“Come back when you’ve won 18” they said. Well we’ve
won 18 won 19 and now we’re back and we’re on top again. Hello Anfield, Manchester United are in town.
The rivals. The other industrial superpower of the north-west. The other successful English club side. Tradition, history, fan-base, atmosphere and craving for attacking football – United and Liverpool share so many similarities that this fixture is just the ultimate game of the season.
Liverpool’s last game was Kenny’s 32nd since his return, he’s now lasted longer than Hodgson (31 games). Intriguingly if every competitive game was given points like a league game, Liverpool are only 0.2 points per game better off under Dalglish than they were under Hodgson. However, because it’s Kenny in charge, everything Liverpool achieve under him will be exaggerated. He can do no wrong. Understandable to a point, he is a Liverpool legend and the fans will love him no matter what but results have to match investment – a cool £110m in just 10 months (granted, that’s not a net spend figure).
This summer’s core recruitees have an air of sensibility about them, well sort of. Most have Premier League experience and are good players or have the potential to be good players. Downing’s acquisition seems particularly smart – the winger will always be laden with his early England failings after much promise however he is now a very good crosser of the ball who’s worked hard on his weaker foot to add more of an unpredictability to his game. At £6.3m, Jose Enrique could be one of the bargains of the window. He was excellent at Newcastle and finally gives Newcastle a good left back option.
Personally I’m not a big Charlie Adam fan. I think he’s a luxury player who has to be carried by his team. His start so far has been somewhat unimpressive from my point of view and with the return of Gerrard I wouldn’t be surprised to see Adam eventually relegated to the bench. Henderson is more one for the future but even so, one struggles to see him ever becoming a top-end player – still a good option to have (another one, like Carroll, who is lumbered with a price tag). Are either Adam or Henderson an upgrade on Meireles? For me, no.
Other players also joined including a second spell at the club for Craig Bellamny (two stints at Liverpool and one at City… could he be more dislikeable?). Importantly, plenty of deadwood and sub-averageness left albeit at rock bottom prices. There is something of a rebuilding phase going on at Anfield – talented youth (some not in the first team yet) being merged with experience and big signings. The issue is of course that Champions League football is expected if not this season then next. Do Liverpool have the quality that the other top teams have and do they have good enough squad players? With the exceptions of Suarez, Reina and Gerrard, I’m not sure that they do yet. Progress this year will be the return of European football but let’s face it, no Liverpool fan really wants Europa League stuff.
As starts to the season go, it’s been uncharacteristically good for United. Before the International break they were joint top of the table and unbeaten – not quite a 100% record, a draw in their last away game at Stoke ensured two points have been dropped so far. With 7 points already gained from three away games, United are already doing infinitely better than last season. Bolton was the only clean sheet kept on their travels but it’s worth noting United have scored in every game so far this season.
Wayne Rooney is the league’s top scorer with 9 goals (Suarez is Liverpool’s top scorer with 4). Assists-wise, Ashley Young is joint second with 5 assists – just behind him are Adam and Kuyt, both on three.
Liverpool are 5th after seven games and have already lost twice – both away from home. Goals haven’t been free-flowing for them as of yet – they’ve failed to score in two of their games and are yet to keep a clean sheet at home. Victories at home over Wolves and Bolton were routine even if they both contained the odd scare however the opening day draw against Sunderland suggests that Anfield isn’t quite a fortress yet this season. They went into the international break in perfect fashion, winning 2-0 away at neighbours Everton.
The United squad is as strong as it’s been in some time. Only Rafael, Cleverley (and Gibson) remain sidelined, although Rafael is back in training. Vidic is available but may miss out if he feels he’s not ready for such an intense game yet. International knocks to Fabio, Evra and Young have been brushed off by Ferguson – they are all fit.
Liverpool have no players missing – Glen Johnson, Martin Kelly, Daniel Agger and Fabio Aurelio are all back and available. Steven Gerrard is expected to make his first start in seven months for the side.
United formation and starting XI prediction:
Diabolical recent showings at Anfield have often come back to the initial selection – too bold, too brave. It’s nice to think United can always play a 4-4-2 and take the game to the opposition; but the reality is that sometimes a system has to be changed to prevent defeat first and foremost. Liverpool is one of those cases and this time, we have to match them with a 4-5-1. That’s not to say it has to be negative, on the counter the team I’ve chosen will still have pace and trickery but importantly it should be able to defend against Liverpool well and not be overrun in the middle.
De Gea will no doubt get a hostile reception at Anfield and if the Liverpool fans have any sense of humour, he may even expect the odd doughnut hurled in his direction. In front of him there may at long last be a first choice centre back pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand (only started two games together this season – City and WBA). Evra picks himself at left back whilst right back is a little less clear. Fabio, Jones and Smalling are fit. I’d rule Fabio out simply because the other two have played more this year and I’d pick Smalling ahead of Jones. Jones has been excellent but he is defensively naive and positionally poor – this isn’t a game that he can afford to make mistakes in at the back so Smalling who is more assured defensively at the moment would be my choice to start.
The last thing United want in the midfield area is to be overrun. Playing a five man midfield should ensure that doesn’t happen and doesn’t therefore necessitate a holding midfielder – Carrick. Fletcher and Anderson will have to do most of the work and prove they can play together in a pair, with Giggs providing the link between midfield and attack just ahead of them. Giggs has proven that age isn’t slowing him down and has been thriving in a fairly undefined free central role.
Out wide, Nani and Young provide a really dangerous threat – Liverpool’s right back area is a weakness and both will want turns running at whoever starts there. Valencia and Park offer less dynamic but more hard working options too. Rooney is the obvious choice of striker to lead the line – a bench with Welbeck, Hernandez and Berbatov on it offers scarily good potential if United have to chase the game.
Gerrard vs. Fletcher – Liverpool’s captain is back. Stevie Gee after 7 months without a start is set to return in his familiar midfield role playing behind a striker – probably Suarez. After so long out he may well be off the pace or age may have caught up with him a little bit but there’s no doubting that their talisman is a danger and a crowd-lifter. So often, stopping him can mean stopping Liverpool.
There should be a particular emphasis on stopping Gerrard should he play; more so than usual. United have failed to have any control over the midfield area in recent years and have generally allowed a playmaker to play around them. Stopping Gerrard effectively brings it back to two vs two in the middle – something United thrive on (particularly if Adam also starts).
Tasked with this job you’d have thought would be Darren Fletcher (football genius (FYI, that is from a chant)). He’s back to good form now after a sluggish start following his long virus-induced lay-off. His energy, work rate and calmness in possession are key features that the United midfield has been benefiting from. Importantly he’s an ‘in your face’ kind of player – he’ll get stuck in and attempt to ruffle-up whoever he’s up against. On Gerrard’s return, the last thing he’ll want will be a pumped Darren Fletcher snapping at his heels.
There’s little doubt that Suarez vs. the United defence will be huge as will Nani/Young vs. Liverpool’s right back but previous games against Liverpool have been lost in the middle. This year it’s time to right that wrong and Darren Fletcher may be key to that.
History and last meeting:
182 previous competitive games have been played between these great sides. United are looking for their 61st league win at Anfield and 10th in the Premier League era. It’ll be the 20th Premier League meeting at Anfield and surprisingly United have a winning record, losing on 7 occasions.
Last season this fixture ended 3-1 to Liverpool. Dirk Kuyt’s easy hat-trick was a real low point in such a wonderful season (19 times). A late consolation goal from Javier Hernandez ensured there would be no clean sheet for Reina. Sadly my immediate memory of the game is Carragher’s assault on Nani – well, no assault but it was a bloody awful challenge and he should have been sent off.
This seems like such a hard game to call – United have had a good start to the season and simply cannot be as bad as last year at Anfield; Liverpool have been strong at home but their own recent form has not been convincing. A lot may hinge on whether Ferguson goes with a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 – should it be the former as I hope it will, then I’ll predict a 2-1 United win.
Andre Marriner – his second United game of the season – the first one was also an away game, at Bolton. His early season form indicates some first half leniency with his yellow cards but he can get quite card happy late on in the game.
There are no real squad connections but Charlie Adam is a United fan and has in the past had (and may still have) season tickets at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, up until last year the two sides were connected on 18 league titles but United are now the top dogs in the land with 19 in case you didn’t know.
– There have been four red cards in the last four Premier League meetings at Anfield – three for United.
– The last three Anfield visits have all ended in defeat.
– United have scored five goals in the last five minutes of games this season.
Ferguson on Rio and Vidic: “Rio and Nemanja are well aware they are going to have to play well to keep their places. Rio is back to his best form… the big question mark is whether Vidic is ready.”
Ferguson on Evans: “Jonny Evans’ form has been absolutely brilliant so I don’t have any real concerns about who I play because they’re all playing particularly well.”
Ferguson on the atmosphere at Anfield: “The history both clubs have should be appreciated by both sets of fans. That’s sometimes annoying when I hear silly chants about Munich, about Hillsborough, I don’t think it does either club any good at all because, without each other, there wouldn’t be the English league.”
Rio on Anfield: “Anfield is a hostile place, but there is no better place to win at as a Manchester United player.”
Dalglish on United: “There is no point in being envious. They’ve set a standard for everyone else to follow or surpass and it’s up to us to take up the challenge and we’ll try our best to do that.”
Downing on the International break: “If we beat Manchester United we’ll say the break did us good. If we don’t people will point the finger and say the break killed us a bit.”
Adam on the Liverpool challenge: “It’s not about sending out a message, it’s your own pride and performance being at this club. We have to win every game at this club and that’s our challenge.”
For all pre-match banter, tactical discussions, team and score predictions click here.
Pre-match blog looking at the midfield battle and how that will be key.
Q&A with a Liverpool fan covering varies aspects of the United-Liverpool rivalry.