Sir Alex Ferguson will be taking charge of his 950th top-flight game this weekend as Manchester United seek to get back on track for that ever elusive 19th league title push at Anfield on Sunday. Motivation will be high after the perceived injustice of the midweek loss to Chelsea, combined with the fact that this is the game most Man United players (and fans) look for when the fixtures are released at the season’s start.
Probable United Starting Lineup (3-5-2 v 4-4-1-1)
United will be without their strongest centre half partnership with Ferdinand missing due to injury and Vidic suspended after committing a costly foul on Ramires midweek. Brown should earn a recall alongside Smalling then after a decent goal-scoring outing versus Crawley of late. The perennially injured Brown is a seasoned campaigner and will have no problem coming into such a high profile fixture. The pair will likely be flanked by Evra and O’Shea – Evra picked up a knock at Stamford Bridge but should come through for this pivotal game. O’Shea should keep his place ahead of Rafael, largely down to the fact he is enjoying a rich vein of form; as well as being strong in the tackle he has worked hard on his offensive play, making himself available on the overlap in attack with aplomb in recent matches.
In midfield, Fergie will have to decide whether to deploy five across the middle to match the Liverpool system of 3-5-2 under Kenny Dalglish, or whether to combat this using a similar 4-4-2 to the one deployed versus Chelsea. I think the latter is likely given that Liverpool’s system relies on the fullbacks to provide width and with three centre halves quite static at the back; Playing a lone striker to crowd the midfield would mean a 3 v 1 situation for Liverpool in that area of the field, and so is distinctly different to the 4-2-3-1 system in that sense. Scholes also looked tired v Chelsea, and without Anderson, United’s best strategy could be to place the combative Fletcher (who was excellent on the right at Chelsea) alongside Carrick in the middle with Giggs and Nani providing width.
As an aside, both Carrick and Fletcher were awarded new bumper contracts this week and are essential to the continued success of the club going forward. After suffering a season to forget last term, Carrick in particular has become a scapegoat for fan frustration; yet a return to form this year is surely a reminder to his critics that on form, he is superior to his league counterparts in Barry, Mikel, Lucas, Huddlestone – and even the fantastic upcoming talent of Jack Wilshere at the present time.
Giggs will seek to get on the ball in more central positions as we have seen quite often this season (see chalkboard); The Welshman, who will break Sir Bobby Charlton’s league appearance record if he plays, is an astute reader of the game, and as versus City recently, his decision making will be key – Giggs likes to stay central when in defensive positions and without the ball and stay wide and work in tandem with Evra in attacking scenarios on the counter. Getting in behind weak-link Johnson could prove fruitful.
Giggs heatmap v Sunderland: Central (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
United passes v Man City: Staying wide (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
Berbatov should start the game having been rested in the last two. He will be disappointed in having to sit out the trip down south, but Fergie was justified in starting the goal scoring Mexican, who was tasked with pulling Terry out of position at every opportunity. Hernandez deserved the recognition of a ‘big game’ after a fantastic start to his United career, having largely impacted from the bench. If Berbatov starts, he will need to remain high up the field and leave the creative duties to Rooney, ensuring that Carragher, Skrtl and Agger (or Kyrgiakos) are occupied. Nani will work closely with Rooney who will search for the ball from deep and who looked lively in the first 60 minutes against Chelsea, scoring his first goal from outside the area in the league since Newcastle away in 2008 – he was also a threat coming in from the left, and very nearly finished the game at 1-0. When Rooney pulls into wide positions, Nani could have success in coming into central positions, using Berbatov’s clever movement to create openings, which he has exploited in deadly fashion this season.
Liverpool have Kelly out injured and worries over Agger and Aurelio, but are otherwise at full strength. Dalglish may be tempted to revert to a 4-5-1 with Maxi coming in on the left, but it is not overly likely given the relative success the team has had with the new system. The key will be controlling the central areas and using the width provided by the wing-backs – and whilst Gerrard and Meireles have been earning the plaudits this term for their attacking qualities however, Lucas has been quietly superb, adding strength on the ball and the ability to snuffle out the danger in much the same way Mascherano did for the team, to his ability to play the strategic pass. The chalkboard below shows how he attempted 13 tackles in the 1-0 win at Chelsea recently, dismantling the attacks by harrying the midfield and wide players. (Carrick too completed 5 interceptions in the Chelsea fixture, highlighting his importance defensively).
Lucas and Carrick importance (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
Meireles will alternate with Gerrard, pushing on and supporting Suarez and Kuyt in attacking situations; Kuyt may also adopt a right-side position at times and interchange with the aforementioned midfielders. Suarez’s movement is fantastic, and his particular forte is being able to drift in from left to centre, meaning that O’Shea will have to be alert to the threat, and work in tandem with Brown and Smalling to avert danger.
Fergie may be tempted to stick to a 4-4-1-1 formation meaning that the wide areas in the final third can be exploited on the counter attack if Johnson and Auerlio get caught up the field. Lucas and Gerrard will want to control the ball better in the middle than in the cup fixture at Old Trafford as United dominated that area even before Gerrard was sent off. Suarez has replaced Torres in the side since then, and is quickly becoming a crowd favourite with some clever movement and the ability to poach for a goal in the opposition penalty area. Passions will be high, but the focus of the team should solely be on the attainment of 3 league points and moving that little bit closer to the title Sir Alex craves.
Referee: Phil Dowd. A strong referee for a tough fixture. Experienced, and arguably the league’s most on-form referee at present. Will seek to control the game early, and is not averse to using either card.
Prediction: United are 6/4 to win the game. Back Rooney first scorer and 0-2 at 50/1 or choose Nani at 75/1.
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