Manchester United can beat Liverpool today - but they might have to drop Cristiano Ronaldo

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Manchester United can beat Liverpool today - but they might have to drop Cristiano Ronaldo - PA
Manchester United can beat Liverpool today - but they might have to drop Cristiano Ronaldo - PA

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United have lost two of six meetings against Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, with their only home defeat coming at an empty Old Trafford towards the end of last season. Despite the gulf in quality and consistency between the clubs since Solskjaer's 2019 appointment, the fixture has remained competitive.

In three of five Premier League games against them, Solskjaer has used 'split strikers' to try and exploit the space behind Liverpool's attacking full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Rather than a fixed centre-forward crashing up against Virgil van Dijk and his centre-back partner, the idea is to use two mobile forwards in the channels who can spring counter-attacks.

In Solskjaer's first league match against Liverpool, a goalless draw in February 2019, he used a 4-4-2 diamond with Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford breaking off into wider positions. In October that year, a 1-1 draw, it was a 3-4-1-2 with Rashford and Dan James fulfilling these roles and combining to good effect for the opening goal. James exploiting the space behind Robertson and crossing for Rashford who arrived on the blindside of Joel Matip was textbook split striker play.

Marcus Rashford goal set up by James in that game
Marcus Rashford goal set up by James in that game

He reprised the tactic in the return fixture in January 2020 using James and Anthony Martial, but a 2-0 Liverpool win confirmed them as champions in waiting. Last season, Solskjaer opted for a more orthodox 4-2-3-1, a system which enabled him to pick both Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba as starters.

If Solskjaer is to return to the split striker approach, it raises the question of how Cristiano Ronaldo fits in today. After his Champions League winner against Atalanta it may seem unthinkable to start Ronaldo on the bench, but the only position he can play is central striker. The Ronaldo of a decade ago may have been the perfect player for the split striker role left or right, but the capacity to repeat sprints across 90 minutes is no longer there. Greenwood and Rashford look ideally suited, but can Solskjaer really afford to start both players either side of Ronaldo against a team of Liverpool's calibre?

There are very few teams who can make three strikers - true strikers - work. United fans will recall Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez forming a devastating trio, but Rooney also had creative elements to his game and he and Tevez got through an immense amount of defensive work. Some will say Liverpool have managed it with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah wide, but they are more technically secure, nimble and inventive than Rashford or Greenwood, having previously played as wingers. They also have a centre forward in Roberto Firmino who, in stark contrast to Ronaldo, operates like an extra midfielder. Plus, they are supported by an industrious midfield three whereas Solskjaer is left trying to find room for Pogba and Fernandes.

Liverpool will back their attacking full-backs Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to cause Man Utd problems - Getty Images
Liverpool will back their attacking full-backs Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to cause Man Utd problems - Getty Images

It all adds up to what could be one big game of cat and mouse on the flanks today. Will Solskjaer roll the dice and leave three forwards up, hoping they can capitalise on Liverpool's advanced full-backs? One of the ceaselessly interesting things about football is that no matter how a coach deploys his 10 outfield players, there is always space to exploit. In Liverpool's case it is the space down the sides of the centre-backs, but releasing players into these areas is still difficult. They put the ball under pressure higher up, reducing the quality of passes played downfield, and the likes of Van Dijk and Matip are comfortable defending in one against one situations out wide.

One thing is for certain: Liverpool will not change. They will accept Solskjaer's wager and back themselves to cause United more problems going forward through Robertson and Alexander-Arnold. Defending wide areas has been a problem for United in recent weeks, with Atalanta, Aston Villa and Leicester all using a back three and wing-backs to do damage. While Liverpool play with a back four, their full-backs play like-wing backs.

If Solskjaer wants Greenwood and Rashford to stay high, he needs to make a tactical compensation elsewhere. It would be a bold decision politically for an under pressure manager to leave out Ronaldo, but it might be the kind of big game surprise that pays off.

The 'offensive defender': Why Roberto Firmino is everything Ronaldo is not

By Mike McGrath

To find the antithesis of Cristiano Ronaldo’s end-of-career role as a penalty box predator, you only have to look at the striker he faces today at Old Trafford.

While Ronaldo waits patiently before exploding into life when the goal is in sight, a chart of Roberto Firmino’s workload during a match would be more constant. His non-stop closing down has led to Jurgen Klopp to call him the best “offensive defender” he has seen.

The similarities between Roberto and Ronaldo are the goals. Both have six this season, with Firmino’s coming in clusters compared to Ronaldo living up to his billing as being worth almost a goal in every game.

Klopp goes as far to say the style of play he imposed when he arrived six years ago would not have been possible without his Brazilian forward, who was signed under Brendan Rodgers but suited the new era at Anfield.

No other forward would unselfishly press as hard as Firmino, which would sometimes be forgotten when the goals did not flow. On afternoons like last Saturday, when he scored a hat-trick, he is the complete centre-forward.

“He is a connector, he is the best offensive defender I ever saw in my life, definitely,” said Klopp. “He is a ball-chaser defensively, he is incredibly smart with all the things he is doing, he is tactically on the highest level, he is able to play in the smallest spaces, the tiniest spaces, to make incredible good decisions in a really short time.

“And on top of that scores goals as well, that is why we were all so happy when from time to time he rewards himself with a hat-trick last week.”

Roberto Firmino of Liverpool scores the fifth goal making the score and makes it his hat-trick during the Premier League match between Watford and Liverpool a - Getty Images
Roberto Firmino of Liverpool scores the fifth goal making the score and makes it his hat-trick during the Premier League match between Watford and Liverpool a - Getty Images

As a person, Klopp talks about a player who bounces into Kirkby every day with that trademark smile beaming. He is a person whose work-rate is appreciated by his team-mates and will be important when they face Manchester United today and attempt to press their backline into mistakes.

“Everybody loves it because, obviously, sometimes you think he is a bit short of getting the praise for the effort he puts in. I am pretty sure he was the player who ran the most in the last game against Atletico, 100% he was the attacking player who ran the most, and it says a lot. He is just a brilliant player, it really is a joy to work with him,” Klopp said.

“The way we play, it is not impossible without him. We obviously have options, but the way we started playing years ago was because Bobby could play the role. So he was very influential in all the things we did.

“He is a very positive, but at least with me very calm, person. He is somebody that everybody loves Bobby, I have no doubt about that, the whole team. How could you not? The midfielders, if he was not a nice person they would still love him because he is doing all the work for them.

“Obviously Mo and Sadio love him because he passes them the ball, even if it is not the last pass always but the second to last, all the midfielders love him because he is chasing all the offensive players of the opponents in their traps.

“The last line loves him for the same reasons. Then Ali (Alisson Becker) and him are best friends. How can you not love Bobby Firmino? There is no reason for it: great guy.”

Last season saw him fail to reach double figures for goals but in his six full seasons at the club it was the first time, although he has not come close to the 27 goals of 2017/18.

“When he scores it is always this extra little bit of joy because we always have these discussions which are not ridiculous but we never had the discussion [within the club] of Bobby not scoring enough but we face the questions quite frequently and then it appears when he does not do that but he wouldn’t play if he would not be incredibly important anyway,” Klopp added.

Meanwhile, Liverpool will today be facing Jadon Sancho, who like Klopp was previously at Borussia Dortmund. The Liverpool manager is wary of the England forward’s capability despite him still settling at United.

“Jadon Sancho is a world class talent, definitely, and he has all the things you need to become really one of the best players in the world in the future, that’s how it is. But he’s still very young,” he said.

“At Dortmund they were full of praise about him, rightly so. I saw a lot of games of him playing outstandingly well. And this is a normal situation. People lose patience a little bit quick and don’t forget the options United has in this position. Mason Greenwood - wow - what a talent he is.

“So I think that he has maybe pushed Jadon out of position. Mason can play in the centre but there is no space any more, so maybe they will share. But it’s a problem that you want to have as a manager, 100%. So everything will be fine for Jadon – we just hope not on Sunday.”