Men in the middle hold key for Jose
ON the 11 occasions Jose Mourinho has taken a team to Anfield he has started with three central midfielders in 10 of them. The exception was a month before his first Chelsea dismissal, when Claude Makelele was an incongruous presence on the bench and Michael Essien started at right-back. The experiment was so unsuccessful Mourinho made a half-time substitution.
Mourinho took Chelsea to Liverpool an exhausting seven times in just over three years and competed against Rafael Benitez so often they faced each other at Champions League group stage level. Benitez dumped Mourinho out of the semifinals on two occasions but the Portuguese inflicted one of the most devastating defeats on Liverpool soil in decades with a formidable 4-1 win in 2005.
Makelele’s demotion in 2007 was so surprising since he had lined up at Anfield whenever he was fit. Frank Lampard started all seven of those aforementioned tussles and Michael Essien was a mainstay, although sometimes at right-back. Tiago Mendes and John Obi Mikel were occasionally drafted in. Nemanja Matic was essential for Mourinho in shielding the Kop goal as Steven Gerrard endeavoured to atone for his slip in 2014. Matic always made the cut for Chelsea under Mourinho, Guus Hiddink and Antonio Conte at Liverpool and he has not lost there in five.
Matic is assured of starting for Manchester United on Saturday and Ander Herrera is also expected to be recalled after Marouane Fellaini succumbed to injury. The weekend fixture might mark a departure from Mourinho’s familiar Anfield set-up because of the unavailability of Fellaini and Pogba but also the alternative.
It is unclear whether Michael Carrick is fit again after he missed the CSKA Moscow and Crystal Palace wins. Carrick has not started a Premier League match since May and his only outing this term was the Carabao Cup stroll against Burton Albion.
Matic’s Anfield record is auspicious whereas Carrick’s is not. The 36-year-old has played at least 45 minutes eight times at Anfield and United have won only two of them (2-1s in September 2012 and March 2015). Over that four-year period when United managed one win in six at Liverpool Carrick’s lightweight partnership was Scholes was tantamount to waving the white flag. They were hounded by yard dog Lucas Leiva.
More recently, Carrick lasted 45 minutes after he was swamped by Liverpool’s live wires at Old Trafford in January before Mourinho hooked him.
There is little incentive to recall Carrick to the team this weekend, particularly when United are such a tactically flexible side. They have played in three different formations away from home already. Mourinho has spoken about ‘defenders that can come into the midfield, bringing the ball,’ while referring to Victor Lindelof and maybe the biggest selection conundrum is who the third central defender will be at Liverpool.
Provided Phil Jones recovers, he and Eric Bailly are certain starters. Chris Smalling, a veteran of Anfield encounters, would be the logical supplement but, as Mourinho informed him before the Europa League final, ‘With your feet, we’re for sure not playing out from the back!’
The gaping caveat is Lindelof, who clumsily conceded a penalty in the Netherlands on Tuesday night, and has still not played a single Premier League minute. United’s last league defensive debutants at Anfield were Mikael Silvestre and Massimo Taibi in 1999. United have alternatives. Bailly is an underrated distributor whose considerable steel often overshadows his silk and Jones’ passing has noticeably improved this season to the extent his accuracy currently stands at 94 per cent. Liverpool are without their totemic Sadio Mane, which is enough of an incentive for Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Antonio Valencia and Anthony Martial and Ashley Young to gang up on their flaky fullbacks. Perhaps for the first time since 4-4-2 was in vogue, United might not need a third midfielder at Anfield.
The weekend fixture might mark a departure from Mourinho’s familiar Anfield set-up