Manchester United vs Liverpool Preview: Tactical discussion and Predictions

With the Manchester-Liverpool derby coming up on Saturday, the RealSport football writers look forward to the game and how it might unfold.

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(Photo credit: Stacey MacNaught)

With the weekend of Premier League football kicking off with a Manchester United-Liverpool derby, the RealSport football writers had an in-depth conversation about how the game will pan out.  

Jon Mackenzie: So Saturday’s early kickoff features one of English football’s bitterest rivalries – Manchester United vs Liverpool. It’s been a strange season for both – Jose Mourinho’s side have perhaps flattered to decieve whilst Liverpool have flip-flopped between the sublime and the ridiculous. Going into the weekend, the two teams are separated by two points in second and third position in the Premier League. Which team needs a win here more than their opponent?

Nestor Watach: Probably Manchester United, just because there’s more of a sense of discord at that club at present. Wins against Chelsea and Palace certainly helped, but I think they need more good results and performances to silence their critics. In a practical sense though, neither desperately need the 3 points.

Rahul Warrier:  Manchester United are likely to set up defensively and you nearly always need a win to justify that approach.

Alastair Pusinelli: It’s important to remember that Manchester United’s performances have been flat, and Mourinho’s men need to take some convincing form into their Champions League Round of 16 fixture with Sevilla. Manchester City are so far ahead, the other three places are almost redundant, though.

JM: Does that mean that the final position in the top four is unimportant as compared simply to being in there?

RW: Manchester United are nine points ahead of a floundering Chelsea, so in a playing sense the three points aren’t really needed. Both sides will look to second as a step forward, but the truth is City are so far ahead that it’s definitely a consolation prize.

NW: I think getting second would have a symbolic importance, but ultimately either team can settle with Champions League football next season.

AP: As the run-in starts, we can start to think about next season. As things stand, who could threaten City for the title race in 12 months time? Probably only Liverpool, with Spurs in with a shout when they return to the Lane (or whatever it’s gonna be called).

RW: Yeah probably only Liverpool can challenge Manchester City. Spurs could have a disruptive summer, Arsenal (post-Wenger) will flounder, so will a Hazard-less Chelsea. That leaves Manchester United as the real enigma.

NW: I can’t see either team catching City next season but that’s more of a reflection on them than Manchester United or Liverpool. I think they could even consider themselves unfortunate that without such a behemoth – like Guardiola’s crafted an English Barcelona or Bayern – they’d be in with a shout of the title.

RW: There’s going to be a lot of upheaval too: half of the Manchester United squad have contracts ending in 2018/2019 seemingly and the majority of the other half are all mediocre.

JM: What do we think the most interesting narratives will be in the game itself?

RW: It’ll be interesting to see how both defences cope…

JM: Yeah it’s a point that’s been made elsewhere – this season, Liverpool are known for being an attacking team with a poor defence while Manchester United are known for being a defensive team with a poor defence. Which approach will be the more productive on Saturday do we think?

NW: I’d have more confidence in Liverpool’s ability to breach the defence with their front three, than I would of Manchester United breaking and exploiting a Liverpool mistake. Karius is getting better and they’re finally keeping clean sheets

I think Manchester United have been a little better at home against the big teams – Chelsea, Spurs for example. I wouldn’t expect it the attack vs. defence aspect to be as stark as it was at Anfield, either.

RW: Given Manchester United are playing at home, they’ll ‘probably’ not totally shut up shop. But, given the form Mohamed Salah is in, you feel it may not be the best approach.

JM: A lot has been made of Manchester United’s comeback against Crystal Palace. Does this result not raise more questions about their ability to beat Liverpool than giving an indication that they are turning a corner?

NW: A bit of both. As often is the case with game-changing substitutions, the manager deserves credit for taking the initiative and forcing the win but it also raises questions about the starting line-up, yet again. The three in midfield that worked against Chelsea looked hopeless in the first half – I still don’t think Mourinho knows his best team or has found a system they can be confident with.

JM: Yeah you certainly have problems when you’re relying on Nemanja Matic volleys in injury time…

NW: As for the second half changes – it helped in the context of the game but isn’t a long-term solution. Moving Lingard as an auxiliary right back might be effective when pushing for the win against Palace but would be suicidal against Klopp’s aggressive press.

AP: Could we see United go ‘full Mourinho” and play a back five?

JM: Does he even have enough competent defenders to do that?

NW: I can’t see him trying that in such a big game

JM: How do we think the teams will line up from a tactical perspective?

NW: I think it’s undeniable that Liverpool have a clearer identity and an approach to their play. You can see the mark the manager has made. As for Manchester United, there are hints but they’re nowhere near what I imagine Mourinho wants from them.

RW: When it comes to tactics that’s the enigma. United have the better personnel in midfield but Pool have a more cohesive unit. That sums it up. One wonders if Scott McTominay will play, and if he does, what sort of role he’ll have. 

NW: But the injuries to Herrera and Fellaini limit his ability to do that. I think Mourinho would definitely have used their physicality to give them more robustness in the middle.

AP: Michael Carrick is fit…

JM: You say United have the better personnel in midfield but then go on to say McTominay could play… Is this a gamble that will pay off long-term or is this just Mourinho grandstanding?

RW: Mourinho only has Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and McTominay as his fit midfielders, so there’s no wonder why there are issues in midfield. When you look at it Mourinho has no settled XI at all, apart from his goalkeeper and arguably his striker up top.

JM: So this is Mourinho’s fault? Or the fault of his players?

NW: A bit of both. I think two seasons in, given the investment and the squad he inherited (people overstate how bad it was) you’d have expected him to find a solid system that works and gets the best out of last summer’s marquee signing, Paul Pogba. But then again there are gaps in that squad and he’s done well to register so many points without establishing a solid system.

RW:  They’ve not been helped by injuries either. No settled defence: Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo were injured. In midfield, Marouane Fellaini’s been out. It’s a sign of the times when there are numerous holes in a squad that has seen the first real heavy investment since van Gaal’s first year. So it always feels as if United are in a never-ending, transitional purgatory.

Luke Shaw, Bailly, Victor Lindelof and Antonio Valencia was my preferred backline going into the season but, well, we haven’t seen that at all…

JM: We need to talk about Liverpool. How will they approach the game?

NW: Liverpool’s 4-3-3 is pretty established at this point. That front three is non-negotiable. I felt like Mourinho might have settled on a similar formation after Chelsea, but that disastrous first half against Palace leaves things up in the air again. I can see him reinforcing the midfield in this one.

AP: Give the ball to Mo Salah or Roberto Firmino…

JM: How do you judge Klopp’s tenure at the club? Has this season been a success?

NW: Definitely. Their exits from the domestic cups will disappoint but aren’t that important. To maintain their challenge for the top four, whilst playing European football is a great achievement. They couldn’t possibly have challenged Manchester City. That they’re playing such aesthetically pleasing football is an added bonus.

RW: After City’s form how do we define success this year?

JM: Well if you’re Mauricio Pochettino then it’s defined in terms of trophies won…

Okay lets end with predictions – how do you expect the game to go? And what will the final score be?

AP: 0-0. Mourinho will suck the life out of it.

RW: 1-1 to United, a frenetic opening period followed by some scrappy midfield play and a dour end

JM: 1-1 to United?

RW: Let me cover up that mistake by saying it will be a 1-1 draw which United will get more from  psychologically…

NW: 2-1 to Liverpool. I’m not convinced Manchester United are defensively sound enough to keep such a fluid attacking side out.

JM: Thanks, guys!