Manchester United’s season is about to get real.
So far, it has been something of a procession. There have been four 4-0 wins and a couple of 4-1s thrown in for good measure. This means that six of of the 11 times they have taken the field in all competitions so far they have scored four. If you go and see United this season there is a better than 50 per cent chance they will score four goals. At home they have scored four in four out of six games.
But, of course, other than the UEFA Super Cup with which they kicked things off, they have not really faced much in the way of quality opposition. They have played no-one from the top half of the table, and have played five of the current bottom six, with all seven of their opponents occupying the current bottom nine.
That is about to change. Liverpool may only be seventh at the moment but they finished fourth last time out and are obviously among the contenders to hit that spot again. They are seven points behind United at the moment, having scored eight fewer and conceded 10 more goals but the game is at Anfield, comes immediately on the back of an international break and both managers will be treating it as a crucial test.
Jose Mourinho has a few key decisions to make. With Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini both injured, his midfield will have to be formed of Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. But will he play that midfield duo as part of a 4-2-3-1 or will he switch to a back three? And if he does switch to a back three, will that be a back three which spends much of the time as an effective back seven—as was the case last season at Anfield—or will he take a more progressive approach? Will he select Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashord—or maybe even both? And will Juan Mata get a chance to once again turn Liverpool’s ground in Juanfield?
This is the big one. Against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, United opted for a back-three with a very attacking bent. It was an actual 3-4-3, rather than the more defensive-minded 5-3-1-1-type formations Mourinho has generally used when he has played three centre-halves at United.
A 3-4-3 could be a great option here. United’s centre-backs would match up directly with Liverpool’s front-three, with Matic providing the kind of cover he has made his stock-in-trade.
An alternative would be a kind of 4-2-3-1 in theory, but with Herrera offering the kind of man-to-man role he performed so well against Eden Hazard at Old Trafford last season but this time applied to Philipe Coutinho. Coutinho is, essentially, one of the few Liverpool players in any kind of form, having hit the ground running after his complicated rumour-heavy summer. Mohamed Salah would probably count as Liverpool’s other main threat given his five goals this season and his international break heroics, but with Coutinho pinned down by Herrera, other defenders—and Matic—could take care of that.
Finally, of course, there is the straight up 4-2-3-1 option that might just be the most likely. If United line up like that, expect them to play predominantly on the counter, as Herrera and Matic will be required to provide a lot of protection for the back-four.
Which brings us nicely to the next important tactical consideration. How progressive will United be? Other than during their 2-2 draw with Stoke City, and their spluttering 1-0 win away at Southampton, United have spent most of the campaign so far on the front foot, blowing teams away with the attacking resources at their disposal. And Liverpool’s defence has been so vulnerable this season that if Rashford, Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Romelu Lukaku are given freedom to attack, the results could be spectacular.
Of course, Liverpool still possess substantial attacking threats, particularly with Coutinho back in the fold, and Mourinho, if given the option, is probably gonna Mourinho. This, though, would perhaps seem a fitting occasion for a more expansive approach to a big game from his United side.
Martial or Rashford?
The one big individual selection dilemma. In the end, Mourinho’s decision will probably come down to formation. If he plays 4-2-3-1, it’ll be Rashford, favoured for his better defensive work if nothing else. If it’s a 3-4-3 with a mission to go for it, though, then Martial could well get the nod, as he did in the Champions League.
There is also the possibility that both might play, unlikely as it seems. With Mkhitaryan having struggled badly against Crystal Palace before the international break, Mourinho could look to deploy both Rashford and Martial behind Lukaku as part of a bona fide front three.
More likely, though, in a 3-4-3 the decision will be between Mkhitaryan’s pace and Mata’s guile and—weirdly—defensive ability. The player Mourinho sold to United because he did not do enough grafting has become something of a workhorse since arriving at Old Trafford.
In the end, Mata will probably only play if Mourinho goes 4-2-3-1, where Mkhitaryan will be deployed centrally and Mata on the right, as has been the case for most of the season.
United’s first big test of the season is also the one most of their fans care about the most. Mourinho’s decisions, and the way it all plays out, will be fascinating to behold.