By Kevin Koczwara
Manchester United looks rejuvenated and fresh again. Last season’s Champions League drumming by Barcelona in the final looks like a million years ago. United has fresh blood in the midfield. It looks posed to attack. It looks fast.
Last season, United was getting old and in the Champions League final, its midfield got run over by Barcelona’s, which, to be fair, happens to just about every team in the world. But things didn’t look good for United when Paul Scholes retired, Darren Fletcher stayed injured and Michael Carrick looked like a lost child in search of a lollipop in a haystack (gross!) at the end of last season.
And then there was Anderson. He was the forgotten Brazilian who crashed his car and became an overpriced and underachieving midfielder in recent seasons at Manchester United. Anderson looked to be one of the most promising central midfielders who could do it all — tackle, run pass and score — when United bought him from Porto. But only flashes of his ability showed up over the last few years. He put on some pounds. Lost track of his career. And lost his place in the team to aging veterans and mediocre replacements who didn’t live up to expectations.
This season has been different, though. Anderson is playing like a man anew. He looks slimmer, quicker, and more interested. The game has slowed for him and he’s been a major part of the United attack this season. When he is playing at a top level, Anderson can play Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young on the counter attack with great passes through the midfield. He has an engine again, the one thing he lacked in recent seasons. He is motoring from box-to-box. Anderson has been the linchpin in the side this season, connecting defense and attack.
For Liverpool to be successful this weekend, it’s midfield needs to isolate Anderson and make him ineffective. Anderson has been a driving force this year. He’s been the man who’s brought United back to life and lead the midfield charge.
In last season’s late season meeting between United and Liverpool, Anderson didn’t play, and United’s midfield was overrun by Liverpool’s. Lucas played clean-up and sat in front of a slow back four — Fabio Aurellio had to be removed because of injury for Sotirios Kyrgiakos. Steven Gerrard motored up and down the midfield, doing a bit of everything. And United didn’t have a chance.
Luis Suarez caused more than his fair of problems for the Manchester United’s midfield as well. The Uruguayan forward found space in the midfield to receive the ball, turn and run at United’s backline with little pressure from any midfielders. This made the United defenders step up, allowing room to run beyond and behind them. If the defenders didn’t step up to mark Suarez, then United’s midfield had to fill in and pick him up instead of focusing on solid positioning and controlling possession. Suarez also put more than his fair share of pressure on the United defense. He hounded United defenders and lead the high line. forcing United to try and play the ball out of the back rather than through the midfield. If midfielders are isolated and forgotten, it’s hard to start a powerful, quick, attack because build-up is labored through the knock down and the long ball.
The key to stopping United is high pressure. It struggled last year with high pressure from other teams. If Vidic or Ferdinand is playing in the center of its defense, Liverpool can exploit their poor passing and slow pace with Luis Suarez’s tenacity and ability to win the ball back.
Manchester United is a bold team with plenty of power and pace on the wings. It’s also a versatile squad with players like Nani, Ashley Young and Valencia who can all player on either side of the midfield or on the wings. With Wayne Rooney in the middle of the attack, United has a player like Suarez who works hard, penetrates defenses, runs at defenders and who can distribute and create scoring chances for other players as well as score his own. But all players need a supply line, and none of them are a hold up kind of player who knocks a ball down and holds possession to ease pressure out of the back. They all need a supply line, and cutting off that supply line is key for Liverpool’s success.
If Gerrard, Lucas, and Suarez can out work and out play Anderson and Tom Cleverly (or Fletcher or Carrick if Sir Alex Ferguson gets so bold), then Liverpool can break down United’s potent attack.