As far as club fixtures go there are only a handful in world football that lie firmly in the ‘unmissable’ category. El Clasico certainly, which resembles a soap opera given the drama of the players involved. The Auld Firm produces pure hatred between the two Glasgow sides, as does the Derby Della Capitale between Roma and Lazio. The Manchester derby is fast becoming the Hollywood blockbuster fixture of which Sky Sports and Twitter’s football hipsters dream. Yet, Liverpool against Manchester United has something just a little different.
In a season of frustrating mediocrity Louis van Gaal has few chances left to achieve redemption. Despite the Dutchman’s, frankly, ludicrous assertion that his “philosophy” is working, Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford has been little short of a catastrophe. With the club some 13 points shy of the Premier League summit, facing a tough FA Cup replay at West Ham United, and starting Thursday night’s Europa League game two goals down to Liverpool, it is likely Van Gaal will leave Old Trafford having presided over two barren years.
Much has been made over the possible “Liverpoolisation” of Manchester United. United is mounting a desperate challenge to qualify for the Champions League, but with some irony faces elimination from the seemingly winnable Europa League at the hands of the old enemy, Liverpool.
There is obvious cause for concern at Manchester United this season. Rant Cast has taken to summing up United’s long-term prospects as the “Liverpoolisation” of the club. The obvious gist is that United, having enjoyed two decades of supreme dominance over English football, have come to the end of a cycle and that, for the time being at least, the glory days have gone. I’m writing this article as a Liverpool fan that has witnessed the club’s dramatic decline from the top – and whilst in the short-term United have obvious problems, there are completely different circumstances that will prevent the club from going down Liverpool’s path. Read More
“I can’t stand Liverpool, I can’t stand Liverpool people, I can’t stand anything to do with them,” Gary Neville once noted of Manchester United’s opponents this Sunday. It is a sentiment that resonates with many. And so often in the past this game would have been the most important on the football calendar; two North West giants toe-to-toe in another Cup final or with a League title on the line. It is a very different time for English football’s greatest clubs. Read More
“My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch.”
It was, as ever, Sir Alex Ferguson’s defiance in the face of media criticism that elicited the Scot’s best and most memorable invective. “And you can print that,” was the appendage that inspired a thousand banners.
Each has enjoyed the swing of contrasting fortune this season. While Manchester United has spent much of the post-autumn period in the top four, at one point losing just twice in more than 20 games, it is Liverpool’s late run that threatens to usurp Louis van Gaal’s side in the race for European football. Indeed, Sunday’s 192nd fixture between these side could prove critical in the in the hunt for a place among the continent’s élite.
It is the hosts that start favourites on Sunday, with Brendan Rodgers’ outfit having taken 33 points from a possible 39 since United beat the Merseysiders 3-0 at Old Trafford in December. That result prompted a radical shift in Rodgers’ tactical thinking: a switch to the 3-4-2-1 system that has not always served Van Gaal well this season. Still, it is that attacking outlook has brought Liverpool eight victories from the past 10 matches. The best form in the Premier League.
United’s results, by contrast, have largely outstripped performances since that December fixture, albeit until Van Gaal’s side thumped Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. Painful defeats to Southampton and Swansea City over the past 10 matches have offered rivals a leg-up in the pursuit Champions League qualification; United’s disjointed performances stretch further than two reverses.
Van Gaal’s side does at least hold a touch of momentum after coasting to victory over Spurs through a trio of first half strikes. It was a performance that United must build on, says the Dutchman, if Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal are not to pull ahead in the “rat race” for third and fourth place. Not least because the Londoners and United’s cross-town rivals each won over the weekend.
“We have to confirm it against Liverpool,” said Van Gaal on Friday, “because when we can confirm it then we can show that we are there. But it is the most difficult ground for Manchester United I have heard.
“It shall last to the end and we are very close, but a win helps – it helps a lot. After a victory you need another victory to confirm what you have done. But Liverpool needs another victory after the loss against us. That was their last loss – in December – it’s unbelievable.”
United’s victory over Spurs came with yet another system, albeit one closer to a shape that suits the talent on hand. After deploying a three-man defence and diamond midfield at times this season, United’s five across midfield swamped the Londoners and offered Van Gaal’s side both strong defensive and attacking platforms on which to build.
Much to the surprise of many, Marouane Fellaini has become an part of that midfield – and a potential match-winner on Sunday. The Belgian cannot boast the technical finesse to control the tempo of United’s play nor the physicality to dominate midfield, but has proven an impactful attacking presence this season. It was Fellaini’s surprising burst of speed and clean left-footed strike gave United the lead against Tottenham last weekend.
“He has qualities that now, at this moment, he can contribute a lot,” said van Gaal of the £27 million player. “That is why he is playing. He also allows me to give balance to the team and that is important for a manager who is looking for balance. I think he has to play higher and higher up and Michael Carrick has to play deeper.
“I have said a lot of times he is a player that gives a solution for beating the pressing of the opponents. That’s also a contribution, he has more contributions but that is one of his contributions.”
The price is a style of football that is not always pleasing on the eye. Van Gaal’s side played more than 17 per cent of its passes long last weekend – more than any other side in the top seven.
On the pitch United welcome Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw back to the matchday squad, although it remains unlikely that either will start at Anfield. Meanwhile, striker Robin Van Persie began training this week, with the Dutchman at least a fortnight away from the first team.
Van Gaal could name a largely unchanged side, with both Ander Herrera and Juan Mata set to retain their places in the starting side, although Angel di Maria is available after serving a one-match suspension. In defence Daley Blind is set for another run at left-back, with Rojo and Shaw making the bench at best.
Meanwhile, the hosts welcome back Lucas Leiva for Sunday’s fixture after injury, with Mario Balotelli also available after the Italian missed last Monday’s victory over Swansea through illness.
Rodgers’ side lay 11th in the Premier League table after last December’s loss at Old Trafford, some 10 points behind United. That gap has been bridged, with victory for the home side on Sunday potentially swinging the competition for Champions League football next season with just eight games to go.
“There is still a long way to go, but there would be a psychological boost from winning this game,” said Rodgers.
“I think the psychology of being so far behind United and then clawing it back in a short period, and possibly going above United, will help the players. We had big pressure games against Tottenham, Southampton and Manchester City so we know we can cope with the pressure.”
The psychological side will be keenly felt in Van Gaal’s camp too. The Dutchman’s side bounced back decisively from FA Cup defeat to Arsenal. Should the Reds suffer a reverse in Sunday’s trip to Anfield confidence could take a more serious turn.
“The next game is the most important game – especially in this rat race, but of course I know it is our competitor too,” admits Van Gaal. “I know it is, for our fans, the enemy and it’s very important. I want to win against Liverpool again. It shall be very difficult.”
Difficult. And probably decisive.
Liverpool (3-4-2-1): Mignolet; Can, Skrtel, Sakho; Sterling, Henderson, Allen, Moreno; Lallana, Coutinho; Sturridge
United (4-5-1): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Blind; Carrick, Herrera; Mata, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
Liverpool: Jones, Johnson, K Touré, Lovren, Gerrard, Lambert, Markovic, Balotelli
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, Rafael, McNair, James, Shaw, Blackett, Valencia, Di Maria, Januzaj, Wilson, Falcao
Liverpool 64 – Draw 51 – United 76
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Child
Fourth Official: A Marriner
Liverpool 1-2 United
£1 bet club
1-2 @ 10/1
Running total: (-)£1.50
Join in the matchday debate on the Rant forum
There was, in truth, rare occasion over the past two decades that this fixture meant as much in competitive terms as it does to the state of local rivalry. While the passion has always burned bright for supporters, only twice during Sir Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford tenure did Liverpool challenge for the Premier League title. Then, with Manchester United’s period of dominance over, Liverpool last season blew its finest opportunity since 1990 to become English champions. Neither on Sunday’s competitors will compete for the title as the 2014/15 campaign draws to a close.
Yet, it is United that begins the 191st tie between England’s finest clubs on the up; Louis van Gaal’s outfit having won five times in succession over the past month to secure third place in the Premier League. Brendan Rodgers’ side, by contrast, has lost four of the past 10 while crashing out of the Champions League at the group stage. Indeed, for the first time in 18 months, it is Liverpool’s manager, not that of United, whom is under the greatest pressure.
The turnaround in United’s fortunes certainly came at a key time for Van Gaal after a mixed start to the campaign. Victories over Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Hull City, Stoke City and Southampton have come amid some indifferent performances, yet the quintet of games has brought 15 points and transformed the club’s season.
After the worst opening 10 games to a campaign since the mid-1980s, creeping optimism has begun to pervade Old Trafford for the first time since Ferguson’s retirement in May 2013. It leaves supporters and manager looking to fresh glory ahead – and to genuine belief that revenge is probably over a Liverpool side that twice defeated David Moyes’ embattled outfit last year.
Van Gaal has rarely expressed doubt since he joined the club after the summer’s World Cup, but the 62-year-old now has the results to put a positive spin on a challenging opening 15 games of the campaign.
“I dream for Manchester City’s place or Chelsea’s place, but now we have to live match for match and that is the most important thing,” Van Gaal told MUTV.
“We have to beat Liverpool which is more important than thinking about City or Chelsea. I still think Liverpool can fight for the top four places and still I have belief in that team because they have fantastic players.”
Crucially, perhaps, United enter the match with the fewest number injuries since Van Gaal joined the club in July. While record signing Angel di Maria is unavailable for another week and Chris Smalling out for a fortnight, the Dutchman boasts more options than at any other time this season.
Despite the respite from what has seemed like an unending succession of injuries Van Gaal has faced criticism for his training regime; not least because United has suffered 43 seperate injuries during the campaign – up to 10 first team players absent at any given time.
This week Ferguson’s former assistant, Mike Phelan, questioned both the “intensity of training” and methods brought to the club by Van Gaal over the past five months. “They’ve brought in new people with a different way of doing things,” claimed Phelan, who is now a coach at Championship side Norwich City.
Smalling’s absence means that Jonny Evans is likely to start alongside Marcos Rojo in central defence, while Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young will continue to act as emergency full-backs in a flat-back four. Rafael da Silva is back in training, but not yet match fit, while Luke Shaw is out until the new year.
In midfield Ander Herrera, Marouanne Fellaini and Michael Carrick could start in a diamond formation. Three from Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and James Wilson will form an attacking trio that aims to break down a Liverpool defence that has conceded 19 goals in the Premier League this season.
Of that quartet it is Van Persie who boasts the best record of late, having scored against Southampton and Hull in recent weeks. The Dutchman this week admitted to suffering a post-World Cup hangover, although in truth the 31-year-old has rarely excelled since Ferguson’s retirement.
“I’ve been feeling very well over the last couple of weeks,” said Van Persie. “Physically, I can make my runs over and over again. I had a feeling that it was coming. I can play 90 minutes easy and every time it gets easier. I could keep going in the last minutes and that’s what you want. Then the goals, assists, wins will come.”
Meanwhile, Rodgers is able to call on both Adam Lallana and Mario Ballotelli for the short journey to Old Trafford. Lallana has two cracked ribs, but is fit to play while Balotelli is back in training after missing six matches with a groin injury.
Still, for the first time in two and a half years as Liverpool manager serious questions are being raised about the Northern Irishman’s vision. After all, while Liverpool lost Luis Suarez in the summer, the club spent some £130 million in the market to compensate. That so much of that money went on players who are yet to impress at Anfield is unlikely to have gone unnoticed in the boardroom.
“Criticism comes with the territory when you don’t win games,” claimed Rodgers, whose side lies ninth in the Premier League.
“Football is very short term. The same people who are criticising me now were maybe saying I couldn’t do anything wrong six or seven months ago. The message from me is clear: I don’t think there would be anyone better to do the job here. Seven months ago we nearly won the title unexpectedly, I had time to work with players and we took them beyond where the club has been in a long time.”
That run to second place in the Premier League brought two victories over United. In fact the Merseysiders have won the past three in succession against United and five in the last 10. Yet, it is a run that United’s form suggests will end on Sunday.
“I am aware of the rivalry,” said Van Gaal on Friday. Few United fans will let the Dutchman forget it if Liverpool secure another victory at Old Trafford.
United (4-1-3-2): de Gea; Valencia, Evans, Rojo, Young; Carrick; Herrera, Fellaini, Mata; Van Persie, Rooney
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Manquillo, Skrtel, Touré, Johnson; Allen, Lucas; Henderson, Gerrard, Sterling; Lambert
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Jones, McNair, Rafael, Anderson, Fletcher, Januzaj, Falcao, Wilson
Liverpool: Jones, Sakho, Lovren, Moreno, José Enrique, Coutinho, Can, Lallana, Markovic, Borini, Balotelli
United 75 – Draw 51 – Liverpool 64
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Child
Fourth Official: J Moss
United 1-0 Liverpool
£1 bet club
Robin van Persie to score first @ 6/1
Running total: £(-)6
One might hope by now that David Moyes’ confidence was such have that the Scot had grown a metaphorical pair. Not so, with Moyes seemingly more out of his depth with each passing week spent at Old Trafford. Even victory over West Bromwich Albion last weekend – and a comfortable one at that – has done little to lift the former Everton manager’s spirits.
Moyes’ hackneyed qualifiers remain; that United will “try” hard in the coming games, or that the Scot “hopes” to achieve positive results. Or even that his side has “played well”. His players have not, and this is not the Manchester United way.
Little wonder, perhaps, with United having lost 12 in all competitions this season. Out of the running for the Premier League title, out of the FA Cup, out of the League Cup; quite possibly out of the Champions League in the coming days. This has been a campaign of unprecedented failure compared to the last quarter century, with Moyes at times having lost control of events on the field, and perhaps even in the dressing room.
Still, Moyes’ lack of confidence, drive, or the air of a man in control with just 10 Premier League games remaining this season, is deeply worrying. This is, after all, the man who is reportedly to be entrusted with a £100 million transfer budget in the summer.
“Positive results in the games coming up would make a big, big difference and that’s what we’ll be trying to achieve,” said the manager on Friday.
“I hope we can show what we’re capable of in those matches. The players have shown that to me recently and with the exception of the Olympiakos game I actually think we’ve played quite well. If we park that game I think we’ve not been in a bad run of form and have had some good results.
“The players have an opportunity to go and show they’re improving. I think they played well at West Brom and there have been signs that they have been doing better. Our away form has been pretty good, but it’s at Old Trafford where we need to pick ourselves up and play better. We’ve made the opportunities and got into lots of positions to score but we’ve not done it. I hope we can show our best in the remaining games.”
Yet, with in-form Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon there is little guarantee United’s results will show an up-tick in the coming weeks. Not least with Olympiakos, West Ham United and Manchester City to follow before the month is out. It is a run of matches that will surely define United’s season and, potentially, Moyes’ tenure in the job.
However, failure, if it comes, will not be for lack of players, with Moyes boasting a fully fit squad. Full-back Rafael is available despite taking a knock to the ankle at West Brom last weekend, while winger Nani is fit after being sidelined for three months with a hamstring problem. The former Sporting player could make the bench, while Jonny Evans and Javier Hernández should also feature in the matchday squad.
The Scot has a key decision to make in central defence, where Chris Smalling and Phil Jones performed creditably last weekend. Outgoing captain Nemanja Vidić is expected to return, while Marouanne Fellaini should retain his place in central midfield.
“Nani is back. He had a really bad hamstring injury. But he is back and has trained. Hopefully we get him up to speed very quickly,” said Moyes.
“Rafael, Javier Hernandez and Jonny Evans are all coming along. They all have a chance of playing on Sunday. I’m pleased with the young boys. We’ve had great service from Rio and Vida and we’re using them because we need their experience. With the amount of games we have coming up we’re going to need them to be fit and healthy.”
Moyes is expected to pair Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in attack, despite the Dutchman being hauled off after an hour at the Hawthorns last weekend. van Persie has suffered a frustrating campaign, with whispers suggesting that the 30-year-old is seeking an exit.
However, the striker moved to clarify speculation this week, committing his future to the club. Whether that ‘commitment’ translates into renewed confidence and a visible change in outlook on the pitch remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is without injured full-back Jose Enrique, who has a knee problem, but Mamadou Sakho and Lucas should be available after playing for the reserves in the week.
“I think it’s the biggest game in the Premier League,” said Moyes of the fixture.
“There has been great history between the two clubs over a long period. Every game of football is important and any game that features United and Liverpool is massively important. [Winning on Sunday] would be a big boost. It would be an important three points. We’ve played them twice this year and they’ve been tight games.”
Still, United has won the last six home games against Liverpool in all competitions, even if each has been secured by just a single goal margin. It should provide at least a modicum of confidence to a team that has lacked so much this season.
Perhaps not the manager though. “Their league position suggests they’re ahead of us and they possibly do come here as favourites,” said the Scot. Indeed, it may be true with United 11 points adrift of the Scousers going into Sunday’s match. Victory for the visitors will surely end all hope that United retains of securing a Champions League place next season.
Now that would be a reason for Moyes to demonstrate a lack of confidence.
Manchester United v Liverpool, Premier League, Old Trafford, 1.30pm, 16 March 2014
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Vidic, Evra; Mata, Carrick, Fellaini, Januzaj; Rooney; van Persie
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet; Flanagan, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson; Henderson, Allen, Gerrard; Sturridge, Suarez, Sterling
United: Lindegaard, Büttner, Ferdinand, Evans, Smalling, Fletcher, Giggs, Kagawa, Valencia, Young, Cleverley, Welbeck, Hernández
Liverpool: Jones, Coutinho, Lucas, Sakho, Cissokho, Touré, Kelly, Aspas, Moses, Alberto, Teixeira
United 75 Draw 51 Liverpool 63
Referees: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, G Beswick
Fourth Official: L Probert
One of the most telling insights into David Moyes’ thinking came when the Scot told a reporter that he excluded Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic from Manchester United’s trip to West Bromwich Albion to “keep Rio and Vida for games coming up.” Managers should never to be judged by press activity alone, but the former Everton manager’s choices this season suggest that he views a deep-lying defense as a tactical requirement rather than a stop-gap measure to protect ageing legs.
The game against West Brom saw United win convincingly. Yet, United held a deep line despite youthful Phil Jones and Chris Smalling starting at the centre of defence, against one of the Premier League’s worst sides.
There were some knock-on consequences nuances too, such as how deep Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini dropped in the defensive phase, effectively becoming auxiliary centre backs as Jones and Smalling split wide at every opportunity. The move allowed Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva to close down their opponents at will, but United’s defence was still repeatedly pulled around by West Brom forwards.
With the engine room pinned in its own penalty box, Moyes’ side persisted with the much criticised direct approach for much of the game on Saturday. The incumbent United manager, however, use three distinct methods of transition and was rewarded with three goals.
On the left Evra consistently tried to hit the ball long to release Adnan Januzaj into attacking areas. While the youngster failed to fire on his return to the side the right flank proved to be more fruitful.
Meanwhile, David de Gea abandoned his more natural short passing game to directly engage the right flank, with Fellaini motoring forward to support Rafael.
Rafael to Fellaini was the most frequent passing combination of the match. The Brazilian frequently brought the ball forward and the Belgian midfielder overloaded the flank, holding up the ball and gaining time for Rafael to advance. Juan Mata’s usual natural movement towards the centre vacated the space for United’s full-back to fill.
But it was movement from Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie that won the game for United. Rooney dragged defenders out of position from his starting role at ‘number nine’, while contrary to expectation van Persie began a little deeper, arriving late into the box during an hour on the pitch.
The strike partners took turns making runs behind the midlanders’ defense and often made contact with the ball unmarked. Time and again United’s forwards received long balls on the run and took full advantage of the disarray in the home side’s back four.
Yet, with Carrick and Fellaini sitting deep, Mata and van Persie were too often isolated through middle. It is a strategy unlikely to inspire either player given the complete isolation forced on them.
Evra and Januzaj also had a quiet game, with the Frenchman frequently misplacing passes to the winger ahead. Fellaini’s brawny presence, together with Mata’s creativity, leaves the right flank as United’s most likely route to goal against Liverpool next weekend, although the former Everton midfielder’s form has been far too patchy to place much faith in him.
But while United’s upcoming game against Liverpool must be won to sustain any chance at qualifying for the Champions League next season, the Merseysiders’ rear-guard will be nowhere near as porous as West Brom’s.
If only to stifle the space Liverpool’s number 10 can exploit, United’s midfielders must be more disciplined in their positioning next week. With the engine room operating in defensive mode rather attacking the opposition box, Evra, van Persie and Mata will be in a better position to offer the variety required to breach the Scousers’ defence.
While long ball approach is not known for its accuracy, United must spend more time in the final third, if only to relieve the likely pressure on the back four.
In attack van Persie’s frustration was obvious at the Hawthorns, with the Dutchman making a series of rash tackles that could have led to a dismissal. Rooney’s inability to hold up the ball limits his usefulness in certain areas, but the Liverpool-born forward’s diligence in dragging the opposition defence out of position cannot be replicated by van Persie. As such, it would surprise few if the former Arsenal man began next week’s fixture on the bench.
Indeed, Welbeck’s physical presence is arguably required more than van Persie’s finesse. The academy graduate’s defensive nous will surely appeal to Moyes too.
Meanwhile, on the flanks it is likely that Antonio Valencia or Ashley Young – or both – will return against Liverpool this Sunday. After all, the under-fire United manager has long been accused of distrusting flair players. The Ecuadorian has often been used by the Scot as an out ball on the right flank – another target for De Gea to hit. It might just be very welcome given the current set up.
Deploying Valencia will also free Fellaini from supporting the right flank, enabling the 6’4″ midfielder to use his brute force in more central areas. The Belgian has not enjoyed a strong season, but he allows more mobile players some freedom.
Mata, for example, could be used in his preferred position at ‘number 10’ next Sunday. The Spaniard is a proven goal scorer and his experience playing with Eden Hazard could be put to good use closer to Januzaj on the left. In fact, much could be gained by dropping van Persie – after all, it’s the approach not United’s finishing that is causing more problems right now.
Failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League is not a foregone conclusion, though realistically unlikely. Still, the time for experimentation is long gone and van Persie’s ego cannot be prioritised over desperately needed victories. In any case, the Dutch striker can be deployed in Europe where the general lack of tempo suits his natural game more.
And aesthetically pleasing football can wait six months too – a manager used to working with technically gifted footballers could have replaced Moyes by then anyway.