Was it the “Philosophy”? Was it just a case of “Lads, it’s Tottenham”? Or was it just a fluke? Whatever it was, things took a huge step to improving for Manchester United last week, in perhaps the most complete and satisfying display since the Sir Alex era drew to a close.
FA Cup defeat to Arsenal had steeped pressure on Louis van Gaal and his side, leaving them desperate to take points from rivals if a top four spot was to be obtained and with further tricky fixtures to follow, the Reds made an ideal start ahead of their trip to Anfield on Sunday.
One swallow certainly doesn’t make a summer though and the Reds can’t afford to take too much comfort from victory or think their home and dry just yet, even if that victory does – somehow – put us to within two points of second placed Manchester City. Funny old game.
Talking of one sided affairs, that was very much the case when the Merseysiders descended upon Old Trafford back in December, with United sending their rivals packing 3-0 on the day, at that stage putting United three points clear of West Ham in third and 10 clear of their victims that day, with Brendan Rodgers returning home in 11th position. Unfortunately, that day was Liverpool’s last Premier League defeat, with the Scousers putting together an extraordinary run of form, seeing them pick up 33 of a possible 39 on offer since their Old Trafford hiding.
With Rodgers’ side breathing down our necks, with a lucky Jordan Henderson strike keeping them within touching distance of United (two points behind), it’s imperative the Reds avoid defeat on a ground where United have tasted victory just once from their previous seven attempts.
With a Champions League place at stake, with Sunday’s winner favourite to take the final spot, this one boils down to so much more than just the usual United v Liverpool encounter, or as Sky will inevitably inform you with the opening 45 seconds of broadcast, Steven Gerrard’s final fixture with the country’s most successful club. Victory for United means more than just getting one over the Scousers, but the opportunity to dash their European Cup hopes and afford ourselves a slight safety blanket ahead of clashes with City and Chelsea. Three points could see United in second by the end of the weekend if results were to go our way, but let’s not get too caught up with that.
Here are five keys to a vital three United points at Anfield:
1. Blind stays at Left-Back
One issue that has always lingered in my mind this season is how Louis van Gaal would find a way to incorporate Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Daley Blind into his side. Until now, the opportunity hasn’t quite arisen, with Blind and Carrick both enduring time on the sidelines through injury, while it has only been more recently that the manager seems to have remembered how integral Herrera is to our midfield.
With Blind performing admirably all season in the United half-back role for the majority of the season, there was a big decision to be made for the manager given the return to fitness of Michael Carrick, a player Van Gaal clearly admires hugely, having made the midfielder his new vice-captain and recently described him as “already like a trainer-coach”.
As luck would have it, Luke Shaw – United’s long-term left-back was deemed unfit to start against Tottenham, seeing Blind shift into a position he is already familiar with, with Carrick slotting easily back in to sit in front of the United defence. With Shaw still a little raw and still developing, Blind formed an outstanding partnership with Ashley Young down the United left forcing Pochettino to remove Andros Townsend – who could provide no answer to the duo – from the action with merely half an hour on the clock.
As stated, the long-term future of the position certainly lies with Shaw, but certainly while his fitness remains an issue, a more intelligent footballer in Blind can tighten up that left hand side where Liverpool will certainly provide threat in the form of Raheem Sterling, but, as shown at the weekend, can also provide a useful asset to the team going forward.
That in the process allows Carrick – with whom United have averaged 2.2 points per game this season when he has featured compared to 1.6 without – the opportunity to once again pull the strings from the midfield.
2. Retain Mata over Di Maria
First we cried out for four at the back, then for Rooney up front and then for Ander Herrera to return to United’s midfield. It may have taken Van Gaal longer than fans would have liked to cave to public demand, but changes have taken place for which United now seem to be benefitting from. The latest shouts though have been for a return for Mata to the first team, with the Spaniard seemingly frozen out without explanation.
Mata’s presence has undoubtedly been missed in the United midfield, and while Fellaini has far exceeded all expectations in his more advanced role of late, there’s no question the former Chelsea man would offer more fluidity to the United attack in the long-term.
As it happened, it was suspension for the out-of-sorts Angel Di Maria that saw Mata finally restored to the starting line-up, and like Herrera – having patiently waited for his opportunity – grasped it with both hands. With Mata back in the side, United were dynamic, forward-thinking and efficient going forward, with the Spaniard a key figure even from his unfavoured wide role.
For me, Mata’s ideal position for the club going forward would be behind Rooney, but with Di Maria – despite being improved against Arsenal prior to his dismissal – failing to turn in the standard of performances we have come to expect, it would seem foolish to risk replacing Mata with the Argentine at Anfield given United’s all-round showing last week. Mata has had to be patient for long enough and could still turn in a performance of enormous quality despite his time in the wilderness. Di Maria should take note.
3. Restrict Jordan Henderson
If you’re anything like me, you’ll be fed up of Jordan Henderson recently. Not only does he seem to be plastered all over my television screen non-stop, but he’s turned out to be a hugely important player for his club. Even with that questionable gait of his.
The Liverpool vice-captain has scored in each of his side’s last three Premier League wins, including a spectacular effort against Manchester City three weeks ago. The former Sunderland man has grown significantly into his role at Anfield, rewarded with the vice-captaincy and currently (on merit) is keeping Steven Gerrard out of the side.
While leading out the side, Henderson has guided Liverpool to eight wins and a draw in nine appearances for Liverpool, forming a tidy partnership in the centre of midfield with Joe Allen and keeping his side ticking.
On current form, it’s unlikely the Merseysiders will miss Gerrard too much, with the USA-bound man a shadow of the player he once was. (And even then he wasn’t a “top top player” was he Fergie?)
With Liverpool doing what United couldn’t and finding success with three at the back, the Scousers have proved significant threat since their Old Trafford hiding, picking up 33 of 39 points with Henderson the heartbeat.
Supply to the Liverpool midfield needs to be kept to a minimum and with the likes of Herrera and Fellaini in the middle of the park we have a physical presence to cause the host’s some problems. Ensuring Henderson doesn’t get the opportunity to dictate things will be a priority though.
4. Maintain a forward thinking mentality
There was something beautiful about the way United performed against Spurs last week. Particularly in the first half. Aside from two suspect Phil Jones backpasses in the opening minutes, it was the best game I’ve seen United play in sometime. There was no hoofball, no possession for the sake of possession and no looking lost and without an answer.
United’s approach was measured, each pass with intent and team looked far more dangerous attacking with real purpose and confidence. A welcome change to the static movement and hit and hope play we have seen all too often.
Away from home against a difficult Liverpool side, van Gaal’s men may not find it as easy to dictate proceedings or have anywhere near the levels of control or ease they faced last weekend, but United proved they are more than capable of a dominant attacking display.
Even if it’s not as comfortable as last weekend, if United can turn in the same level of performance, the three points should follow.
5. Victory over Liverpool should be motivation enough
It may have only been one quality performance, so this might be a misplaced sense of optimism, but seeing United perform as they did with purpose and a spring in the step, looking as convincing as we have come to expect can’t help but spread an element of confidence through both players and supporters.
The players will be very well aware of what’s at stake, as defeat would see us drop to fifth, with everything to do in order to fulfil our minimum expectation for the season of securing Champions League football once again.
In order to do so though, United must end Liverpool’s excellent form and their hoodoo at Anfield in recent seasons, by no means an easy feat, with the appeal of finishing ahead of United for a second year running huge motivation for Rodgers and co.
Last week’s win gave United a performance they’ve chased all season, and here’s hoping that victory proves a turning point and that Louis was a genius with a brilliant philosophy all along. City are in our sights lads. United 2-1.