Lauded as the biggest match of the Premier League season, Manchester United will open Matchweek 30 at Old Trafford where they’ll host bitter rivals Liverpool. Coming off of an unbelievable comeback win Monday against Crystal Palace, the Red Devils are looking to hold a comfortable spot at second place, leaving Jürgen Klopp’s men fighting for third against the likes of Tottenham and Chelsea.
While Mourinho’s men celebrated a come-from-behind victory earlier this week, The Reds punched their tickets into the Champions League quarterfinals on Tuesday with a goalless draw against FC Porto (they beat the Portuguese team in the first leg 5-0). With much at stake for both clubs, the pressure heavily rests on Mourinho’s side to remedy some mistakes that saw them down two goals at Selhurst Park early into the second half. In order for United to widen their point margin by five, I believe they must make these three tactical improvements.
Jose Mourinho knows he cannot lose at home to Liverpool, so naturally I would hope (read: expect) him to use a 4-3-3 lineup, with the midfield balance being Nemanja Matić, Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba. Of course, Mourinho must do what’s best with the available talent, but it could be advantageous for him to use Juan Mata in place of McTominay, as his experience will be a bigger asset for a match like this. Given his penchant for goals against Liverpool, there has to be a way to include the Spaniard for the full 90 minutes. In order to catch The Reds off guard defensively, there must be two creative minds in the midfield. Pogba alone cannot agitate Klopp’s defense, and McTominay and Ander Herrera lack the artistry to perform at the level required. As evidenced by Matić’s all-star performance Monday evening, this lineup brings out the best in him and Pogba.
We can’t discuss United’s second-half accomplishment against Crystal Palace without addressing their embarrassing first-half display. In both of Palace’s goals, The Eagles successfully exposed United’s defense, leaving fans desperately longing for an Eric Bailly appearance. Ashley Young was in shockingly poor form, and with how fluid Liverpool’s attack has been, I shudder to think how he will react on an inevitable Mohamed Salah counterattack. That begs the question: should Luke Shaw start over Young? As a natural left-back, Shaw has plenty of potential. While I argued earlier that experience is a determinant for three vital points on Saturday, in recent matches Shaw has developed a strong case to earn a start. Recently, Young has been out of position on the defense, and he’s much easier to read on the attack. While Shaw does not rival his acute crossing style, settling for a spot on the bench to watch Young fumble in the opening half will only allow Liverpool to frustrate the defense even more.
Relinquish a defensive mindset for an attacking approach
October’s goalless draw at Anfield was easily a forgettable match for both clubs. Salah missed two sitters, Lukaku wasn’t able to finish and of course, David De Gea earned his weekly wages. Perhaps the most unsurprising piece of that match was Mourinho’s defensive approach, which only resulted in one shot on target for The Special One’s XI. Pundits and fans accused Mourinho of opting for a safer route, thus hindering the contest from becoming an instant classic. Since Mourinho’s summer 2016 arrival at Old Trafford, his showdowns with Liverpool have failed to live up to expectations. Three games ended with three draws.
A lot has changed since last October. Both clubs have significantly improved in terms of adding fresh talent and developing the existing roster. When United lead by a goal (or several) against Big Six teams, it’s remarkable to watch just how they intelligently find ways to maintain a clean sheet or increase their advantage. While the thought of parking the bus is a safe bet for the Portuguese manager, it’s tired and unoriginal. With a dangerous attack in Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial and a confident Romelu Lukaku, this is the time to have the psychological edge over not only Klopp but also neighboring rivals Manchester City. While we just wait for the weekend where they’re ultimately crowned Champions of England, closing the gap on Pep Guardiola’s margin of victory should be as important to Mourinho as beating Antonio Conte was two weeks ago.
Saturday’s lunchtime clash has considerable implications for both Liverpool and Manchester United. With nine matches remaining on the year and a consequential transfer market to follow, both clubs are looking for hardware to symbolize not only a successful season, but also an attractive home for transfer targets. I expect United to get the edge over The (other) Reds, but one or more of these aforementioned strategies must be applied to guarantee that victory.