Because of the mere fact that I decided to write about this, none of this will likely happen. In addition, my persistence in finding Sir Alex Ferguson's phone number proved to be futile but had I reached him, surely he would have listened to my proposed tactical plan for Liverpool. Right? (sound of crickets). Uh, anyway...
As covered in our match preview, selection choices for Fergie are likely to be limited due to the possibility of 12 squad members being unavailable due to injury or illness. However, due to the versatility of the (limited) available players for this match, and also due to some of the anticipated selection choices by Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, Fergie might be able to spring a few tactical surprises in this match in order to outwit his counterpart. Back in October, when the United boss had more options at his disposal, the champions used a cautious approach at Anfield -- it allowed them to be defensively sound in their shape but it stymied their attacking rhythm. The result was a dull and functional 1-1 draw that neither side seemed too distraught about.
It's possible -- and perhaps reasonable -- that Dalglish anticipates that United will defend deep and look to hit his side on the counter. It's something United have done well in the past decade in 'big matches' during European competition and also in domestic matches away to Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, and recently Manchester City. However, what if United used a more proactive and less predictable approach?
Generally when United use a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape, it signals a cautious approach -- one that attempts to slow the tempo of the game down through calm possession or one that gets more players behind the ball when out of possession and then looks to hit the opposition on the counterattack with pace and fluidity when the possession is won. However, what if United used this shape but came out swinging?
In the diagram above, United's front four features pace and work-rate while having the reliable and calm distribution of two deep-lying playmakers behind them. In addition, the injury to Nemanja Vidic and the possible exclusion of Rio Ferdinand due to his chronic back injury likely results in a center-back duo of Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling -- a pairing that offers more pace on the turn and is more comfortable playing a high-line in defense. All of this is nearly optimal for a side that intends to press high up the pitch and control possession in threatening areas on the pitch.
In England, there's the mantra of building a side from the back. However, I'll describe this proposal from the front because I think it'll make more sense to start from there. Starting Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) in this proactive 4-3-3 shape is optimal because his pace and willingness to pressure center-backs is a must for a central-striker in a pressing scheme. In addition, the wide attackers -- Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia make sense as well due to their ability to possibly pin back Liverpool's two attacking full-backs. Their attacking prowess may cause the need for caution by both Liverpool full-backs while the willingness of both United attackers to track back supplements this tactic too. Furthermore, using Park Ji-sung highest up the pitch in a central-midfield trio would allow him to close down Liverpool's possible deep-lying playmakers -- Charlie Adam and Steven Gerrard. The best example of Park's usefulness in this tactic is his tremendous display versus AC Milan in this same role during the 2009-10 Champions League when he nullified the great Andrea Pirlo.
Behind the front four in this tactical proposal would be midfield maestros Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. Scholes could sit deep in front of the back four and operate as a deep-lying playmaker. The obvious concern would be his handling of Liverpool's highest positioned midfielder or 2nd striker -- however, the high line by United would minimize the space between the back four and midfield and as a result, Scholesy would have more cover defensively. From this deep-lying position, Scholes would likely see more time on the ball and be able to spray long diagonal balls for Valencia and Welbeck on the flanks and also for Chicharito as he works the channels. In addition, he could accurately swing the ball wide when Welbeck cuts inside and drags his defender with him -- thus creating space for Evra to receive as he gets forward into attack on the left flank while his counterpart plays narrowly.
Carrick is incredibly underrated as a defender and for anyone who might be vicious in their criticism for the subtle contributing midfielder, I would point out that he is currently second in the Premier League in both tackles and interceptions per match. His strength defensively is certainly his positioning and anticipation so he likely would stay a few yards off of Gerrard. Nonetheless, he could be in position to intercept passes or hold up the Liverpool talisman so that others could recover. In addition -- like Scholes -- he could provide tidy distribution from deep so that United's attack could be ignited.
The importance of deep-lying playmakers -- in this case that would be Scholes and Carrick -- cannot be understated. If United press high up the pitch and pin Liverpool back, then these two players may be the most important players for United's attack. If they're able to spray balls around effectively from deep, then this forces Liverpool to come out higher and close them down. As a result, gaps open up in behind the Liverpool defenders and midfielders and the quality of United's front four likely creates goalscoring chances. If Liverpool are overrun and fearfully sit deep, then both Carrick and Scholes have time on the ball to dissect their opponents.
As mentioned previously, the pace of Evans and Smalling is more ideal with this tactic when compared to the superb duo of Vidic and Ferdinand -- the two younger players are more able to recover on the turn when the ball is played in behind them. In addition to this, this tactic works well against a center-forward who provides the aerial threat of Liverpool's Andy Carroll. If you make Carroll play farther from goal, his won headers and flick-ons are then less effective -- the farther you make a target man play from the box, the less effective he is these contributions are. The concern from here would be midfield runners getting in behind the defense if Carroll effectively held the ball up or if Kuyt did this as a lone striker.
With the limited personnel at Fergie's disposal in a few hours, this high-pressing tactic makes sense -- especially when considering who he has available. Furthermore, this tactic could possibly prove to have shock value. Do I expect to see this at Anfield in 6 hours? No. If someone was insane enough to allow me direct United's tactical approach for this match -- with my personal consequences on the line -- would I be willing use this approach? Absolutely.