Manchester United v Liverpool: A look at the key battles when the two teams meet at Old Trafford on Sunday

With Manchester United and Liverpool both looking vulnerable before the big game on Sunday, the individual battles will be particularly important. Will the goalkeepers decide the game? Which manager will make the right call? We pick out the key figures…

Louis van Gaal v Brendan Rodgers

Another week and another defensive combination for Louis van Gaal to stitch together as he continues his search for solutions at Old Trafford. Without Chris Smalling through injury and with Paddy McNair’s confidence potentially damaged by his first-half withdrawal against Southampton, the challenge isn’t getting any easier. Jonny Evans is back to bolster the back line but Van Gaal has decisions to make in terms of personnel and formation as he struggles to find the right balance.

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Phil Thompson on Basel defeat

At least United are winning. It’s been a more difficult week for Brendan Rodgers with Liverpool eliminated from the Champions League and the subsequent spotlight falling upon his tactics and selection. “It’s very difficult to see why (Lazar) Markovic came on when you’ve seen (Adam) Lallana playing in most of the games,” Phil Thompson told Sky Sports. “(Philippe) Coutinho, you would think, has a lot more to open up this defence. You just wonder how and why they weren’t playing.”

The team selection will be critical. After seeing United deliver a performance at St Mary’s that was reminiscent of their sluggish efforts last season, Rodgers would love to play with the sort of pace his side did at Old Trafford in March. But without those forward players at his disposal that might prove impossible. Will Van Gaal have special plans for Liverpool’s defence too? It’ll be fascinating to see how the two managers set their sides up given there are obvious weaknesses to exploit.

David de Gea v Simon Mignolet

If there’s too much back-slapping going on around Carrington about United's current five-game winning run then David de Gea will have a wry smile on his face. That sequence has included wins over Arsenal and Southampton which saw United's opponents have 38 shots on De Gea's goal. The Spaniard also produced vital saves in narrow home wins over Everton, West Ham and Stoke to further emphasise what a significant role he has played in United's rise into the Champions League positions.

There seems rather less conviction that Simon Mignolet is the right man for the job at Liverpool. Although he began the season with a fine reflex save from Morgan Schneiderlin on the opening weekend, doubts remain about his command of the area when dealing with crosses as well as his distribution. The latter proved costly when he sent a free-kick out of play in the build-up to Crystal Palace’s winner last month, while Esteban Cambiasso should’ve punished a stray kick at Leicester.

De Gea v Mignolet

Player Save % in box Save % out box Drops Errors led to shots
David de Gea 66.7% 76.5% 0 2
Simon Mignolet 52.8% 90.5% 1 3

More from Man Utd V Liverpool

Goalkeepers can sometimes be overlooked given their limited impact upon the tactical flow of a game, but these big games can be nervy occasions decided by individual errors and moments of inspiration. Recent form might indicate that the former is more likely to be provided by Mignolet and the latter by De Gea, but the same logic would also suggest that any dip in form by the United keeper coupled with a confident performance by the Belgian could tip things in Liverpool’s favour.

Robin van Persie v Martin Skrtel

Robin van Persie has been working his way back to form and his glorious goal against Hull might just have kickstarted things for the Dutchman. He still needed a break to build on that strike and got it against Southampton, capitalising efficiently on errors by Jose Fonte and Fraser Forster. There was plenty of evidence to suggest talk of Van Persie being physically past it was hasty and that he just needed to rediscover his conviction in front of goal. It seems that’s back.

That’s bad news for Martin Skrtel and the Liverpool defence. The Opta data shows that Skrtel has made four errors leading to shots this season – more than all but one Premier League player. Unfortunately for Liverpool, that player is Skrtel’s centre-back partner Dejan Lovren with five mistakes of his own. Whoever Skrtel is partnered with on Sunday, he’ll need to improve on his shaky performance against Basel.

Image: Liverpool have made the most errors leading to shots of any team in the Premier League this season

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Slovakian. He was assured in the clean sheet against Sunderland last weekend and is a defender who relishes the physical contest provided by a centre forward rather than the movement he had to deal with against Basel. Even so, this fixture has a habit of making fools of better defenders than Skrtel – see Nemanja Vidic’s struggles against Fernando Torres – so it would be no surprise if this proves to be the decisive contest on the day.

Michael Carrick v Raheem Sterling

Michael Carrick has provided a little more protection of late and has been a significant factor in United winning all five matches since his return to the starting line-up. Whether used in midfield or defence, as was the case amid the panic against Southampton, he’ll be a key organising presence at the weekend. “That’s what he brings,” said Gary Neville on Monday Night Football. “General protection of the back four, experience, intelligence.”

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That could be vital against the pace of Raheem Sterling given how Liverpool cut United open the last time the two teams met in the spring. With Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge missing, Sterling, who turned 20 on Monday, has been forced to take on additional creative responsibilities in the final third. Only Eden Hazard has completed more dribbles than the Liverpool winger this season, while Dusan Tadic is the only player to create more chances from open play.

As a result, Sterling is likely to be the key man for Liverpool in an attacking sense and so much will depend on how Rodgers looks to utilise him. After starting on the right to limited effect against Basel, it may be that Sterling gets a more central role at Old Trafford – the position in which he caused so many problems on his last visit. That would bring him into Carrick’s zone and whichever player gets the better of that duel could prove crucial to the outcome of the game.

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