As Manchester United prepare to welcome bitter rivals Liverpool to Old Trafford, those who admire the art of defending must be dreading it. Those who enjoy a good laugh are in for a real treat.
Indeed has there ever been a game contested between these two since the beginning of the Premier League that had as big a potential as this one to display such a lack of basic organisation when it comes to stopping your opponent scoring a goal?
It’s hard to recall in recent memory the teams linked by the M62 suffering so badly in this area of the field at the same time. Perhaps we have to look at last year, despite the contrasting fortunes of both teams, as the closest example.
Although it upset Louis van Gaal no end, Gary Neville’s appraisal summed the state of affairs up perfectly. The former United defender likened their forthcoming match-up to a Sunday morning pub game, pitting “the Dog and Duck against the Red Lion.”
After putting their slow start to one side, Manchester United are making a good go of returning to the Champions League at the first attempt. Winning five league games on the bounce and unbeaten in seven at Old Trafford, the defensive deficiencies have been masked lately by a streak of clinical finishing and more than a slight element of luck.
They were fortunate to beat Southampton, registering only three shots at goal in a game beset by defensive re-shuffling and personnel changes for van Gaal. A common theme this season where the Dutchman has used 12 different players across either his three and four man defences.
Similarly, Liverpool have not improved at all in the defensive third since last season. Suffering from the lack of an ‘SAS’ style outlet that drew so much focus away from the underlying issues, manager Brendan Rodgers has spent big after attributing their defensive problems to basic individual errors. Martin Skrtel is Liverpool’s rear-guard all rolled into one player. Scoring goals for fun last season (Skrtel got seven, his team got 101) this masked the obvious lack of leadership, determination and general defensive nous needed to convert second place finishes into title wins.
Liverpool have dealt with defensive issues regularly over the 20-plus Premier League years, with the tell-tale sign being the lack of a title in that time. United on the other hand have enjoyed success only possible with at least a semi-decent goals conceded column. This is of course the main factor why these two haven’t shared such a defensive mess as they do currently. One has had an unprecedented level of success, the other always playing catch-up.
In the first Premier League season back in 1992-93, United won the league by 10 points with the Parker-Pallister-Bruce-Irwin combination key to their triumph. Liverpool, finishing sixth, had the talents of England’s best right-back in Rob Jones and four-time title winner Steve Nicol in their armoury but also made one of the worst defensive signings in the club’s recent history – Torben Piechnik. There are many contenders for the title of absolute worst, but Dejan Lovren might want to start bucking up his ideas if he doesn’t want to end up in the same company as Piechnik. At £20m it’s much harder to hide.
Leaving personal favouritism and rivalry at the door for a second, there have been great defenders at the top of their form on show for both sides over the years. For every Nemanja Vidic there was a Sami Hyypia. For every Denis Irwin there was a John Arne Riise. At present Dejan Lovren faces Chris Smalling. Potentially Jose Enrique facing Paddy McNair. Not exactly titans. We could see a goal-fest on this evidence, but if you consider Liverpool’s issues at the front end, probably not.
Even in the only two consecutive seasons where United didn’t finish as winner or runner up, in 2003 to 2005 when Arsenal and Chelsea were dominant, they largely remained tight at the back.
The problems now stem from a lack of planning towards the back end of the Ferguson reign. Usually the departure of stalwarts such as Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand would have been planned for. Instead van Gaal is left to mould foreign imports like Rojo with average defenders like Evans and Smalling, at the same time as plugging any further gaps with youngsters like Blackett and McNair. The tools United have to build a tight enough defensive unit to secure a top four place is limited.
The warning signs were there for Liverpool last season, but these signs were left to fight for attention with the barn-storming nature of their forward play. The defence lost that particular battle, and they continue to lose most battles this time around too. The writing is on the wall for Brendan Rodgers, and he isn’t showing anything like what is required to paint over it just yet.
Usually when the two giants of English football go face to face current form and league placings go out the window. A ferocious rivalry that takes precious few prisoners, maybe this game is what both struggling defences really need to start a new era of solidity at the back. Doubtful, but lets have a good old chuckle at them trying.