Manchester United host Liverpool in the Premier League at Old Trafford on Sunday. After eight matches, United sit sixth, four places and four points behind second-placed Liverpool. United will be hoping to jump into the top four this weekend, leapfrogging Tottenham Hotspur who they play next weekend, but face a Liverpool team streets ahead of United and getting back to their recent best.
Liverpool and United had identical results in midweek Champions League fixtures, though United’s win was rather more desperate as they failed to control an open match at home to Atalanta. Liverpool are the only team unbeaten in the league thus far while United have one win in their last four including another chastening defeat, at the hands of a struggling Leicester City.
Feels like the Solskjaer years distilled into one game: dramatic, contrasting outcomes, & great entertainment but not really a masterplan for life going forward— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceTel) October 20, 2021
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s “great comeback” overturning Atalanta’s early 2-0 lead will soon be forgotten should United fail to pick up points in their next three in the league – Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City. No pressure. For now, for United and Solskjær, the next game actually is the biggest.
David de Gea
United’s no. 1 has been busy, to say the least. Along with keeping the goals conceded down to four at Leicester, David de Gea made a crucial second-half double-save at home to Atalanta which, had the Italians scored and gone 3-1 up, would likely have been too much for United to rescue with 20 minutes left. As it was, De Gea provided the platform for Harry Maguire to level the match shortly afterwards and United to chase a winner.
Raphaël Varane is still out recovering from injury so United and De Gea will have to go again with Maguire – rushed back and set to play his third 90 minutes in nine days – and Victor Lindelöf. Liverpool’s front three are in fine fettle and De Gea will need a little more help from his central defenders on Sunday.
United missed Fred’s legs at Leicester and the Brazillian showed his worth against Atalanta. Arguably United’s best player on Wednesday night, and could have scored a couple himself, Fred was substituted in the last few minutes following United’s third goal. Fred appeared to have an issue with his hamstring and will be a big miss for United should he be out injured.
Solskjær’s solution to overturning a deficit in a match where he starts with Scott McTominay and Fred in central midfield and hopes to take the lead is to introduce Paul Pogba for one of the defensive pair. Solskjær has deployed this approach on numerous occasions, particularly against the better sides and/or away from home, and to good effect when he’s especially needed a result. At home to Liverpool on Sunday, Solskjær’s hand may be forced by Fred’s availability, but even then the manager may elect to go with Nemanja Matić instead of Pogba.
Bruno Fernandes created eight goalscoring chances in Man Utd's 3-2 win over Atalanta, no player has managed more in a Champions League game this season #UCL— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) October 20, 2021
Pogba should be able to run the game from midfield linking the defensive players and the forwards from the off. But having Pogba and United’s creator-in-chief, Bruno Fernandes, doesn’t seem to balance United sufficiently or safely unless Pogba is stationed further forward, which leaves United’s one holding player doing the work of two. Solskjær cannot justify Pogba wide left any longer with the now embarrassment of forwards better suited there and who need to play between them. This not insignificant problem for Solskjær aside, if his team go one or two down against, say, Liverpool, Manchester City or Chelsea, United have nowhere to go from the bench bar making like-for-like changes across the attack. Coupled with United’s current ability to defend, Solskjær has little choice but to begin with Pogba on the bench for the big games.
Jadon Sancho was brought on for Mason Greenwood with 20 minutes left on Wednesday which was an astute change given Greenwood’s subpar display, and that the match with Atalanta was so open and end-to-end. A first goal for Sancho in a United comeback under the lights would have done wonders for his restricted and laboured start to life at United. It will come for Sancho at some point, and there are plenty of big games imminently to get off the mark in style.
Until Sancho is firing and gets that first goal, a lively Marcus Rashford and a deadly Greenwood will be ahead of Sancho in the starting line-up. Rashford – albeit for a dead leg – and Greenwood were both taken off after 67 and 73 minutes respectively midweek showing Solskjær’s hand for Sunday.
Ronaldo has stunk the place out all game and has popped up with a goal right at the end. Not going to be the last time that’s tweeted this season.— Pug (@tigermilk20) September 1, 2021
Presented with the choice, would Cristiano Ronaldo prioritise playing for United in a Champions League group fixture over Liverpool in the league? Solskjær, by his own admission, has stated that Ronaldo won’t play every game and the Portuguese has been on the pitch for the duration of the last two in quick succession.
Edinson Cavani’s eager introduction up front on Wednesday night, and his clever dummy in the box for Maguire’s goal, will be welcome attributes for United in place of Ronaldo. Solskjær can reach for Ronaldo off the bench in the latter stages if required, and it is likely to be on Cavani’s shoulders to occupy Liverpool’s defenders – providing United can get the ball to their attackers.