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Sunday 16 March 2014

Talking Tactics: Set pieces could be key at Old Trafford

Adrian Clarke looks at Sunday's crunch match between rivals Man Utd and Liverpool

As they showed against Arsenal, Liverpool are a threat at set-pieces

Liverpool's response to seeing Manchester United usurp their proud record of 19 league titles last May could hardly have been any more emphatic. Transforming a points deficit of 28, into a lead of 11 with only 10 matches of the current campaign left to play, Brendan Rodgers' side have made extraordinary progress.

With the title still within their grasp, and United desperately clinging on to hope of a top-four finish, Sunday's north west derby at Old Trafford has a very different feel to it this season. Adrian Clarke takes a look at how this pivotal match might shape up tactically…

Will Man Utd stick or twist?

No team in the Barclays Premier League is a more dangerous goal threat when they’re inside their own half than Liverpool. Boasting powerful midfielders such as Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard who can quickly turn defence into attack - and a three-pronged forward line blessed with incredible pace - Brendan Rodgers' men are rightly regarded as the counter-attack kings. They have six breakaway goals to their name this term, while for the record, Manchester United are still waiting for their first.

At home, in front of a baying crowd, David Moyes’ under-pressure side will have no choice but to throw men forward and go for goals. Balancing this thirst to score, without leaving themselves exposed will be their greatest challenge.

Although Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata are United’s primary creators, it is integral to the way that Moyes wants his side to play for both full-backs to push on and offer width in advanced areas. Patrice Evra (as seen in Table 1 below) is a key cog in their attacking wheel, while Rafael Da Silva also loves to fly forward on the outside of Mata.

Will both full-backs play their normal attack-minded game on home turf, and risk leaving gaps for Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling to exploit on the break? Or will they plot their routes forward with more caution than usual? This will be one of the key elements to look out for.

Knowing that several opponents have hurt United at Old Trafford on the break this term, I suspect Liverpool will hope they are not too pragmatic in their approach.

Manchester United crosses and key passes
Crosses Key passes
Wayne Rooney
158 (1st)
48 (1st)
Juan Mata
110 (2nd)
47 (2nd)
Patrice Evra
106 (3rd)
34 (3rd)

Sitting tightly

With so many gifted forward players on show, much will depend on the defensive capabilities of sitting midfielders, Michael Carrick and Steven Gerrard.

Carrick is the second-best interceptor in the Barclays Premier League, averaging an impressive 3.3 a match. As United like to play a pressing game he does not sit that deep and make lots of challenges in front his back four, instead relying on his excellent reading of the game to thwart dangerous moves when they come his way. If, as expected, the full-backs push on, it is vital that he and Marouane Fellaini slide across into wide areas, trying to cut out forward passes aimed at Liverpool’s in-form front men (see below).

Contrasting in style, and supported by a midfielder either side, Gerrard, is happier to sit on the toes of his two centre-backs and deploy himself as an auxiliary defender. This might be helpful against a side that likes to throw plenty of crosses into the box, but when Mata and Rooney look to drift inside and combine in the hole, he will need the help of his team-mates to crowd them out (see image below).

How Carrick and Gerrard compare
Michael Carrick
Steven Gerrard
Tackles won
Clearances 41

Set-piece prowess

When Steven Gerrard's standing over a dead ball on Sunday afternoon, United would be wise to concentrate. For no team in the Barclays Premier League has scored more goals from wide free-kicks than the Reds, and only Fulham have registered more from corners. In terms of their planning, unpredictability and delivery, Liverpool have been outstanding from set plays this term.

Worryingly for Moyes, his team is statistically the third-weakest side at defending corners, shipping six in 2013/14. The constant chopping and changing in personnel (he has selected a different starting XI in all 42 matches in charge) perhaps has not helped when it comes to players knowing their jobs.

As you would expect from a Moyes team, United are decent at scoring from set-pieces themselves, but Liverpool are better.

Dead-ball specialists
Goals scored Corner Direct free-kick Free-kick Goals from set plays
Liverpool 8
6 24%
Man Utd 3 3 2 18%
Goals against        
Liverpool 3 0 5 23%
Man Utd 6 2 2 31%

Forward firepower

Last season United registered 15 more goals than Liverpool en route to their Barclays Premier League success. This term, the Merseysiders are blazing a trail, with 27 more strikes to their name than the champions.

Technically there is not a great deal to separate any of the attackers on either side, with Danny Welbeck and Robin van Persie, especially clinical when a chance presents itself. The difference has been Liverpool’s greater fluency as a side, and ability to create more chances, and possibly better chances, from open play.

Liverpool are excellent at getting their star men into the game, and no matter where they are on the pitch, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge always feature prominently. In contrast, Van Persie is a striker who relies more heavily on service from midfield.

Rodger's preferred unit of Gerrard, Henderson and Coutinho have shared 19 assists between them in the league to date, and that’s more than the whole United squad combined, if you remove the goals Rooney and Van Persie have created. United have to create more opportunities for last season’s top scorer.

Attacking threat
2013/14 Rooney Van Persie Welbeck Suarez Sturridge
Shooting accuracy 50% 46% 50% 55% 54%
Chance conversion
18% 27% 32% 22% 30%
Shots 62 41 28 107 61
Mins per goal 176 125 130 86 88
Goals 11 11 9 24 18

Final thought

On paper, and based on their form this season, Liverpool have a wonderful opportunity to win a Barclays Premier League contest at Old Trafford for the first time since 2009.

Manchester United were sharper and more creative with their interplay last time out at The Hawthorns, relying less on hopeful crosses than usual. A repeat, might be their best avenue against the second-placed side.

No matter which way you look at this famous fixture, it promises to be a fascinating duel.

For previous "Talking Tactics" articles by Adrian Clarke, click here

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke takes a look at Sunday's match between Man Utd and Liverpool
  • Liverpool are looking for their first win at Old Trafford since 2009
  • Midfielders Michael Carrick and Steven Gerrard will have key roles to play