Width could be key for Manchester United and Liverpool in season’s first North West Derby


They aren’t technically local rivals (although England’s northwest is a small place), but it’s fair to say that Liverpool fans see their matches against Manchester United as more important than ones against Everton (and probably can’t remember the last time they played Tranmere).

With Manchester City’s recent rise, Manchester derbies arguably mean more in terms of final league position, but there are still two teams far away from the rest of the pack in English football’s trophy count. United fans know this only too well, this millennium overtaking Liverpool as the England’s most successful team in terms of league titles.

The rivals meet this weekend while in fifth and seventh place, with identical records aside from an inverted goal difference hinting at a subdued starts. Given the high correlation between wages and a club’s final league position, United can probably expect fifth as the lowest they’ll finish this season, while Liverpool will have to play exceptionally well and be exceptionally fortunate to break into the top four.

However, the beauty of soccer is that, in individual games of 90 minutes, any result is very possible. Neither West Ham nor Swansea City were favored against Liverpool or Manchester United, yet both won, and won well, against their more illustrious colleagues last round.

A goal-fest is unlikely, as both teams have had trouble scoring, and generally in big games managers don’t want the publicity of a tonking. Better to tell the press you were robbed on a poor decision that could have enabled a 1-1 than have to face them after a 5-1 pasting.

Even so, a win would really ease the pressure on both managers as they resume pivotal seasons after the international break, and out wide is the area where Louis van Gaal and Brendan Rodgers can let the handbrake off.

For Liverpool, starting Alberto Moreno over Joe Gomez at left back is key to giving the team a new offensive dimension. Gomez has been solid defensively, but going forward he has struggled to complement Philippe Coutinho, who he started wide left but constantly roams inside, interchanging with Roberto Firmino and trying and thread balls through for forward Christian Benteke (Coutinho will be suspended for Saturday’s match at Old Trafford). Moreno is less secure, and the knock-on effect this move will have is that Dejan Lovren will be shorn of protection to his left, but he is pacy and good technically at putting crosses into the box.

SEE MORE: What’s happened to the top of the Premier League?

Having someone stationed high up the pitch in a wide area means that not only is there always an outlet to recycle possession in case things become too cramped in the center (even Barcelona relied on Xavi diagonals to Dani Alves when things were tight), it gives the defense another thing to worry about. West Ham were comfortable defending deep and narrow, despite the aerial threat of Benteke, because they weren’t worried about Gomez or Clyne putting accurate, direct crosses in.

Manchester United would also benefit from a return to their Ferguson roots of playing with two out and out wide players. As mentioned above Moreno is not the greatest with defensive positioning, and even if Gomez retains his place, this is an 18-year-old who was playing in the Championship last season. Replacing Mata, who started wide right against Swansea, with Antonio Valencia backed up by the forward runs of Matteo Darmian could leave Liverpool’s left fullback outnumbered and overrun.

On the other side, Memphis Depay has a tendency to cut inside and shoot often, and telegraph when he’s about to do so. He’s athletic enough to succeed in getting a shot away often, but pushing Luke Shaw higher up the field would offer him an outlet wide left when he drags defenders inside.

Overall, width may be slightly less important as an attacking tool for Manchester United. They have more quality in their team, and will be playing at home so will expect to have more of the ball. But this makes it even more of an important attacking tool for Liverpool, because they cannot afford to look as sterile as they did against West Ham with far fewer opportunities.

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