Andy Brassell has an early look ahead to one of the fixtures of season, as Manchester United travel to Anfield for a match that will be crucial in the battle for fourth place…
Liverpool v Manchester United
Sunday March 22, 13:30
Sky Sports 1
Every time we see a glimpse of an authoritative Manchester United, some people always rush to reach for the b-word; they’re ‘back’. As seductive as their performance against Tottenham at the weekend was, especially in the first half, we will find out if this has the potential to develop into lasting change when United visit Anfield to face Liverpool on Sunday.
There is at least hope where there would have been trepidation had United faced this fixture immediately after the FA Cup exit to Arsenal. In a sense, that Louis van Gaal’s side found it in themselves to respond in such an emphatic fashion on Sunday was an affirmation of their character in a season full of gently positive signs and subsequent reality checks.
However you want to describe United’s shape against Spurs – as a 4-3-3, a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-4-1-1 with Marouane Fellaini off the leash – it was closer to what we might have expected from Van Gaal when his appointment was announced last summer. It was a quintessentially Dutch shape in terms of width, even if the highly effective use of Fellaini made it rather more direct, let’s say, than any great team of Netherlands past that you might care to name.
That is what the 3-5-2 that van Gaal brought with him from the World Cup was supposed to do – retain width while incorporating two up top, whether that be Robin van Persie or Radamel Falcao partnering Wayne Rooney. Arguably, United are better off at present without either of those and hopefully – for the team’s sake – the prolonged experiment with quasi-wing-backs will be consigned to the dustbin in favour of something like 4-3-3, more in line with Dutch football history.
The real question is whether this can hold up on the road. United’s home and away form have been night and day. The loss at Swansea and the late snatching of a point at West Ham, not to mention the stumble and fumble to a pretty fortunate win at Newcastle, have all come in the space of little over a month. The programme doesn’t get any easier, with trips to Chelsea and Everton after Liverpool. As it stands, even the visit to Selhurst Park to face a challenging Crystal Palace side – Liverpool lost there, of course, when still in the doldrums back in November – looks like an engagement fraught with danger.
Then there’s Liverpool’s form. In the 23 games the Reds have played in all competitions since their 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford in December, they have won 15, drawn six and lost just two following Monday’s win at Swansea. It’s highly impressive by any standards, but particularly so when their dreadful start is taken into account.
The odds certainly favour Brendan Rodgers’ side. A Liverpool win is 2.26/5, with a big leap to a United victory at 3.7511/4 and even the draw at 3.55/2. Yet van Gaal can at least go to Anfield in the knowledge that a draw will keep their noses in front in the Champions League race. Liverpool couldn’t be doing any more (which is perhaps what Rodgers was getting at when he claimed they could still finish second), but United have fourth place in their grasp and plenty of room to improve.
Lastly, we shouldn’t underplay United’s luck on their travels, as exemplified by those results at Upton Park and St James’s Park. That first half display against Tottenham, though, showed that they have the potential to not be so reliant on fortune in the future.