As Liverpool Approach, What is Manchester United's Best Starting XI?
Sir Alex Ferguson made ten changes from Saturday’s 3-3 draw away to Everton in hopes what was essentially his Carling Cup squad could see off Scottish champions Rangers last time out. A dour 0-0 draw at home is what played out on Tuesday night to open Champions League group stage play while those ten changes got me thinking about the personnel involved in an at times spirited, yet overall lackluster effort.
It was the kind of match that ultimately frustrated United fans as Rangers barely made the slightest attempt at a committed attack. United lacked spark and creativity until Ryan Giggs came on to replace the injured Antonio Valencia in the second half. As Darron Gibson continually blasted shot after shot into row Q of the Stretford End, Rangers continued to field ten men behind the ball. It was then left up to Giggs to provide the much needed spark. The veteran looked most likely to find a way through for the home side, yet because of Rangers stalwart defending, both sides shared the spoils with a point.
As another installment of English football’s greatest rivalry approaches this weekend, and as Liverpool have proven they can push United further, I’m curious as to which eleven players Ferguson will pick as his best to start another massively important game. A quick glance at the squad sheet proves deep enough to allow Ferguson the privilege to do what he did Tuesday night - the fielding of ten different players to open Champions League group stage play. That’s CHAMPIONS LEAGUE mind you, not the Carling or FA Cup. United have options.
Most managers would kill to have the kind of depth and quality on the bench that Ferguson has at his disposal, yet the 0-0 on Tuesday proves why the game is still played on the pitch and not on paper.
At home on Sunday, United will have to step up their personnel as Liverpool in seasons past have proven a pesky bogey team for United. Manchester United will of course set up to attack and push Liverpool while they look for an emphatic three points in front of their home crowd. So how and with whom will United set up on Sunday? Here’s one option:
United should set up 4-4-2 with the in form Berbatov up front along side Rooney who will roam in and out of space. Rooney’s roaming from deep to high up the pitch is where he’s best, partly because of his tendencies to want to be involved in build up play, partly because it would be difficult telling him otherwise, and largely because he’s a sensational passer of the ball in the final third. His ability to play 1-2′s with teammates isn’t bad either (see under his goal for England v Switzerland last week).
This pairing works for United under the pretense that both forwards play decent enough and excel at what they’re good at. First off, Berbatov needs to display his classic #9 skills – winning balls in the air, timely hold up play and finishing abilities, yet he also must hold off on drifting back as Rooney does, something he’s prone to do. If both forwards attempt a more deepish play-maker role, United are overloaded in midfield with not enough viable options up top when play dictates there needs to be.
Secondly, and if he stays high up the pitch, Berbatov’s hold up play (something he’s often times incredible at) allows the deeper dropping Rooney the time to get forward while support in the form of Darren Fletcher, Nani and Ryan Giggs arrive from their respective positions.
Rooney will take care of what Rooney does best if he’s allowed the free role in drifting back and forth between midfield and attacking higher up the pitch. Because of his fitness and gusto for the game, he can easily work hard enoguh to occupy what’s essentially a double roll – that of play-maker and striker. The key to this working effectively is Berbatov’s commitment to his positional landmarks.
Width – Nani and Giggs
In a classic 4-4-2 system, wingers are used to create width which allows space in the middle of the pitch while the wingers draw out defenders to deal with their crosses. Speaking of, a good crosser of the ball can terrorize defenses in a relatively direct manner through a sheer numbers game of crosses into the box, or from a set piece. Although not an entirely new fad, ‘inverted wingers’ in football have been a proliferating trend as of late as the ‘cut in, wrong-footed’ wingers such as Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Cristiano Ronaldo, depending on where he’s employed in the team, have all used the position and method resulting in a positive end.
Realistically, and more on topic, although both can play either wing as inverted wingers, the left footed Giggs and right footed Nani fit well on their respective flanks while Nani, at least now, is the more natural winger in the classic sense. Giggs will pirouette and cut inside (as his natural pace dwindles) as will Nani which could create congestion should Liverpool set up defensively (see under the 0-0 v Rangers). Yet Nani has proved an intelligent crosser of the ball in games past (for United and also for Portugal) and possesses the ability to turn and run at defenders which could lead to a ball across the face of goal easily unlocking Liverpool’s defense.
Age aside, Paul Scholes has enjoyed a fine start to his 47th season in the top flight conducting the game while the solid Darren Fletcher will work hard, clean up and push forward next to him in central midfield.
Nothing of great interest besides back four 101 as it pertains to personnel. Although, I like John O’Shea as right back instead of the aging Gary Neville or the young, brash Rafael. O’Shea, a modern day utility man if there ever was one, is a more versatile player than Neville while his defending is more sound and experienced than the Brazilian Rafael’s. Not a huge asset supporting attacks, but less of a liability than Neville who showed how easily his pace can be exploited last Saturday when attempting to deal with Everton’s Steven Pienaar. Vidic and Ferdinand look to finally be teaming back up in the center of defense with Evra in support of attacks on the left.
The 4-4-2 and subsequent positioning for United plays out something like this:
Note: It should be noted that United are largely a right sided attacking team. Nani and Valencia in games past have provided natural width on the right side while United have lacked a natural left sided winger since Ryan Giggs’ prime. Giggs himself will often play more centrally should Ferguson consider a more advanced option while his tricks and abilities with the ball at his feet are enough for the 36 year old to be effective on the left.
Potential Risks and Other Options
As we learned continuously during the World Cup, a 4-4-2 against a formation other than 4-4-2 can potentially expose the two central midfielders (in our case, an aging Scholes and Fletcher). The 4-2-3-1 (or 4-3-3) that every successful team in the World Cup implemented allowed for an extra man in midfield (see under England 1-4 Germany). This fact lends belief to Liverpool potentially utilizing a formation with Fernando Torres up front alone as the extra man in midfield advantage could be enough to pose significant problems for Manchester United should they play 4-4-2.
Should Ferguson elect the 4-3-3, he’ll have to pull Michael Carrick off the bench and likely drop the in form Berbatov. The middle three would be Carrick, Scholes and Fletcher with Carrick as the main holder. Giggs or Park and likely Nani due to Valencia’s injury would flank Rooney up top.
Realistically, United should not be favored against Liverpool this Sunday. Although Liverpool have proved in recent weeks they’re still are work in progress, so too have United proved the same thing. United’s only two victories this season so far have come at home against Newcastle and West Ham, two of the leagues worst so far. United’s lack of concentration during the Fulham and Everton away matches have proved costly. Four points costly to be exact. Time will of course tell whether or not a back again and fit Rio Ferdinand will be enough to solidify United’s leaky defense.
Liverpool will arrive at Old Trafford with an underdog’s mentality. The core of the club still have an understanding regarding the significance of the rivalry and importance of the match. As they’ve proven against United in years past, they’re dangerous with this mindset as they’ll have everything to prove against a United side still looking for a convincing win against a top side.