12 January 2013

Liverpool at Manchester United 01.13.13

8:30am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 United (h) 09.23.12
1-2 United (a) 02.11.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.28.12
1-1 (h) 10.15.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Mansfield (a); 3-0 Sunderland (h); 3-0 QPR (a)
United: 2-2 West Ham (a); 4-0 Wigan (a); 2-0 West Brom (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 15; Gerrard 4; Agger, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin 1
United: van Persie 16; Chicharito 8; Rooney 7; Evra 4; Evans 3; Cleverley, Kagawa, Rafael 2; Buttner, Fletcher, Nani, Powell, Scholes, Welbeck 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Guess at a line-up:
Reina
Wisdom Skrtel Agger Johnson
Gerrard Lucas
Henderson
Sturridge Suarez Sterling

If Rodgers sticks with his usual formation, there are only a handful of selection decisions, with most of Liverpool's spine same as it ever was.

The first is at full-back: does Rodgers continue with Wisdom on the right and Johnson on the left, or does Downing drop into defense? Downing's started in the front three in the two matches since Enrique's injury, but that's less needed with Sturridge available (while Borini's also soon to return). Johnson's equally comfortable on either flank. Which means it'll come down to whether Rodgers trusts the 19-year-old Wisdom, likely to be facing either Young or Welbeck. Wisdom did well against the dangerous James McClean in Liverpool's last league match, but I can't help remembering how he was tormented by Kevin Mirallas at Goodison a few months back – another contentious, high-stakes high-strung derby. Not that Downing at left back is a much stronger option.

The second is in midfield, specifically the attacking role. Lucas and Gerrard have (rightfully, on form) become the default controlling pair – which is a large reason why Şahin's loan has prematurely ended. Will the third midfielder be Allen, Henderson, or Shelvey? I think we can rule out the third option, partly because of his red card in the reverse fixture, partly because the other two have been far better than him recently. We saw Allen in an advanced role as a substitute against Sunderland, moving well in attack and unlucky not to score his first Liverpool goal; he could help Liverpool keep possession higher up the pitch. But Henderson's impressed in his last two starts, he's usually quite good on the counter, and his pressing from the front could be crucial in blunting United's attacks before they break, putting a defense prone to errors under even more pressure.

The third is about how Suarez and Sturridge would line up when playing together, discussed almost ad nauseum already. Does Suarez shift out to the flanks, something that's rarely happened during his Liverpool career, or does Sturridge reprise the role he played so well under Andre Villas-Boas? The phrasing of that rhetorical question probably reveals my preference, but we've seen more than a few quotes about how Rodgers sees central striker as Sturridge's best position.

However, "Bib Theory" suggests Rodgers might have something wholly different in mind. Those highlighted were Reina, Wisdom, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, Lucas, Allen, Henderson, Gerrard, Suarez, and Downing. Which could be either the usual formation with Gerrard in the front three, or 3-5-2 with Johnson and Downing at wing-back. Either way, both Sturridge and Sterling would be on the bench, with Liverpool looking to pack the midfield and (aside from Wisdom) go for "experience." 3-5-2 makes some amount of sense, nullifying United's main threat down the flanks and in front of the 18-yard-box, offering more protection against Enrique's absence, but at the cost of Liverpool's attack. Liverpool have played three at the back in three matches: the second half against Everton and from the start for about an hour against Chelsea and Anzhi. Liverpool failed to score in those 170 or so minutes, but also conceded just twice – once from a set play, once from a Liverpool error with both Coates and Carragher caught out. So maybe bib theory will prove true again. Or maybe Rodgers is just screwing with both United and us.

As for that lot. Ferguson seems almost certain to deploy 4-2-3-1, the primary formation used this season. Rooney has been ruled out through injury – taken with multiple massive grains of salt – while Jones, Anderson, and Nani are doubtful. Even with those four players missing, it's not as if United as lacking for options. Unsurprisingly.

De Gea will probably be in goal rather than Lindegaard; Rafael and Evra are the likely full-backs. But which two from Ferdinand, Vidic, and Evans will start at center-back? Ferguson will also have to pick two from Scholes, Carrick, and Cleverley in midfield; the latter two seem more likely, but preferring Scholes' experience in this match isn't outside the realm of possibility. Valencia and Young are the usual wide players, but Welbeck, Giggs, Nani if fit, or even van Persie could play there. And while Kagawa in the hole and van Persie up front have been the central attackers in Rooney's absence, Hernandez could also start as the spearhead with van Persie dropping off. And then, again, there's also Welbeck, and probably Rooney since Ferguson's probably telling lies. So many choices. So many hateable choices.

No matter the encouraging wins during the last few weeks, Liverpool still haven't beaten a team above them in the table. At the same time, Liverpool have lost eight of their last nine matches at Old Trafford (how about that ninth though, huh?), a streak stretching back to Rafa Benitez's first season.

United's questionable defense – actually conceding two more goals than Liverpool so far this season – presents opportunities. But United's outstanding, irrepressible attack presents a massive challenge. It goes without saying that an away match at the near-runaway league leaders, a local rivalry no less, will be Liverpool's toughest match of the season. Wins against lowly Fulham, Sunderland, and QPR were much needed and warmly welcomed, especially after the losses to Villa and Stoke, but this challenge will tell us even more about the progress made over the festive season.

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