Liverpool v Manchester United: 5 key tactical questions

Romelu Lukaku has been in great form for United while Mo Salah could cause problems for Phil Jones
Romelu Lukaku has been in great form for United while Mo Salah could cause problems for Phil Jones

There’s an awful lot riding on the North-West derby this Saturday. Manchester United’s first real test of the season is just the start of an awkward month for Liverpool, who could leave Anfield on Saturday ten points behind the league leaders before their trip to Tottenham Hotspur.

And it should be a considerably more exciting game than last year’s “red Monday” 0-0 draw, given United are scoring for fun and Liverpool need to attack aggressively from the opening minute. A draw isn’t good enough for either side, which should produce a more open encounter than we have been used to in recent years – even if Mourinho, yet again, looks to stifle rather than create.

Here are five key tactical questions ahead of the lunchtime kickoff

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1) Can Coutinho drop deep to hurt a Fellaini-less United?

In Sadio Mane’s absence Philippe Coutinho is likely to start on the left wing, but against Mourinho’s deep-lying frustration tactics he will no doubt come short in search of possession, utilising the “false eight” skills he has learnt over the past six months. If Liverpool are to break down the visitors they will need Coutinho’s incisive vertical passes into the final third.

Marouane Fellaini’s injury and the continued absence of Michael Carrick means Nemanja Matic will have to do much of the defensive work alone, which could leave spaces either side of the Serbian for Coutinho to drive into. In a match defined by a stodgy midfield battle and few clear-cut chances, a sudden change of pace from Coutinho is Liverpool’s best chance of success.

Philippe Coutinho could make life miserable for Nemanja Matic
Philippe Coutinho could make life miserable for Nemanja Matic

2) Does Mourinho have any desire to play attacking football against the big clubs?

Jose Mourinho has never considered himself a defensive manager and, as a huge fan of Sir Alex Ferguson, he knows that success at Man Utd depends upon embracing the spirit of his forward-thinking predecessor. But during his transitional year at the helm Mourinho continued to use stifling tactics against big clubs, leading to a dreadful 0-0 draw at Anfield.

In fact, United scored just two goals away from home against the top six and won only two points, in part because Mourinho was still building the team and knew damage limitation was paramount.

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Consequently, Saturday’s match is our first opportunity to see whether Mourinho has changed tack. Liverpool are defensively vulnerable and have won just once in seven matches while United are at their free-scoring best; surely this is an opportunity to play bold attacking football at Anfield, ending their rivals’ title hopes and sending a clear message to Manchester City.

Mourinho has had to field many a criticism of his style, but he has justified his approach with his long list of titles
Mourinho has had to field many a criticism of his style, but he has justified his approach with his long list of titles

3) Will Liverpool’s high press expose Young to one-on-ones with Salah?

United’s most vulnerable area is left-back, and although Ashley Young has played well recently he hasn’t been tested by anyone as good as Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian winger, on a high following his nation’s qualification for the World Cup this week, started the season superbly but has become less influential as teams work out how to avoid giving him space. Mourinho will no doubt have a plan for Salah, but if Young gets isolated there will only be one winner.

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Liverpool’s counter-press won’t be too effective for much of this game, but nevertheless United’s centre-backs are always capable of being caught in possession against such an aggressive opponent. If Phil Jones sloppily gives away possession then Liverpool will look to release Salah as quickly as possible; his head-to-head with Young could be precisely the mismatch this game needs in order to spark into life.

Mo Salah has been in great form and helped Egypt to the World Cup finals this week
Mo Salah has been in great form and helped Egypt to the World Cup finals this week

4) Or will Mourinho’s team find joy on the same flank?

Young and Marcus Rashford have forged an excellent partnership down United’s left this season, largely because Mourinho likes to funnel most of his team’s attacks down that side of the pitch.

His lopsided 4-3-3 will see Juan Mata drift in from the right and Rashford hug the touchline, ready to make diagonal runs and link up with Romelu Lukaku (or the overlapping Young). With Salah rarely helping out defensively, this might prove problematic for 20-year-old Joe Gomez.

Primarily a centre-back, Gomez has been struggling on the right ever since replacing Trent Alexander-Arnold. He was terrorised by Jamie Vardy, who naturally drifts to the left, in Liverpool’s 3-2 win over Leicester City in September, leading directly to both of the visitors’ goals.

With Rashford bearing down on Gomez, and Anthony Martial likely to follow from the bench, Liverpool’s makeshift right-back is going to need all the help he can get.

Joe Gomez could face a torrid time against Marcus Rashford

5) Can Lukaku bully the Liverpool centre-backs from set-pieces?

Aside from exploiting Liverpool’s vulnerability at right-back, Mourinho will have spent the last few days training set-pieces – a seemingly unsolvable problem for Klopp in England. Romelu Lukaku has scored 16 goals in 13 games so far this season and possesses the sort of physical presence that leaves Liverpool on edge. He will no doubt be a threat every time the visitors swing a corner or freekick into the penalty area.

The lurking threat of Lukaku could also upset Liverpool’s rhythms in open play, not least because Klopp’s side are prone to individual defensive errors thanks to his overly-expansive formation. Without a proper defensive screen, his two centre-backs need to cover a much larger area of the pitch than most Premier League players, which leads to moments of panic or desperate lunges. Lukaku will greedily pounce on any minor mistakes at the back.

Goal king: Romelu Lukaku
Goal king: Romelu Lukaku