Dimitar Berbatov has absolutely terrorized Liverpool this season. This photo kind of terrorizes me. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
On Saturday afternoon, Barclays Premier League leader Manchester United travel to Anfield to clash with bitter rival Liverpool in a league tie. The two sides have met twice this season, once in league play and once in FA Cup action, both resulting in victories for United at Old Trafford. In the league play victory in September, Dimitar Berbatov was a hat-trick hero in an absolute cracker of a match. In the FA Cup tie in January, Berbatov was able to earn a penalty that Ryan Giggs calmly put away in a 1-0 victory that eliminated the Merseyside club from the competition. Both sides come into the match off of away defeats and both will be hoping to use a victory over their bitter rival to gather momentum for the final stretch run of the season. United seek a league title that would enable them to surpass Liverpool for an English record 19th; and Liverpool, who currently sit 6th in the table, seek a place in European competition next season. Only once in the last 21 meetings between these two clubs has the match ended in a draw.
In three of their last four league matches, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish has used a three-man defense. Sunderland has been the only other club to use a three-man defense during the 2010-11 season in the Premier League. Both sides first used it against Stoke City, likely in order to get more height and size to combat Stoke's set-piece threat, but Liverpool has gone on to use the three-man defense versus Chelsea FC and West Ham United as well. There is a very good chance that it will be deployed by Dalglish versus United. In the three-man defense, Liverpool has used three center-backs and have also used Martin Kelly (right) and Glen Johnson (left) as wing-backs; the wing-backs have been asked to provide width in both the attack and defense. Dalglish mostly has used one player up front in Dirk Kuyt, but in last weekend's match at Upton Park, the Liverpool boss integrated his new 23-million striker Luiz Suarez into the attack and paired him with the Dutchman up top. Steven Gerrard and Raul Meireles have supported the attack from the central midfield and Lucas has been used in a holding role to provide cover for his three center-backs when the wing-backs bomb forward in the attack.
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A three-man defense typically works very well versus a '4-4-2'. In defense, the three center-backs provide effective cover versus two strikers, and the wing-backs are able to mark the wide players in attack. Where the advantage occurs is in the center of the pitch because the side with the three-man defense enables themselves to have an extra central midfielder, thus a 3 v 2 advantage occurs as you can see in this tactical diagram below in the yellow box. If the two sides are relatively equal in talent, the side with the 3-man defense will usually dominate possession.
'3-man defense' (green) vs '4-4-2' (yellow)
When Liverpool defeated Chelsea 0-1 at Stamford Bridge in early February, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti played right into the hands of Dalglish by deploying a diamond shaped '4-4-2'. Liverpool covered themselves well versus Chelsea's two strikers and the wing-backs got up and down the touchline and hurt Chelsea with their width versus the Blues' narrow shape. This is once instance where tactics played an enormous role in the outcome of a match.
However, the three-man defense can be very vulnerable to sides that play with only one striker up top. What typically happens is that the three-man defense can lose their shape and leave themselves open due to wide attacking channels that become open and exposed. Although you're covered well still against the striker (3 center-backs vs 1 striker), this leaves you vulnerable in other areas of the pitch because you're overmanned here. If a team uses a '4-3-3' shape versus a 3-man defense, the wide attacking attacking players in the '4-3-3' need to be picked up in defense by either (a) the wing-backs or (b) the wider two of the center-backs. If situation (a) occurs, the side with a '4-3-3' shape has acres of space for their full-backs to get forward and provide support in the attack because the wing-backs are occupied. If situation (b) occurs, then the 3-man defense is extremely vulnerable to being stretched out too far wide and there are some very wide channels in the attack that are exploitable. Here's a diagram showing how a 3-man defense is vulnerable to a side deploying only one striker:
'3-man defense' (green) vs '4-3-3' (black)
Because of all of this, I think that United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will unveil a '4-3-3/4-5-1' shape, one that he typically uses anyway in "big matches," even moreso away from Old Trafford. In addition, if Dalglish decides to change it up again and use a four-man defense, then the '4-3-3/4-5-1' still has very little tactical weakness versus any commonly used shape and United would be fine.
United have some considerable injury and suspension concerns ahead of Sunday's match. Skipper Nemanja Vidic is unavailable due to the two yellow cards the Serbian defender picked up in Tuesday's match at Stamford Bridge. His typical center-back partner Rio Ferdinand is still out with a calf injury. Chris Smalling, who has excelled in Ferdinand's absence, and Wes Brown will likely deputize. Center-back Jonny Evans appears to be out as well with ankle knock. Park Ji-Sung, Anderson, Antonio Valencia, and Owen Hargreaves are all definitely out for the match. Michael Owen is likely available but the English striker has been battling a groin strain. Patrice Evra is likely available to play, but the Frenchman was subbed off at Stamford Bridge for Fabio after he received a knock.
In contrast, Liverpool appears to have mostly a full squad. The two biggest concerns for the Scousers are Kelly, who is out due to a hamstring injury suffered at West Ham, and 35-million pound striker Andy Carroll who likely will be available from the bench to make his debut for his new club. Both Daniel Agger and Fabio Aurelio are probable to play, but both are a bit banged up.
I do expect Dalglish to bring out his side in a three-man defense, since it's mostly the tactic he's used in the past month in league play. Also, it helps give Liverpool some width, something they don't naturally have in their attacking players. Although, I wouldn't be surprised to see a four-man defense. With the injury to Kelly, I expect Johnson to move back to his normal role on the right side as the wing-back on that flank. This would likely mean Aurelio deployed as the left wing-back. If healthy, expect to see Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel, and Agger as the center-backs. I expect to see Lucas as the holding midfielder and Gerrard and Meireles higher up the pitch in the attack in the central midfield. Suarez and Kuyt are the likely striker tandem. Look for Suarez and Kuyt to come deep, and for Gerrard and Meireles to make runs forward; all four will likely be very fluid in their movements and interchangeable at times.
As I previously mentioned, I feel as though Fergie will go with his '4-3-3/4-5-1' shape. This would be a perfect game for Park to be deployed in as his movement off the ball would likely cause the Liverpool defense problems. But since the Korean is unavailable, I expect Wayne Rooney to be used on the left flank with Nani on the right and Berbatov leading the attacking line in the center. Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Darron Gibson, and Giggs are all possibilities in the central midfield, but my guess is that the former three are called upon if fully fit and healthy. With the recent success of Carrick and Scholes paired together in a double pivot, I think they would make sense and they would also provide natural positional cover if both Meireles and Gerrard are tasked high up the pitch in the central midfield. If Evra is able to go, he'll be the left-back and he'll be joined in defense at center-back by Brown and Smalling. O'Shea has been the recent first choice for Fergie at right-back and I see no indication of the manager changing his mind. However, I wonder if Rafael would be a better choice in this match as his speed might be better suited to get up and down that right touchline and apply pressure on Liverpool's wing-back. It all might look something like this:
Liverpool's SB Nation site: Anfield Asylum
Odds: Liverpool 15/8, Draw 9/4, Manchester United 7/5
Prediction: Liverpool 1-2 United