11 September 2015

Liverpool at Manchester United 09.12.15

12:30pm ET, live in the US on NBC

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 United (h) 03.22.15
0-3 United (a) 12.14.14
3-0 Liverpool (a) 03.16.14
0-1 United (a; League Cup) 09.25.13

Last matches:
Liverpool: 0-3 West Ham (h); 0-0 Arsenal (a); 1-0 Bournemouth
United: 1-2 Swansea (a); 4-0 Brugge (a); 0-0 Newcastle (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke, Coutinho 1
United: Januzaj, Mata 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Skrtel Lovren Gomez
Milner Lucas Can
Benteke Ings

Well this is inopportune timing.

Coutinho's suspended after his red card against West Ham. Henderson and Lallana are almost certainly still absent with their respective injuries. It seems a week or two too soon for Sturridge to return, even if he is back in training. Liverpool haven't yet looked anywhere near their potential best, coming off an international break where nearly everyone was away from Melwood, and coming off their worst home loss in years.

So, yeah, it's not an ideal time to travel to Old Trafford.

Rumor has it that Ings will replace the suspended Coutinho. Which could mean a straight swap – Ings (like Origi, for that matter) is capable of playing as an advanced attacker on the left – or a switch to the 4-4-2 diamond formation.

The lack of width often present in the diamond formation makes me a bit nervous about that formation, especially given United's strength out wide. Liverpool's fullbacks won't get forward often regardless of formation, but Liverpool's midfielders will need to support the defense when Depay, Mata, Shaw, and Darmian attack. And as Swansea demonstrated, there's space to hurt United on the counter when United's fullbacks (especially Shaw) get forward. But Swansea scored their goals on the counter while using a diamond/4-3-1-2: for Ayew pulling into the channels to free space for Gomis, read Ings (or Firmino) and Benteke. And at the same time, the first four matches have also made it obvious that Benteke needs more support. So, yeah, maybe diamond, or what'll be more accurately described as a 4-3-1-2, with Can and Milner necessarily sitting deeper.

If not Ings, the only other option seems to be Jordon Ibe, his pace on the counter-attack a clear benefit, but Ibe's also struggled so far this season, tentative in the final third and more likely to be used as a substitute rather than a starter.

Regardless of formation, Liverpool will want to replicate their performance at Arsenal (except, you know, while actually scoring this time). Unlike against West Ham, the emphasis will be on defense and solidity and limiting space. Which should lead to improved performances from both Lovren and Gomez, who I expect will keep their places. Sure, I think Sakho's a better defender than Lovren, and Moreno's attacking ability will be useful in certain matches, but I doubt Rodgers is changing his defense for this derby.

And to be a little fairer to Liverpool, it's not as if Manchester United have blown the doors off to start the season either. They've scored three league goals to Liverpool's two (including one own goal), have the same total of points, and lost to Swansea last time out. United dominated both legs of their Champions League qualifier against Club Brugge but have failed to impress in any of their league matches, against an arguably weaker slate of opponents than Liverpool have faced: Tottenham (h), Aston Villa (a), Newcastle (h), and Swansea (a).

United's lineup is far easier to predict. De Gea will make his first start of the season, back in favor after his transfer to Madrid fell through and having signed a new four-year contract on Friday. Fellaini seems likely to replace Herrera in the #10 role behind Rooney. It's probably still too soon for new signing Anthony Martial, who'll most likely begin on the bench, while Carrick and Jones look likely to remain absent through an ankle injury and blood clot respectively.

Which makes an XI of De Gea; Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Shaw; Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger; Mata, Fellaini, Depay; Rooney. Which is a far stronger XI than United's league performances would suggest; you have to suspect they'll get there, and have to hope it won't start tomorrow. Clyne v Depay and Fellaini v Lucas will be fascinating battles, while Gomez will have his hands full against Mata, who, in preferring to cut inside will put him against Gomez's stronger foot.

That the league did Liverpool no favors with the fixture list to start the season has been mentioned time and time again, and we'll still mention it again anyway. This is not a match Liverpool need so early in the season, and after an international break as well.

But Liverpool have to play the hand they've been dealt. And the same can be said for United, nearly as unimpressive as Liverpool to start the campaign. Neither side's scored with any regularity in this short season, but both have been decent-to-good defensively. Well, Liverpool were for the first three matches, but the fourth is far fresher in the memory.

That loss to West Ham rendered the first three matches, and the positivity from them, nearly moot. We're right back to where we were last May following the losses to Palace and Stoke, at each other's throats with few signs of positivity, a seemingly unbalanced squad, Rodgers under the gun already. Which isn't wholly fair, but also kinda is.

There's no better way to wash that loss against West Ham out of your mouth than to get one over on your rivals on their ground.

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