Tuesday 12 December 2017

Stephen Hunt: Liverpool's intensity and capacity for surprises can give them crucial edge

'Adam Lallana, who I’ve highlighted for a long time as the key trigger-man in their attack, will only have more confidence after being linked with Barcelona.' Photo: PA
'Adam Lallana, who I’ve highlighted for a long time as the key trigger-man in their attack, will only have more confidence after being linked with Barcelona.' Photo: PA
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

On Tuesday night, Jose Mourinho did something I used to absolutely hate as a player, but that I can totally understand ahead of today's game at Old Trafford. It didn't actually surprise me that he criticised some of the Manchester United players for over-celebrating their first goal against Hull City. I would say that, no matter how they played, he had something like that planned.

That's because he knows that, even with this winning run United have been on, they will need to go up a level or two against Liverpool - the team that I still think will win the title. Mourinho realises this is a very different challenge, so he will have wanted minds properly focused and to start to build up the level of intensity that is going to be needed in a game like this. This is a big test for a growing United team as to where they are. And that comment would have set a proper psychological marker, to make sure they know - to not get ahead of themselves.

As a player in that situation, when you're sitting in the dressing room after a victory and you hear the manager has just said something like that, you are initially slightly deflated. It's almost like, 'Ah gaffer, let us enjoy the win'. I think it's important to do it, though, and the players will immediately realise he is worried about today's game. They'll know it's just a bit of reverse psychology, and it does bring you back down to earth straight away, gets you focused on the next fixture.

I don't think Mourinho was trying to be critical. It's more about today - and that's why I'd say he had probably been timing this for today's game no matter what happened against Hull. He'll know, especially with how Liverpool play, intensity is the key. As such, he won't want United going into this match thinking that they're better than they actually are after the recent run. Instead they'll need to up it, because Liverpool are the best team without the ball in the Premier League right now.

Chelsea are the best counter-attacking team, while Manchester City - who I think will easily beat Everton today - have more ability, but United might end up as the team with the best structure in place on a consistent basis. That's what Mourinho offers, and is one of his main strengths.

Mourinho being Mourinho, I'd imagine he would have been relentless over the past few months in trying to get it right - structure-wise and tactics-wise. And they are good now. He looks like he has a bit of his mojo back, too. You can see it in his demeanour.

I have to say I was surprised that a man of his stature would have allowed his body language to get that bad when it wasn't going well at United. It shows the Chelsea thing was still at him.

That looks like it's changed now. He has a structure in place, and a team in place. I still don't think it's at the level of ability that Chelsea have, or City have, or indeed Liverpool, but they're up there in terms of motivation.

I would be surprised if they don't buy more pace, and an industrious winger who offers a bit of randomness. That is admittedly hard to come by. They actually probably need someone like Sadio Mane, who is on international duty and not available for Liverpool today. He is that; a winger with power and pace who offers that something different. Anthony Martial is that, too, but he's not consistent yet.

Paul Pogba has just got better and better, though, and that has allowed United more attacking freedom within that structure. Without pumping our own guns, I said in this column that I didn't think his early form was a concern.

I think he just had to get used to the different pace of the Premier League, maybe that initial shock of the intensity of the division, and how players chasing you won't give up.

He's adapted to all that now, and has been very impressive. He has a big part to play, along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who doesn't need second chances.

The development of the United back four has been key to that structure, too, and they've improved. It's impressive. The players in it still aren't top level, though, and I do think they will be found out under pressure. It's not that the back four is weak but this is now a big challenge after a relatively forgiving run of games, so this will tell a lot.

And that Liverpool attack is certainly top-level in how it works together. If you look at it, one big difference with them and United is how Jurgen Klopp's forward line play with more fluency. I think that's because he allows them to use their own football intelligence, whereas Mourinho favours instructing his players.

To give an example of how it works, and how it might be decisive with United's defence, you suddenly see players like Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho pop up in places they shouldn't be to take a backline by surprise. It shows there's a freedom there.

With United they all have more defined, structural roles. Martial might have the option to come inside from the wing, say, but it's still only within one third of the pitch. With Liverpool, it's all more open. It's not a problem if one of their attackers suddenly goes into an area he's not supposed to, because they've been given licence to do so to cause havoc, and the other players are trusted to know to fill in the holes when they see them. With United, if Marcus Rashford suddenly goes in from wide right it's hard to see anyone filling in like that.

Liverpool just have more pace, too. Adam Lallana (below), who I've highlighted for a long time as the key trigger-man in their attack, will only have more confidence after being linked with Barcelona. It's impressive he has the energy to do both things, to lead the pressing and also create, and I think he'll get around Michael Carrick.

Klopp should have all his attackers back, with the exception of Mane, but it will be interesting to see if they're fully firing. It might be a bit of a gamble to play Coutinho. He could be a bit off the pace - he's bound to have lost some of his feel for it after six weeks out. It's like hitting a golf ball in that sense, where you need a few rounds to get you back into it, to get fully comfortable. Daniel Sturridge is also struggling to get the run of games he really needs to find true form.

Of course, their defence isn't all that tight either, and they still have that issue in goal. Loris Karius did well the other night in the League Cup against Southampton, but that creates something of a dilemma for Klopp. Will he be brave enough to put Karius back in straight away? I'm not sure he will want to do it just yet, even though he will do it eventually, but that makes for a complicated situation.

Looking to try and get into the head of goalkeepers, sometimes competition can be the worst thing for them. Some just can't deal with it. It's because some goalkeepers are just natural number-twos, and others natural number-ones. And with Karius playing so well, it would make me fear for Simon Mignolet a bit. I'd fear there could be a mistake today.

The problem is that he knows that Karius has played well, and he knows Klopp is keen to put him back in. As a player, there's nothing worse than knowing a manager doesn't fancy you, or is just waiting to replace you. It can damage you for big games. You know you're only one mistake away from getting dropped, and that creates a damaging cycle, because it's then on your mind.

This isn't to criticise Klopp, who I love. He's so energetic and, even after the defeat to Southampton, he said the right things. He's always positive. The one thing is I think he sometimes might say too much, and there is a slight danger of giving too much away. He had a quote during the week about how he changed formation, for example, but then stopped himself.

In terms of that League Cup tie, I don't think Nathan Redmond did himself many favours by saying he should have scored four. That will be ammunition for Liverpool for the second leg.

Even if Klopp can sometimes come across a little false in how positive he is, he's very good at what he does, and he'll have his players in the right frame of mind. That, combined with how they attack, means I think Liverpool will shade this game. I don't see it going like the 0-0 from October. The fact neither back four is up to the level you'd want means it's unlikely to happen again.

There could be a bit of cancelling out, though, making it tight. There's only one way for Liverpool to play, and that's on the front foot, and United may look to match them for intensity.

I think Liverpool will have the greater intensity, though, and thereby win the ball back higher up the pitch to do more damage. If visualising the game, I'd say it'll be high-tempo start, with plenty of tackles early on, and one or two mistakes. I don't think we'll see either side holding possession for long periods.

I can see goals coming from maybe set-pieces or direct play for United, but long shots and breaking balls high up the pitch for Liverpool. And I think Klopp's side will just get one more, even if United do up their game as Mourinho wants.

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