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Man United can go different and more direct against pressing Liverpool

Man United can go different and more direct against pressing Liverpool

ESPN

What a match to kick off the weekend: Liverpool vs. Manchester United.

One of English football's greatest rivalries is back as the Premier League returns with a bang. You can predict the outcome of that and all the rest of the weekend's action by voting in our match polls.

Elsewhere, Manchester City will be looking to keep their fine run going as they host Stoke while Crystal Palace go in search of their first goal, never mind point, of the season when they host Chelsea. Roy Hodgson's have nothing to show for their first seven matches of the season -- so is a visit from the champions going to end the rot?

Arsenal are at Watford and under pressure Ronald Koeman takes his Everton side to Brighton in the weekend's other eye-catching fixtures. 

How will the games go? Have your say in the comments below and don't forget to vote in our polls.

Follow @ESPNFC on Twitter to keep up with the latest football updates.

It has seemed a recipe for regressions. Everton have spent £144 million and gone into the bottom five. They have scored three fewer league goals as a team than the striker they sold, Romelu Lukaku, has mustered on his own for Manchester United.

Yet the forward is not the only man they are missing. Ross Barkley is injured but not gone. Everton replaced him without finding him an alternative employer. And not once, but three times. Change may have been enforced by Barkley's refusal to sign a new contract, but it was also botched by Everton's inability to sell him and their triple-pronged efforts at finding a successor.

Because when manager Ronald Koeman fielded the trio of No. 10s he signed this summer, it looked as if Everton were playing with nine men. Gylfi Sigurdsson, Wayne Rooney and Davy Klaassen all converged in the middle, each trying to occupy his preferred position. Everton lost 3-0 to Tottenham when all three started. They were losing 1-0 to Bournemouth when Koeman took two off. It is already apparent the three imperfect 10s cannot play together. There is scant evidence that two can.

Rooney and Sigurdsson have spent 618 minutes on the pitch together. In that time, they have one goal apiece and the Icelander has an assist, all against either Hajduk Split or Apollon Limassol. In the Premier League, their combined record when paired shows no goals and no assists in 472 minutes. Everton's record signing and their boyhood fan represented their two flagship additions. Koeman demoted Rooney against Burnley while selecting Sigurdsson. It suggested he may be concluding they are incompatible. As for Klaassen, the £23.6 million buy from Ajax has offered so little that Evertonians are bemused precisely where his strengths lie.

Yet each is hampered by the presence of the others. There are teams -- Brazil in 1982, Croatia in 1998 -- that had so much talent, a suitable style of play and sufficient understanding that they could accommodate three No. 10s. Everton's class of 2017 are not among them. They illustrate that most sides require the balance different players with different attributes offer. In particular, the three slow or slow-ish No. 10s would benefit from more speed, width and movement on either side and in front of them. Sigurdsson's sole assist, against Apollon, came when winger Nikola Vlasic made a burst into the penalty box.

And it prompts the thought that the No. 10 Everton need most is the one they discarded. Koeman suggested in July that Barkley's Everton career is over. That was before he suffered a hamstring injury that could sideline him until December and before the breakdown of a move to Chelsea, amid a dispute if he attended a medical.

Barkley is less of a classical No. 10 than the newcomers. That may be what Everton need. He is part playmaker, part runner. The Paul Gascoigne comparisons were overblown, but Barkley possesses a similar capacity to beat a man and carry the ball deep into enemy territory, which Rooney used to, but the days when he surged up and down the flanks for Manchester United are very much confined to the past. Now Koeman has a slower trio, each suited to the centre.

In contrast, Barkley flourished operating off the right for Everton in the second half of last season; it was a role Steven Gerrard once filled for Liverpool, spared defensive responsibilities and allowed to use his energy and invention in the final third. The paradox of Koeman's summer recruitment drive is that Everton's best form last season came without a No. 10, but with Tom Davies instead allowed to show his dynamism in the middle while Barkley's flexibility afforded other options. Perhaps, should he revisit such a strategy, Sigurdsson could play off the left, as he sometimes did for Swansea, but that would require picking players with more physical attributes elsewhere in the forward line. And whether through transfer-market failings or Koeman's reluctance to select others, Everton do not have that sort of balance.

Barkley may seem proof that reputations can be elevated in absence. Returns of 21 goals and 18 assists in his top-flight career are underwhelming. He has long been the Evertonian enigma, frustrating many, forever holding unrealised potential.

Koeman has contributed to that image. His criticisms of Barkley could be interpreted as tough love, confrontational leadership, perfectionism or simply irritation. It may seem hypocritical to condemn the man he inherited and not those he signed but the Dutchman is yet to be as cutting in his comments about the recent arrivals.

Yet whether because or despite his manager's rhetoric, Barkley ranked fifth for chances fashioned in the Premier League last season, fractionally ahead of Sigurdsson, behind just Christian Eriksen, Kevin de Bruyne, Mesut Ozil and Eden Hazard. With Everton now having had the third fewest shots on target, albeit a statistic that reflects their failure to replace Lukaku, such creativity would be welcome.

Instead, Barkley remains likely to leave in January. If not, and if he is summoned to strengthen the side, Everton will have to write off a potential windfall for a player who is out of contract next summer. Yet it may sum up the confused thinking at Goodison Park that they have spent best part of £70 million on No. 10s and committed perhaps £15 million a year in salaries to replace him. And if it was supposed to secure an upgrade, Everton may have got a downgrade instead while the No. 10 position looks a metaphor for costly deterioration.

Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.

John Brewin previews the weekend's Premier League action and highlights five key storylines in W2W4.

A test of credentials, but don't expect entertainment

Saturday, Oct. 14 always looked the crucial date on Manchester United's early-season calendar. A match with Liverpool will usually have that status, but the ease of United's schedule in their first seven league matches suggested Jose Mourinho's team might arrive at Anfield in a strong position.

And so it has proved; United have started the season using the dominant, pace-setting template that brought Mourinho success in winning three titles with Chelsea. They have scored 21 goals and conceded just two. Only a 2-2 draw at Stoke on Sept. 9 prevented a 100 percent record. Mourinho's problem is that Manchester City, playing out a tougher schedule that includes defeats of Chelsea and Liverpool, are level on points, ahead by a single goal scored.

If United are testing their credentials, then Liverpool have serious ground to make up. They are seventh in the table, level on points with Burnley. Already, with Manchester's billionaire behemoths streaking clear, a first Liverpool title since 1990 appears a remote prospect.

Is this time for Liverpool to throw caution to the wind, and go for United? Their circumstances, with Jurgen Klopp under the most pressure of his two-year tenure, suggest so, but like last season's 0-0 draw in this fixture, a night of chance-less tedium, Mourinho will probably offer as few openings as possible. Though United have been cruising, it would be uncharacteristic for the counterattack not to be their main weapon.

The last five meetings between the clubs have a binary appearance; only once, a 2-0 Europa League win for Liverpool in March 2016, has either team scored more than one goal.

Liverpool vs. Manchester United may be the fixture that both sets of fans look to when the season's schedule is released in June, but excitement is seldom delivered. It is a blockbuster that misses the mark, delivering nothing like the entertainment of comparable fixtures like Real Madrid-Barcelona, Bayern Munich- Borussia Dortmund or a Milan derby.

Perhaps it matters too much to these rivals to risk all, and neither club has been at its apex in recent years, but it would be a surprise if Saturday delivers a classic.

Can Pep keep City purring?

Pep Guardiola will be keeping abreast of events at Anfield as he prepares his Manchester City for their Saturday kickoff with Stoke. He will hope for better than March's 0-0 draw against Mark Hughes' team, a result that began a slump that ended hopes of challenging Chelsea for the title.

He must also hope that the international break will not affect his team's momentum. Victory at Chelsea last time out was truly comprehensive, despite the narrow 1-0 scoreline. Where last season, Antonio Conte, a manager Guardiola admires, was his master over two meetings, this time Chelsea were easily neutralised.

Guardiola has not compromised his values in having City play a level of football that is the envy of all but perhaps his old club Barcelona and Serie A leaders Napoli, who visit the Etihad in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Hughes, a Barcelona player back when Guardiola was a teenage prospect at the Camp Nou, will have designs on getting another good result against the club that sacked him in December 2009, but even without injured Sergio Aguero and Benjamin Mendy, City are a truly awesome proposition.

Poor Palace must fear Chelsea bounce

Crystal Palace face the prospect of a wounded Chelsea as the search for a first goal of the season, let alone a victory, continues for Roy Hodgson's historically hopeless team. The talk this week has been of Palace looking to add experienced Premier League players in the January transfer window, though by then it might be too late.

Conte, meanwhile, needs to make sure that City and United, currently six points ahead, do not escape over Chelsea's horizons, and a kind run of fixtures may give him that opportunity. A home match with Watford, and a visit to struggling Bournemouth follow on from Saturday's trip to Selhurst.

Palace, despite their struggles, are unlikely to be taken lightly. That probably spells even more bad news for Hodgson and his men.

Koeman under the cosh

Though the break for World Cup qualifying brought bad news for Ronald Koeman in the Dutch national team missing out on the finals, it perhaps came at a good time for him. Losing 1-0 to Burnley, as Everton did in their last Premier League outing, was a new low in a troubled season. On that damning evidence, Koeman needed time to rethink the direction he takes his team in.

Perhaps the worst thing about that sorry Burnley performance was that it had been all too predictable. Koeman has a squad visibly sagging in confidence, and Ashley Williams' unfortunate culpability in the Ireland goal that cost Wales a place in the qualifying playoffs was a reminder of the defensive problems at the heart of Everton's slump.

Brighton boss Chris Hughton is cautious by nature, but he might fancy that Everton are there for the taking at the Amex Stadium on Sunday.

Harry's on his game

It has been a life-changing week for Harry Winks. Probably the only thing worth mentioning from England's 1-0 win in Lithuania was Tottenham's 21-year-old midfielder's assured debut. He is also set for a new club contract.

In Vilnius, Winks targeted a place in England's 23-man squad for the finals, and Mauricio Pochettino has promised him opportunities at Tottenham. Saturday's match with Bournemouth is the next step on his road to Russia.

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.

An international break can be a nervous fortnight for club managers. 

Not only are players out of their care, twitchy club chairmen and owners have often used the extra breathing space in between matches to make big decisions. It now looks as if Premier League bosses have escaped the axe this time around, with Frank de Boer, sacked by Crystal Palace after four matches, remaining the sole dismissal of the season. 

That is not to say there are no managers under pressure. ESPN FC makes it that five return to action this weekend with questions hanging over their immediate future.

Ronald Koeman (Everton)

Losing 1-0 to Burnley at home last time out made for a poisonous atmosphere at Goodison Park. Everton have won just two league games all season, and beating Bournemouth 2-1 on Sep. 23 was the first victory since a 1-0 opening day defeat of Stoke. 

"It is always about the money," said Koeman after Burnley, forced into talking of "net spend" in the face of £140 million of investment in the team to defend a record of five defeats in eight matches. It is true to say that £75m came Everton's way for Romelu Lukaku, but failure to adequately replace him has depth charged Everton's season. 

The return of prodigal son Wayne Rooney has not been serene, with attendant off-field problems being followed by Koeman dropping him to the substitutes' bench, due to Rooney not fitting alongside £45m Gylfi Sigurdsson. Koeman has received public backing from majority owner Farhad Moshiri, with the caveat that fans "deserve better". A defeat at Brighton on Sunday would cause the pressure and dissent to be ramped right back up again. 

Roy Hodgson (Crystal Palace)

Hodgson was dealt a bad hand at Selhurst Park. Not only did he take over a squad suffering the confusion of De Boer's regime, in which Palace personnel were wholly unsuitable for a slowed-down version of "Total Football", but the former England manager was also greeted with an unforgiving fixture list.

Once his first match had been lost 1-0 to Southampton, then defeats to Manchester City (5-0) and Manchester United (4-0) embraced the inevitable, though some of the body language at Old Trafford in particular was worrisome as defeat was sealed; Andros Townsend threw up his arms in submission after being nutmegged by Anthony Martial.  

More of the same at Chelsea on Saturday, and a continuing absence of goals, already a record-breaking drought, might soon put pressure on Hodgson. As De Boer found out, Palace's owners are not afraid to be hasty in their decision-making. Results are desperately required in Palace's two matches that follow Saturday, away at Newcastle and at home vs. West Ham.

Slaven Bilic (West Ham United)

Bilic has made a habit of pulling off recoveries when it appears the Hammers' owners must reluctantly take a decision. When 3-0 down to Tottenham on Sep. 23, two late goals muted the boos that had rained down at the London Stadium.

The next week, West Ham were dreadful against Swansea, yet stole a last-gasp 1-0 win through Diafra Sakho in injury time. Predictions of Bilic's demise will ratchet up if the Hammers falter against Burnley or Brighton, as questions continue to be asked of his tactics, the motivational impact he made during the 2015-16 season having ebbed away.

Mauricio Pellegrino (Southampton)

Southampton are 12th and in no particular danger, but Pellegrino faces the same doubt that eventually damned predecessor Claude Puel. The Saints have a playing staff that would be the envy of much of those beyond the Premier League's top six, and yet they have won just two matches so far, and those were against Palace and West Ham. 

A comparison of Pellegrino with other predecessors is also damning. He possesses the charisma of neither Koeman nor Mauricio Pochettino, and his team struggles for goals. Only in August's 3-2 defeat of West Ham in August have his team scored more than once. It may well be that he limps on to the end of season, shrouded in dissatisfaction like Puel, but improvement is required to last much longer. The presence of a new owner is often dangerous for incumbent managers, and Gao Jisheng's takeover in August may prove a factor.     

Craig Shakespeare (Leicester City)

  

Leicester are another team whose talent base is not being supported by results. Shakespeare's closeness to the club's Thai owners helped him land the job when Claudio Ranieri was removed in March, but may not be enough to protect him if results stay on the same trajectory. 

One win all season -- and that coming against Brighton in August -- has been a poor return for a squad still chock-full of 2015-16 champions. This week, Shakespeare has been talking of amending his tactics, an admission that very little has gone to plan in his first senior management position. 

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.

The average ticket price across the Premier League this season is £32 and more than half of all fans are paying less than £30 per match, according to the league's second annual pricing survey.

Based on data from each club and compiled with help from professional services company EY, the study is the most comprehensive analysis of the actual cost of attending games.

Thanks to early-bird offers and loyalty discounts, one in three season tickets are sold below full price, saving fans a total of £10 million across the season.

Last season, the league introduced a three-year cap on away ticket prices of £30 and this season's average away ticket will be £26.

Comprehensive research, conducted with EY, has found that the average ticket price across the #PL is £32 pic.twitter.com/oAKiZXweg5

The survey does not include a club-by-club breakdown of costs but Press Association Sport reports the fall in the average cost of an away ticket is partly down to Arsenal's decision to price all away tickets at £26, a positive step for a club often associated with high prices.

In a statement, Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore said: "The loyal and passionate support of attending fans is hugely appreciated by clubs, their managers and players, and the Premier League.

"This research shows the excellent value clubs are offering across the league and the impressive commitment of their fans. I hope it will challenge commonly held perceptions about the cost of attending Premier League football and encourage even more people to consider going to a match."

The study includes tickets sold in all parts of Premier League grounds, except hospitality areas, and the per-match cost of season tickets is found by dividing its price by the number of games it covers.

74% of Premier League fans in stadiums are season-ticket holdersHere's a breakdown of ticket sales by type: pic.twitter.com/Ogkxk6zelF

As encouraging as the headline figures are, some critics will still point out these prices are higher than they are abroad and suggest a league which earns so much from broadcasting can afford to be more generous to those fans who create the atmosphere at games.

A counter argument, however, would be that Premier League grounds are nearly full each weekend, the entertainment is world-class and this study shows there are tickets available at a range of prices. Only six percent of all tickets cost more than £60 a game, while more than a quarter cost less than £20.

Among the survey's other findings are the fact that total capacity across the league is now 800,000 seats, a new record, and season-ticket holders account for nearly three-quarters of fans at games.

For all the focus upon Liverpool's problems against Premier League minnows, it's worth remembering what this criticism subtly implies -- their record against better sides is outstanding.

Last season, in their 12 matches against fellow top-seven opposition, Liverpool were unbeaten. This statistic becomes even more impressive when you realise that, in their equivalent 12 matches, Tottenham lost three times, Manchester United and Chelsea four times, Manchester City five times, and Arsenal and Everton six times.

Jurgen Klopp is the man for the big occasion, and his strategic approach is excellent at disrupting the possession play of top-class teams. Liverpool defeated each of those sides last season, with one notable exception: Manchester United, visitors to Anfield this weekend. A disastrously dull goalless draw at Anfield in October was followed by a slightly livelier 1-1 at Old Trafford in January.

United's approach last season at Anfield was entirely unattractive, but whereas Jose Mourinho's "big game approach" is often about defending deep in large numbers, this was about long ball football. The tactic is generally considered to be a side's method of attack, but Mourinho's direct football was entirely a defensive strategy.

It was defensive because its primary function was to nullify Liverpool's overwhelming strength, their aggressive counter-pressing in advanced positions. Klopp's system depends upon winning possession quickly, so United went long, hoofing the ball into the opposition half, to ensure that Liverpool couldn't regain possession close to United's goal.

For a statistical representation of this strategy, take David De Gea's distribution: While United aren't as committed to playing out from the back as, say, Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, De Gea is comfortable in possession and prefers to pass the ball rather than lump it downfield. But his approach at Anfield was markedly different from usual.

The previous weekend against Stoke City, 11 of his 23 passes were played into United's own third of the pitch. Similarly, the following weekend, at Chelsea, 11 of his 24 passes were played into United's own third of the pitch. But against Liverpool, when charged with re-starting play 25 times, not once did De Gea distribute the ball short. Every clearance was launched long, in the vague direction of Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Marcus Rashford.

United's centre-backs, meanwhile, had little interest in possession play -- Eric Bailly attempted just 14 passes at Anfield, Chris Smalling only seven. In stark contrast, Liverpool's duo of Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip played 92 and 70 respectively. In basic terms, this isn't anything new -- this is Mourinho, the man whose approach to facing Guardiola's Barcelona side was famously "giving the ball away." But it's a variation on a theme: Whereas previously Mourinho was determined to prevent counter-attacks, against Klopp he's determined to prevent the counter-press.

The problem, of course, is that "route one" football isn't an effective attacking strategy -- even against a Liverpool defence somewhat vulnerable in the air. Ibrahimovic spent much of last year's game battling for balls in the air, which doesn't play to his major strengths. Marouane Fellaini, out injured this time around, was another starter for obvious reasons. Now Manchester United have Romelu Lukaku up front, and a direct strategy could work more effectively. Not in the same manner -- Lukaku isn't overwhelmingly strong in the air either -- but because United can now knock long, hopeful balls into the channels and reasonably expect Lukaku to make something of them with his clever movement and electric pace. Questions have been raised about Lukaku's big-game performances -- in that respect he's the reverse Liverpool -- but this weekend he'll be playing against a Liverpool back line which is, in Premier League terms, no better than average.

Klopp generally pushes his full-backs forward in big matches, and therefore space will open up in the channels for Lukaku to drift into. The space behind the perennially-out-of-position Alberto Moreno, and on the outside of the unconvincing Dejan Lovren, will be particularly crucial for United, especially as Lukaku likes to prowl that channel before cutting inside onto his left foot. United's approach, then, may be as rudimentary as knocking the ball into the right-hand channel. If it exposes Liverpool's weakness, great -- but it's primary intention is to nullify their strengths.

United's only nervous moments in last year's fixture came on rare occasions their defenders overplayed -- right-back Antonio Valencia was caught in possession when harried by both Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, which produced the first Anfield roar of the evening. Liverpool fans have, by and large, bought into Klopp's philosophy -- they understand the idea behind counter-pressing, they cheer any examples of successful turnovers particularly fervently.

Having grown up as a huge admirer of Liverpool, and experienced one of Anfield's most famous nights this century when his Chelsea side controversially lost a European Cup semifinal 12 years ago, Mourinho will be detmined for his players to silence the home crowd. A Saturday 12:30 kick-off, one suspects, will play its part -- those matches often start sleepily, with players not entirely up to speed, and fans not in full voice. Expect to witness plenty of time-wasting when United have a throw-in, too, before seeing those throw-ins chucked bluntly down the touchline, the sort of thing you witness in an under-9s game, with players desperate not to be caught in possession.

It's hardly the most flattering comparison, and very different to United's free-flowing performances so far this season, but in terms of stopping the opposition, few managers are as brazen as Mourinho.

Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.

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