Liverpool's attacking set-up the key in Europa League duel vs. Man United
There are few reasons for Manchester United fans to be positive about Louis van Gaal's reign, but no one can argue with his record against their old foes Liverpool. Ahead of the two-legged Europa League meeting between England's two most successful clubs, Van Gaal has earned four victories from four matches against Liverpool, by an aggregate score of 9-2.
Surprisingly, however, things haven't always been plain sailing. The main feature of these games, more than anything tactical, has been their sheer tedium. United's 3-1 win over Liverpool earlier in the season was notable for an absolutely dreadful first half, devoid of any attacking inspiration whatsoever. United eventually ran away with the game, perhaps best remembered for Anthony Martial's debut goal.
Look further at the matches, though, and an interesting pattern emerges. It's rare that United have actually dominated, as you might suspect considering their stuttering attack this season. In fact, in three of the four games, Liverpool have had more shots than Van Gaal's side, and the overall shot count is an incredible 61-33 in favour of Merseyside.
This shouldn't be construed, of course, as a victory for Liverpool. Ultimately, their shots have been wayward, often when attempting to launch fightbacks after having fallen behind. But the key difference between United and Liverpool in these fixtures has been simple: finishing. The sides have created similar chances, but United have had cooler heads in front of goal, and a far superior goalkeeper. These games have been decided in the penalty boxes, rather than being contested keenly in midfield.
The 3-0 win at Old Trafford last season, for example, saw Raheem Sterling repeatedly set through on goal, but foiled by United goalkeeper David De Gea. Meanwhile, United's clinical finishing exposed Brad Jones' incompetence at the other end. The subsequent 2-1 victory at Anfield was notable for two fine Juan Mata finishes, the second a glorious scissor-kick, while the aforementioned 3-1 win earlier this season featured Daley Blind drilling home a cut-back free-kick and Martial's cool finish. Wayne Rooney smashed home a rebound for the only goal at Anfield earlier this year.
Rooney will be absent this week, however, and it's debatable whether United still have superior finishers to Liverpool. Marcus Rashford's immediate impact has been incredible, but it remains to be seen whether he can sustain that finishing prowess, while Martial and Memphis Depay remain inconsistent in front of goal. Meanwhile, Liverpool have Daniel Sturridge firing again upfront, while Roberto Firmino is in fine goalscoring form too. If the sides create an equal number of chances once again, it will be a close contest.
This should be a more interesting tactical battle, however, especially because both managers are still attempting to prove their strategic acumen. Van Gaal has enjoyed relatively little success tactically in England, although he deserves great credit for his side's organisation in the recent 3-2 victory over Arsenal on Feb. 28, when United were forced to field various untested youngsters.
Klopp, meanwhile, can point to two convincing victories over Manchester City in the league -- but not much else. In truth, this has been a disappointing campaign for both, with Van Gaal unlikely to lead United to a top four finish (although he still has a chance of winning the FA Cup) and Klopp failing to make a significant improvement from the Brendan Rodgers era.
It is probably Klopp, however, who has more tactical options here. The return of Sturridge has changed things completely, giving him the option to play with a conventional striker going in behind the opposition to stretch the play, meaning Christian Benteke is now a Plan B and Firmino can play in his favoured role, just behind the main forward.
In turn, that means Firmino is now battling with Adam Lallana for that central playmaking position, with the former Southampton midfielder in particularly good form recently. If Firmino gets the nod there, then Lallana can be fielded from the right, drifting inside, which he does much better than James Milner, who continually states his preference for a more central role, but remains best when shuttling up and down the touchline. Coutinho, meanwhile, seems a surefire starter from the left.
The most encouraging thing about Liverpool's play, however, is that their combinations in the final third are looking excellent. In last week's 3-0 victory over Manchester City, Lallana, Milner and Firmino all scored, and all claimed an assist too, a wonderfully neat way of emphasising their improved link play.
The intriguing thing about playing Manchester United is that Van Gaal's side have clear weaknesses in their backline. They're not necessarily a poor defensive unit, as they remain well-organised, and yet Klopp will surely look at various United defenders and see ways Liverpool can trouble them.
Blind, for example has adapted well to his centre-back position but lacks strength and isn't the quickest, while his centre-back partner Chris Smalling is a fine defender, but often extremely hesitant in possession.
The response should be simple: Liverpool's striker, presumably Sturridge, should pull into inside-right positions to expose Blind, and should also mark him when United have possession, inviting passes to Smalling, who won't hurt Liverpool.
Klopp might also target United's full-backs. In January's league meeting, won by United 1-0 at Anfield, Matteo Darmian endured an extremely difficult first half, and was constantly dragged inside into narrow positions by Milner, opening up space on the overlap for Nathaniel Clyne. Darmian will probably switch to right-back here, but Coutinho's drifts should drag him out of position once again, allowing Alberto Moreno forward.
On the opposite flank, probable left-back Marcos Rojo tends to storm into tackles rather too keenly, and therefore can be lured forward, further exposing Blind to pace.
Liverpool must be wary of counter-attacks, particularly in behind Moreno, who doesn't seem to be improving his positional sense at all. Martial could be fielded on his flank specifically to run in behind. Depay could also be a threat, while Mata has a habit of scoring in this fixture.
This first leg, however, will primarily be about how Klopp decides to attack Manchester United. If intelligent deployment of attackers is combined with a high-tempo style in front of a noisy Anfield crowd, Liverpool could make a blistering start to this crucial tie.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.