14 March 2014

Liverpool at Manchester United 03.16.14

9:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 United (a; League Cup) 09.25.13
1-0 Liverpool (h) 09.01.13
1-2 United (a) 01.13.12
1-2 United (h) 09.23.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Southampton (a); 4-3 Swansea (h); 1-2 Arsenal (a)
United: 3-0 West Brom (a); 0-2 Olympiakos (a); 2-0 Palace (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 24; Sturridge 18; Gerrard 8; Sterling 7; Skrtel 4; Coutinho, Henderson 3; Agger, Flanagan, Moses, Sakho 1
United: Rooney, van Persie 11; Welbeck 9; Januzaj 3; Chicharito, Valencia, Young 2; Carrick, Cleverley, Evra, Jones, Smalling 1

Referee: Mark Clattenburg

Guess at a line-up:
Flanagan Skrtel Agger Johnson
Henderson Coutinho
Suarez Sturridge Sterling

United's hilarious foibles have seemingly made many people more confident of a result at Old Trafford. As pessimism comes as naturally to me as breathing, it's just made me more wary of Sunday's fixture. There's further to fall. And it's still Liverpool at Manchester United.

It'll have been 15 days since Liverpool's last match. I've no idea whether that means the side will be rusty or raring to go. Or, somehow, a bit of both. Will two weeks' preparation give Brendan Rodgers even more time to hand Moyes' own ass to him, or will the layoff knock Liverpool off its eight-wins-and-two-draws-since-January stride?

Does Rodgers bring Sakho or Lucas – or both – back into the side after their respective extended absences? The conservative approach would see Liverpool dance with the ones what brung them, keeping faith with either the 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 diamond we've seen in their absences. Liverpool is, after all, still unbeaten since Lucas or Sakho were injured.

Sakho seems the more likely, given how Liverpool's midfield has functioned without Lucas compared to how the defense has functioned without Sakho. It's hard to find a place for the holding midfielder with Gerrard, Allen, and Henderson in the form they've demonstrated over the last month, especially in Liverpool's last match. Yes, that makes me sad too.

Sakho's return would most likely mean Agger's absence, as I'm fairly sure Rodgers won't try a Sakho-Agger pairing for the first time when at Old Trafford. Considering United's fondness for crosses, each's aerial duels seems a good place to start. Sakho's won more aerial duels per match than Agger, but Agger's won a higher percentage of his duels. Skrtel's won more than both, but has a marginally worse win percentage than Agger. Okay. That didn't help much. So I'm reverting to my default position: keeping the faith with those who did well in the previous fixture, which is also a trait Rodgers has demonstrated in the past.

However, Sterling could come back in for Coutinho, whether in the shape we saw in the final 30 minutes at Southampton or with Liverpool reverting to 4-3-3, with Allen most likely making way. Which is the same set-up which so exposed Arsenal and Everton, a compact midfield and defense before springing into life on the counter-attack. Given how reliant United are on crosses, it seems dangerous to concede the flanks without a fight, as Liverpool did with the 4-4-2 diamond at Southampton.

It seems fairly obvious, but whoever scores first will almost certainly win. When Liverpool score first, they've won 17, drawn two, and lost two. When Liverpool's opponent scores first, Liverpool have won one, drawn three, and lost three. United have been held scoreless in five matches this season, Liverpool in just two. Only at Everton, City, Chelsea, and West Brom has an early Liverpool goal not led to all three points. Incidentally, those four matches were all away from Anfield. Liverpool will almost certainly storm out of the gate, as against Tottenham, Arsenal, Everton, etc etc, but if United weather that opening storm, anything can happen. And Moyes, even being Moyes, knows that and will plan accordingly.

Because Moyes' United will be Moyes' United. They've options, especially in attack, but they'll play the way they always play. 4-2-3-1, looking to spread the ball wide, looking to cross, hoping Rooney and van Persie and maybe even Mata can conjure something. Soak up pressure then quick quick quick bypass the midfield, get the ball down the flanks, and cross cross cross.

The XI will most likely be De Gea; Smalling, Jones, Vidic, Evra; Fellaini, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Mata; van Persie. Rafael might be fit, replacing either Smalling or Vidic, while Evans, Chicharito, and Nani remain injured. Aside from Rafael's availability, the flanks seem the only places in doubt. Mata's got one spot, but the other could be filled by Januzaj, Valencia, Young, Welbeck, or Kagawa. Kagawa's still alive, right?

Januzaj has been United's best winger this season, and United desperately need a win, but Moyes has a history of defensiveness in fixtures against Liverpool. Fixtures against any of the "big clubs" really. United have just one win – 1-0 against Arsenal – in the seven fixtures against sides currently above them in the table; they drew against Chelsea and at Tottenham and Arsenal, lost at Liverpool, City, Chelsea, and to Tottenham. Which makes me think Valencia (or Young or Welbeck) will start in place of Januzaj, as happened in the 0-0 draw at Arsenal a month ago.

In theory, this is Liverpool's hardest away match of the final 10 fixtures; the other trips are to Cardiff, West Ham, Norwich, and Palace. Despite United's form against decent sides, despite United's home form, despite David Moyes. In practice, every match against Manchester United is brutal, no matter either side's form going into the fixture.


John said...

If we get past MoyesU that Crystal Pullis match looms large.

Anonymous said...

I'm more worried about West Ham "Carroll-Downing-Cole" away to be honest, a banana skin fixture if there ever was one.