Manchester United’s trip to Anfield represents a chance at redemption for both club and manager Jose Mourinho. For the first time in recent memory, both sides consider themselves genuine title contenders, but where Jurgen Klopp’s side are simply bombarding opponents, United are struggling to build a winning foundation under Mourinho.
Klopp and Mourinho’s battles on the European stage consisted of near finished products in Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, which certainly isn’t the case, here, but it clearly demonstrated the latter manager must identify a way to cope with the former’s high-octane approach.
Mourinho’s caution hasn’t proved successful against Klopp’s dynamic gegenpressing in the past, and last month’s derby defeat to Manchester City may encourage the Portuguese manager to alter his approach. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is expected to lead the line, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wayne Rooney start on the bench, but the main personnel issues for Mourinho rests in midfield.
Predominantly fielding a 4-2-3-1 this season, Mourinho may prefer to flip his system to a 4-3-3 to cope in central areas as he usually tends to do in big matches. Pushing Paul Pogba closer to Ibrahimovic – where the two have developed a positive partnership – is an option, but it’ll be interesting to see if he elects for Marouane Fellaini’s aerial presence and strength in midfield.
Ander Herrera’s excelled in a deeper role in recent weeks, but a pairing with Pogba would risk the possibility of being overrun in midfield, and it’s unlikely Mourinho will trust Michael Carrick in a deeper role against Liverpool’s pressing. Morgan Schneiderlin is also an option, but his tumultuous spell at Manchester United ensures that it’s unlikely he’ll play a factor.
It’s unlikely Mourinho will alter his back-line despite their dodgy defending that resulted in a 1-1 draw against Stoke City two-weeks ago. However, both full-back roles will be interesting: despite Daley Blind’s excellent positional awareness and ability to identify danger, Sadio Mane’s pace could trouble the Dutchman. Meanwhile, Philippe Coutinho’s reluctance to track runners may leave James Milner exposed at left-back, unless Georginio Wijnaldum shifts over to the left to negate Antonio Valencia’s threat from right-back.
Although Daniel Sturridge’s arrival aided Liverpool’s stagnant attack at Swansea, Roberto Firmino should be fit to feature in his preferred false nine role. This means Coutinho will start from the left and Sadio Mane from the right, whereas Emre Can may be awarded his first start of the season with Adam Lallana and Wijnaldum fighting to regain full fitness.
Firmino’s growth as the lone striker witnesses the Brazilian drift into half-spaces between the centre-backs and full-backs, thus encouraging forward runners into the box, and if required, Divock Origi or Sturridge’s intent to play off the last striker will be utilized as a plan B. Can normally wouldn’t start here due to Wijnaldum and Lallana’s form, but the German all-rounder’s inclusion would offer improved penetration and muscle in midfield.
Still, Henderson’s position remains key considering Ibrahimovic is renowned for dropping deeper to encourage runners forward. The Swede boasts an evident advantage over the Liverpool captain in terms of height and physicality, and may be encouraged to position himself into pockets of space in deeper areas.
Elsewhere, the positioning of Milner and Nathaniel Clyne will be interesting. Klopp could encourage the full-backs to push forward to peg back United’s wide-men, but that does risk the possibility of being overrun on the counter-attack. As a whole, Liverpool have defended well in spurts opposed to lengthy spells, but with the attacking players often interchanging positions in central areas, he may require the full-back to be slightly adventurous to ensure they maintain width.
Ibrahimovic’s versatility may not trouble Liverpool, here, as Joel Matip’s excellent display against Diego Costa a few weeks ago suggests the Reds can cope with opposing forwards dropping into midfield. But Ibrahimovic’s aerial threat could pose several issues in open play and via set-pieces, where United will fancy their chances of scoring due to Liverpool’s past collective defensive issues, combined with the concrete contrast in height between the two sides.
Though United may possess the better individuals, Liverpool remain the in-form side producing better performances and results as a whole. Out of possession they remain organized and diligent in a base 4-5-1, and their dynamic pressing fluster opponents into simple mistakes. Ultimately, the outcome hinges heavily on Mourinho’s midfield set-up.
Liverpool’s persistence to overload central areas, along with their energetic pressing could foil a United side yet to display collective discipline in defensive phases. And though Mourinho’s side pose a legitimate threat via the counter-attack and set-pieces, it’s difficult to see United controlling the game unless they engage in a physical midfield battle.