Manchester United vs. Liverpool: Keys to Watch for in 2014 ICC Final

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistAugust 4, 2014

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 11:  Steven Gerrard of Liverpool applauds the crowd after the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Newcastle United at Anfield on May 11, 2014 in Liverpool, England. Liverpool finish as runners-up in the Premier League.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The game always matters when Liverpool and Manchester United play.

Whether it's late in the season with Premier League title aspirations on the line or just a preseason friendly, the game matters. Whether it's a cup tie or a few former players from each team playing a pick-up game, the game matters.

Heck, whether the game is at Old Trafford, Anfield, Sun Life Stadium or on the freaking moon, the game matters.

So yes, at the International Champions Cup final, the game...well, you get the point. 

And the game doesn't just matter because a rivalry is on the line. No, it matters because both managers are making decisions about their teams still.

It matters because some players might be fighting for their futures at their respective clubs. It matters because each team is facing a transition this year, and the chance to step up on both sides is there for certain players.

So, yes, this game matters, and you should be watching as though it does. Here are three things in particular to keep an eye one.


Louis van Gaal's 3-4-1-2 Experiment

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

When you look at the personnel United currently have—and the style of play new manager Louis van Gaal seems keen to employ—making the switch to a 3-4-1-2 formation is completely logical.

For United to be successful, two players in particular have to be put into positions to succeed—Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata. In this system, Rooney is offered the freedom he thrives on, playing off a striking partner and allowed to find the attack rather than play as a hold-up man or target option.

Think of how Arjen Robben thrived in the same role for the Netherlands in the World Cup. Rooney doesn't bring Robben's searing pace to the position, no, but he is a more natural finisher and more willing playmaker than Robben, whose left foot often seems to be smothered with glue once the ball finds him.

Already, Rooney has looked quite comfortable in the role.

So too has Mata, settling in behind the strikers in his favored No. 10 role. With Danny Welbeck (until Robin van Persie is healthy) and Rooney in front of him, Mata is allowed to pull all the strings and play the role of creator rather than being cast aside to the wing as he so often was last year.

DENVER, CO - JULY 26: Wayne Rooney #10 of Manchester United celebrates his second goal with Juan Mata #8 during the first half of an International Champions Cup match against AS Roma at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on July 26, 2014 in Denver, Color
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Against Liverpool, Mata will likely be playing behind Rooney and either Welbeck or Javier Hernandez. If it isn't Mata, it will likely be Shinji Kagawa playing the role that he also favors and trying to prove he is worthy of more playing time this year.

Out wide, the formation also suits the talents of United's available options. Both Rafael and Luke Shaw are attack-minded defenders, which really makes them perfectly suited to play the wingback position in this setup.

Not only that but the new formation could reinvigorate the United careers of Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, each of whom has looked very good playing in the role thus far but lacked a cutting edge as pure wingers last season.

As for Nani, well, he was always likely to be shown the door anyway, right?

Yes, United need more depth at centre-back. Yes, the addition of Ander Herrera doesn't necessarily mean that United couldn't afford to upgrade in central midfield. But pay close attention to how the pieces fit into the new system in this match—United's season will be defined by the major tactical changes Van Gaal has already instituted.

And Liverpool will offer a watered-down, preseason version of what the system will be facing in the coming EPL campaign. 


Manchester United's (Talented) Fringe Players

ANN ARBOR, MI - AUGUST 2:  Javier Hernandez #14 of Manchester United points to Shinji Kagawa, who passed him the ball for a goal, during the second half of the Guinness International Champions Cup at Michigan Stadium on August 2, 2014, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Any time you institute a new system, holdovers from the previous regime are reevaluated. Already at United, certain players—Rooney, Mata, Young, Valencia, the centre-backs—seem perfectly suited to play Van Gaal's game, either in a starting or deputizing role.

But other players—Kagawa, Nani, Chicharito, Marouane Fellaini—are on the fringes. While we won't see Fellaini in any capacity against Liverpool, the other three could be playing for their United lives. 

Van Gaal has basically hinted as much, as he told Mark Ogden of The Telegraph:

I shall make judgments after this tour. I let all the players play and I know now more than before the tour.

Now also it is a little bit soon to judge, but in football you have to judge and you have to give a chance to the player to make a transfer when I see that his prospects to play are not so high. You have to say it in advance because it’s too late after August 31 and I will tell payers after the tour, but to them, not to you.

In some cases, it's hard to see what a player could possibly prove. Where exactly does Nani fit in this system, after all? He isn't consistent enough to play as a forward, but he isn't defensively-minded enough to play as a wingback. Nani has nowhere to rest his head at United.

But both Hernandez and Kagawa do have natural roles if they can accept a deputizing job. Kagawa as a No. 10 would be Mata's obvious backup, while Hernandez is well-suited to a two-striker system and would seem to fit well as a natural backup for Van Persie.

Of course, with youngster Adnan Januzaj also to consider once he returns to the team, one of Hernandez or Kagawa will likely yet be sold or loaned this summer, no matter what they might show on Monday night. And one would guess United would roll out many of their expected starters early and sub in the fringe players late.

But a strong, bold performance certainly wouldn't hurt Hernandez or Kagawa, either. 


Who Will Step Up for Liverpool?

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 30:  Raheem Sterling #31 of Liverpool plays the ball against Dedryck Boyata #38 of Manchester City during the International Champions Cup 2014 at Yankee Stadium on July 30, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike St
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Liverpool side we see on Monday night won't resemble the one that is often utilized during the EPL season.

Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana and Jon Flanagan have been sent home with knocks. Dejan Lovren hasn't been able to join the team on the tour. Youngster Lazar Markovic is out to injury, too. And Liverpool don't seem likely to be done opening the Luis Suarez war chest when it comes to bringing in new transfers just yet.

So, in many ways, on Monday night Liverpool will be looking for a player not named Steven Gerrard to take the reins. Who will be the dynamic force to lead Liverpool in the absence of Suarez? Who can the Reds look to this season if several of the team's playmakers are forced to the bench?

The logical answer is youngster Raheem Sterling, who has mostly impressed on every step of his journey thus far, both for club and country. He's been a scintillating watch at the ICC tournament and already appears to be in mid-season form. 

And he was certainly a key man for Liverpool last season, as Omar Hamouda of Squawka Football wrote:

His ability to contribute to interchangeable systems, a key feature in a Brendan Rodgers side, meant Sterling was moved from right to left, with a stint in the middle to accommodate the diamond formation, yet he never went hiding. A 67% shot accuracy was remarkably the highest in the Liverpool side last season, while a conversion rate of 27.3% highlighted his efficiency; memories of Sterling’s goal against Man City at Anfield speak a thousand words.

Sterling was arguably one of the most important ingredients in Liverpool’s success last season as the high-flying winger unlocked the remarkable scoring potential in the Reds side en route to the team’s 84-point and 101-goal haul. Sterling moved with a thrilling sense of freedom that not only made fans stand up and take notice, but also guaranteeing him a spot in the starting XI for England in Brazil.

51 chances were created by the teenager last term, which saw five assists added to his name. Creativity in abundance, Sterling has an array of tools in his locker.

Sterling is a star in the making, if he isn't a star already. His pace and eagerness to challenge defenders will keep United's three-man back line on their toes. It will be fun to watch him try to take this game by the scruff of the neck. 

Another intriguing player to watch is Philippe Coutinho, whom Rodgers has already hailed this preseason as "the brain of the team." The youngster is a creative dynamo at his best, with excellent vision, control on the ball and the ability to cut a defense in half with one incisive pass. 

But there are question marks when it comes to young Coutinho. Inconsistency has plagued him at times. He occasionally shows a lack of patience, choosing to fire off a low-percentage shot rather than trying to create something more promising.

And as Sam Tighe of Bleacher Report tweeted, Coutinho may not have a natural role in this year's iteration of the squad:

Coutinho is most comfortable as a No. 10, but it remains to be seen if Rodgers will open that role to him regularly throughout the season or if he'll be asked to fight for his place on the wing, where he'll naturally drift inwards.

One would guess Rodgers would look to facilitate Coutinho's skill set, but there will be clues to how he might be utilized this season when the Reds take the field against Manchester United. 

Emre Can will deserve a long, hard look, too. His combination of a physical, ball-winning presence with the ability to play a key pass to facilitate the attack could see him play big minutes for Liverpool this season and give them a bit more balance if they go to a true three-man midfield rather than playing the pivot of Jordan Henderson and Gerrard behind four more attack-minded players. 

If Can can control the proceedings out on the pitch when he's called upon for Liverpool in this match, it could be a foreshadowing of things to come for the young midfielder. 


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