Sunday 21 January 2018

Stephen Hunt: United could try a Rooney trump card at Anfield - but they need something more

Wayne Rooney appears to be lacking confidence after all the criticism of late – but Mourinho may be able to use this as a tool to inspire him. Picture: Getty Images
Wayne Rooney appears to be lacking confidence after all the criticism of late – but Mourinho may be able to use this as a tool to inspire him. Picture: Getty Images
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

After all that, don't be surprised to see Wayne Rooney back in the Manchester United starting XI at Anfield tomorrow night. It would be classic Jose Mourinho to bring him back, to try and get a positive reaction out of what has been a bad few weeks for Rooney.

He is past his best, don't get me wrong, but some of the stick has been ridiculous. He certainly deserves better than being booed, and I think Mourinho could try to use that to fire up Rooney and the team. United probably need some kind of fire to them because if, both teams play to recent levels, Liverpool will win. They're that bit further along in terms of what their manager wants from them and their team structure, and Mourinho has more work to do than Jurgen Klopp.

The two teams are similar in that they're both better when the opposition has the ball, so it could be a bit of a hot potato on the night. The difference is that Liverpool's pressing is just much better than United's right now. If you're not firing on all cylinders, it's usually in games like this when you're caught. United don't seem to have the legs to press, and that's something Mourinho will have to change.

I don't think he'll be happy with the full-back area, in particular. There's been talk again about Seamus Coleman going to United, and I think he would be perfect for Mourinho now. While he was almost a winger under Roberto Martinez, Ronald Koeman has him back primarily as a defender. Mourinho likes that. Some of Coleman's defending in recent Irish games - particularly against Germany - has been immaculate. He is also physically big, another quality Mourinho likes, and leads with his attitude.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic leads with his attitude too, and his work-rate has impressed me. He likes a bit of rough and tumble with defenders, going toe to toe. I expect Marcus Rashford to play to Zlatan's right, with Jesse Lingard on the left. Lingard has got into the United and England teams because of his own work-rate but, without being over-critical, that wouldn't have been enough in the past. The functionality of Mourinho teams means Lingard's industry gets him in, often balancing out whoever is on the right. The wonder then is whether Mourinho will throw a curve-ball with the man in between. A Rooney on the front foot and making different angles is the Rooney you want, and can give that key penetration, but he looks to be lacking in confidence. You could see all of this has affected him with the way he was trying to hook balls around corners against Slovenia, but only finding row F.

So, what better time for the manager to put his arm around Rooney and tell him 'you'll get the backing from me'? That would be classic Mourinho - but can it revive classic Rooney? I remember once when I played against him, he was chasing me and giving me an almighty kick. This was at the stage when everyone was telling him to control his temper. Maybe it's now time to bring back some of that aggression, to use his unhappiness at not playing to bring back some of the old Rooney? He might not have the legs, but you can still have the aggression, and channel it differently.

As for his low confidence, you can try change that by going out on the front foot, making a few tackles. I'm sure United fans would respond. He's an Everton boy who's always had a good record against Liverpool, too, and that could add to the buzz. It could get a rise out of him in what is still the biggest game in England.

What an even more energised Klopp will be like in all of this is just as interesting. If you were an opposition manager, I'd say he'd irritate you. It's his animation, the way he carries himself. If you're a neutral, though, you'd love him to be your manager - he's so passionate. It means that everyone knows what he wants and, when the team is pressing, the excited fans know it too.

As I said last week, Adam Lallana is the trigger for that pressing. His transformation has been amazing. One of the most impressive aspects of Klopp's time so far has been how he has played three mavericks in that front four. None of them are renowned for closing down, but he has them playing at a high tempo, and doing so willingly. They're not throwing their hands up in the air or anything like that. They all get on with it.

Sadio Mane has made a huge difference because raw pace still does so much damage. He's not as good, technically, as Lallana or Daniel Sturridge, but if Liverpool had three attackers like that they wouldn't be as effective. Mane's pace allows them to get in behind.

There, Sturridge probably isn't in the middle as much as I think Klopp likes for a number nine, but his feet are so good. He's still capable of so much, no matter where he is. He has the ability to manoeuvre defenders into position so he can get a shot off, and to find other players when most wouldn't have seen them. I think Sturridge and Ibrahimovic are the best in the league in terms of that spatial awareness and vision. Quite simply, Sturridge lifts Liverpool.

The decisive factor in this game, though, will be whether United are able to pass through that first and second Liverpool press. It's the big challenge for them, and one nobody has managed yet. I think Pep Guardiola would manage it, but I'm not sure United have the players. Eric Bailly is getting better with every game, and has pace in abundance to go with the way he attacks the ball, but I don't know if he can play it out in that way.

Maybe United can try one or two passes to suck Liverpool in, and then go long, where they'll be relying on Rashford to come in. Will Rooney be one of those there to pick it up? It would be just like Mourinho to pick him after all that's happened.

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