling are the league's 2nd and 6th most frequent dribblers respectively. Sturridge, too, is well known for his inclination to run at defenders, something he did very effectively when playing from the right for Chelsea under Andre Villa-Boas last season.
It has been well reported that United lack solidity in this area, especially without a recognized holding player. Anderson remains injured, which means Carrick and Cleverley will likely continue at the base of the United midfield.Carrick keeps United ticking over with an average of 82 passes per game - only Yaya Toure and Mikel Arteta have managed more this term. Amazingly, Carrick only gives away possession once every 193 minutes - Steven Gerrard, by way of comparison, gives the ball away every 118 minutes for Liverpool.
Liverpool will set up with Lucas as the 'destroyer', with Allen and Gerrard as ball players. Liverpool's play as a whole focuses around their ability to keep the ball, which can see the three centre midfielders get quite narrow at times. This can make it dangerous if they are dispossessed, given that United will look to atatck out wide. Lucas will likely be occupied with Wellbeck, who will drop into similar areas of the pitch to link the play between United's midfield and defence.
United are rightly considered favourites going into this tie, but that does not mean Liverpool cannot put up a fight, despite their relatively long odds. The battles down the flanks are absolutely key, with United likely to focus the majority of their attacks down the right, targeting Johnson and Sterling. On the other hand, United are also weak at defending wide areas, which could give Sterling and Sturridge opportunities to exploit. The presence of Van Persie and Suarez will also make this an interesting tie, with both players in fine form. If Liverpool want to get anything from this tie Suarez will have to be on song.