Five questions Man United boss must answer before facing Liverpool

This weekend’s round of Premier League fixtures throws up an absolute classic in Liverpool’s visit to Manchester United – kickoff at 5.30pm this Saturday.

Indeed, it’s a fixture that features the top flight’s greatest rivalry and separates two eras of one-club dominance in English football; the Reds during the 1970s and 1980s and the Red Devils from the incarnation of the Premier League to Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in summer 2013.

Many will deem the home side as the favourites, especially after doing the double over Liverpool in the Premier League last term.

But following an unconvincing start to the season from United, who have managed just three league goals in their first four Premier League outings, there are a number of questions Louis van Gaal must answer if he’s to maintain his impressive record in the Mersey-Manc derby.

Being the ever-helpful bunch we are at Football Fancast, we’ve listed FIVE of them.

CAN DALEY BLIND HANDLE CHRISTIAN BENTEKE?


Daley Blind has proved an inspired choice at the heart of defence in Manchester United’s opening fixtures, providing the technical quality and positional intelligence partner Chris Smalling notoriously lacks.

But in terms of both talent and physicality, the midfielder-come-defender faces his toughest challenge yet in Liverpool’s Christian Benteke.

Indeed, the £32.5million signing may have scored just once competitively since his Anfield move earlier this summer – a far post toe poke against Bournemouth that should’ve been ruled offside – but his reputation as one of the English top flight’s leading target men is undoubted from his 49-goals-in-100-appearances spell with Aston Villa, including three consecutive campaigns of double figures in the Premier League.

Two weekends ago Blind and Smalling failed to contain Swansea City’s Bafetimbi ‘baby Drogba’ Gomis in a 2-1 defeat; he grabbed the winning goal after an hour and also hit the bar; and Benteke, a 6 foot 3 battering ram of Belgian brawn, is of a worryingly similar mould.

With Phil Jones returning to fitness and Marcos Rojo also in contention, it might be time to swap the vertically limited Blind for a more natural aerial combatant who won’t be dominated by Benteke’s towering frame.

IS ANTHONY MARTIAL READY TO START?


Having acquired Anthony Martial for a whopping £36million on deadline day, making him the most expensive teenager in the world, Louis van Gaal will be tempted to prove he spent wisely on the Thierry-Henry-compared Frenchman by throwing him in the deep end against Liverpool.

Indeed, new signings often have a knack of performing beyond their means on their Premier League debuts and from a tactical perspective, the Red Devils have desperately lacked a powerful and pacey attacking presence like Martial this term, capable of stretching defences and penetrating through them.

But many still view this fixture as the most important on the Manchester United calendar – perhaps even more so this season considering Liverpool will likely form the benchmark of Champions League worthiness in the league table – and it could be argued as unrealistic to expect a 19 year-old to instantaneously acclimatise to that kind of pressure.

Furthermore, having arrived at Old Trafford for such a controversial sum – that could eventually rise to £58million – an underwhelming performance in such an iconic fixture would be an incredibly debasing start to Martial’s United career.

With that in mind, an outing from the bench seems like a sensible compromise between United’s need for dynamism in the final third and the risk of opening up Martial to avoidable criticism.

CARRICK OR SCHWEINSTEIGER?


Louis van Gaal has made no secret of his plans to utilise Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteger on an either/or basis this season. Both have made two starts and two substitute appearances in the Premier League, on three occasions out of four being swapped for each other on the hour mark, selected as the deep lying anchor in United’s midfield.

With both boasting such monolithic talent and experience, in prior fixtures it was almost as if LVG had to choose between six eggs or half a dozen; in essence, it didn’t really matter. But Liverpool represent their toughest opponents of the season thus far, so a little more thought must go into his selection.

On the one hand, you have Schweinsteiger; a World Cup, Champions League and Bundesliga winning midfielder purchased personally by van Gaal and seemingly embodying the core aspects of his much discussed philosophy.

On the other, however, you have Carrick; a Premier League veteran whose devotion to forward passes offers much needed diversity from the Old Trafford gaffer’s sideways-oriented possession mantra. Likewise, United’s win record with the England international propping up their midfield since LVG’s summer 2014 arrival speaks for itself. With him in the starting Xi, they’ve claimed 15 wins in 20 fixtures since the start of last season; without him, they’ve managed just seven wins in 22 – including the defeat to Swansea City two weekends ago.

In my opinion, Carrick is the obvious choice – especially considering he was fully rested during the international break unlike Schweinsteiger. But something tells me LVG might have other ideas.

DOES DE GEA RE-ENTER THE FRAY?


It’s been a turbulent few months for David De Gea. His long-awaited move to Real Madrid seemed inevitable for much of the summer, resulting in his exclusion from United’s opening fixtures, only for the deal to break down in the final moments of La Liga’s summer transfer window – committing him to the Old Trafford outfit until at least the new year.

Louis van Gaal has never criticised the Spain international’s professionalism and by all accounts he’s conducted himself well in training, although there were understandable concerns over his mindset whilst the Real Madrid transfer lingered.

LVG’s already revealed his plans to rehabilitate the 24 year-old back into the first team squad and welcoming a PFA Player of the Year-nominated goalkeeper into the starting line-up would certainly give United a boost ahead of such an important fixture.

But with the fall-out from the transfer fiasco still ongoing, the Red Devils and Los Blancos hierarchy continuing to throw mud at each other via the tabloids, this might not be the best game to bring De Gea back in. After all, one mistake from a goalkeeper could cost United the match.

Likewise, fitness is another issue to bear in mind. De Gea partook regularly in pre-season and played 90 minutes for Spain during the international break – claiming a clean sheet in a 1-0 win over Macedonia – but he’ll be a little behind summer signing Sergio Romero and Liverpool counterpart Simon Mignolet in terms of match sharpness.

Romero is a capable if inconsistent goalkeeper and can be trusted to face the Reds. That being said, United’s 2015 Player of the Year is one of the best – if not the best – shot-stoppers in world football, so if he feels mentally and physically prepared, he’ll expect to start.

HOW CAN UNITED GET MORE OUT OF WAYNE ROONEY?


Earlier this week, Wayne Rooney became England’s all-time leading goalscorer, netting a penalty past Switzerland to surpass Bobby Chartlon’s long-standing record of 49 goals. But it’s been a rare moment of greatness in a season of relative anonymity from the United skipper, who is still yet to hit the net in the Premier League and thus far managed just three shots on target.

Many have attempted to rationalise Rooney’s struggles as United’s lone centre-forward, some declaring he should be deployed exclusively in midfield, others claiming slow starts are typical of Wazza Roo and a few even declaring that he’s now past his best and edging the slope of aged decline.

But struggling strikers are often a symptom of dysfunctional systems and after four Premier League fixtures it’s abundantly clear that United’s isn’t getting the best out of their predominant goal source for the campaign.

Resultantly, some tactical tinkering could be in order. We’ve already discussed how Anthony Martial’s pace, power and penetration could provide Rooney with more space to exploit, hopefully ending the eternal encirclement of two centre-halves and a holding player, but there are other options for Louis van Gaal to consider.

Rooney may fare better with a support act operating just behind him instead of out wide for example, such as Juan Mata or Memphis Depay, whilst Marouane Fellaini has the physical and aerial presence to bring Rooney into the game higher up the pitch – and perhaps most importantly of all, without his back to goal.

Liverpool boast the second-best goals conceded column in the Premier League whilst United are lumbered with the second-worst goals for, so something in attack must change if the Red Devils are to claim a win this Saturday.

Article title: Five questions Man United boss must answer before facing Liverpool

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