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The Great Red Debate: Looking ahead to Liverpool vs Manchester United

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In this week’s Great Red Debate, Andi, Jack and Ryan discuss United’s upcoming trip to Liverpool

Manchester United v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Ryan: International breaks are a necessary evil: we all love World Cups and European Championships, but the qualifiers and friendlies in between are tedious and annoying.

Mercifully, the most recent international interruption is now over and the players involved will be travelling back to their respective clubs to prepare for the resumption of the good stuff.

Manchester United have a longer wait than most before they are back in domestic action, with their next game taking place on Monday night (17 October).

But what a fixture it is to welcome the Premier League back into our lives. Liverpool vs United comes running into our open arms like a soldier husband returning from duty.

Despite the rise of neighbours Manchester City to the status of title challengers in recent years, Liverpool are still the main rivals in most United fans’ minds.

And, so far this season, Jürgen Klopp’s men have been impressive. The German coach’s gegenpressing style has seen the Merseysiders rise to fourth in the table, earning victories over Arsenal and Chelsea, and picking up a credible draw away at Tottenham Hotspur.

With United’s indifferent form to date, it is vital that José Mourinho’s men get something out of this game for fear of slipping further behind City at the top of the league.

The tactical possibilities are manifold, and team selection will be crucial. So, guys, if you could ask Mourinho to do one thing on Monday night, what would it be?

Jack: As unhelpful as this advice probably is, I’d ask him to be himself. I think this Liverpool team is good but certainly not great, and is the kind of side whose weakness is traditionally exposed by a classic José Mourinho-style counter-attacking performance. Their attack is mobile but inconsistent; their midfield is technical but lightweight. I’m optimistic that if United stay sturdy at the back, they’ll have more than enough to keep Liverpool at bay.

Of course, there are broader selection dilemmas that Mourinho continues to have, and I confess I think there are plenty of selections that could be justified. But overall, I hope United aren’t afraid to sit back and try and hit Liverpool on the break with the kind of attractive one-touch counters we’ve begun to see in recent matches.

Andi: I agree with that, but might go a little bit further. The one thing United haven't quite looked like yet is a proper José Mourinho side in the cynical, frustrating, borderline immoral sense. If you recall the wonderful afternoon when Steven Gerrard slipped and gave Demba Ba the freedom of the city, Chelsea had set out from the start to slow everything down at every opportunity. Taking their time over throw-ins, stopping quick free-kicks ... essentially, stopping Liverpool getting their attacking momentum up. The iconic picture is that one of Mourinho holding the ball away from two Liverpool players while they scramble to get the game restarted.

Now, obviously this kind of thing is completely despicable and generally underhanded, and not The United Way, whatever that might actually be. But this Liverpool side rely on playing at 200 mph, so it's worth trying to prevent them doing that. And also, since it's Liverpool, any moral qualms can be set aside by acknowledging that if it works, it will be very, very funny.

Ryan: Definitely. A lot of United fans initially expressed concerns over the unsavoury side of Mourinho’s model when he first took over. But I get the distinct impression that any shithousery against Liverpool would not only be forgiven, it’d be outright encouraged.

From a selection point of view, the latest online rumblings — which are to be taken with shipping container of salt — suggest that Mourinho is thinking of playing a three-man midfield of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini. I’d be a little concerned at Fellaini’s discomfort under pressure against a team who press so relentlessly; I’d maybe like to see that option ruled out.

By most accounts, Liverpool have done pretty well so far this season, what, or who, should we be looking out for?

Jack: First and foremost is the effect that Jürgen Klopp has had since his arrival midway through last season. As referenced above, Liverpool appear to have adapted well to his high-tempo high-pressing game, and United could find the first few minutes a little tricky as a result.

However, if we’re talking about individuals, I think the obvious answer is Philippe Coutinho. Having arrived at Liverpool from Inter a few seasons ago, only now has he really started to look like one of the Premier League’s top attackers. He’s managed to transform himself from an erratic flair player — a mop-haired Hatem Ben Arfa — to an attacker who manages to deliver elite performances on a regular basis. It looks likely he’ll start out on the left in this match, and United will have to be extremely disciplined defensively to stop him — or any of his team-mates, for that matter — finding pockets of space.

It’s precisely because of Liverpool’s penchant for intricate attacking play that the idea of playing Fellaini is one I find faintly terrifying. If he’s not going to be shown up by his positioning then he’ll probably be lashing out left, right and centre, and though Mourinho doesn’t seem to have taken a shine to Morgan Schneiderlin, I’d much rather he be placed at the base of United’s midfield.

Andi: The other obvious danger man is Sadio Mané, who has been fairly brilliant since taking the well-trodden road from Southampton to Anfield. But I think Jack's right to allude to the first few minutes: Liverpool will, partly because it's their plan and partly because it's United at Anfield, try to destroy the game in the first half-hour. So United, more than anything, will have to be ready and resilient from the moment the whistle goes.

As for Fellaini, while I generally agree, it's worth noting that Liverpool are a little dodgy from set-pieces. Which is why, perhaps, we might be seeing the big Belgian: not just as an extra presence in midfield but as an extra tall person at corners. (Not that he ever seems to do much in that role. But in theory.) Indeed, that might also influence United's choices in defence. I think Luke Shaw is fit, but wouldn't be surprised if Mourinho goes for Daley Blind at left-back and Chris Smalling in the middle, meaning that every United corner will have five — Smalling, Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Pogba and Fellaini — really large, theoretically good-at-heading targets available.

Who would you pick at the back?

Ryan: I think there’s a tricky dilemma here: the players who, as you righlty point out, would give us an advantage at set-pieces, aren’t best suited to dealing with possession under pressure.

To beat a high press, you either go through it, à la Barcelona, or over it by playing direct towards an outlet further up the field. If Mourinho want’s to play through the press, then Blind has to start at centre-back because Smailling’s passing is still pretty awful. And for the same reason, Fellaini can’t play in midfield.

But I expect Mourinho to plump for added physicality at the expense of some finesse. So I think it’ll be Blind, Smalling, Bailly and Antonio Valencia at the back.

Jack: Yep, no disagreement from me. I quite like United’s defensive options in general, but I would have worries about any combination being shown up by the incessant movement offered by Liverpool’s attacking setup. For that reason, it’s probably best sticking with a familiar selection, especially when it comes with the added set-piece bonus described by Andi. I suppose the final pressing selection question is over who’ll flank Ibrahimović. Any particular preferences?

Andi: Despite his strong form, generally adorable demeanour, and proven goalscoring record at Anfield, if United are to go with a three-man midfield then I don't think Juan Mata makes the cut. A sit-deep-and-counter approach will likely need pace on either flank, which to me suggests that we'll see Marcus Rashford one one side, and one of Anthony Martial or Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the other. Or perhaps Jesse Lingard, if Mourinho's going full Mourinho.

Ryan: I think Liverpool are a side designed to do well against teams who expect to dominate the ball. When the emphasis is on them to make things happen and take control, I think they struggle a little.

So with that in mind, I think the best plan of attack will be to sit back and hit them on the counter. To do that effectively, I’d play Martial on the left and Rashford on the right. As Andi pointed out, if it’s a midfield three, Mata misses out, unfortunately.