Reds must play with their heads to go the distance

FC Barcelona's Argentine forward Leo Messi (centre) vies for the ball against Florin Andone (left) and Pedro Mosquera of Deportivo La Coruna during their Spanish Primera Division League's at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, northeastern Spain on Oct 15, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

To those who prize athleticism over ability and vice versa, I would say that you need a bit of both in a successful side and that great footballers come in all shapes and sizes.

The British game used to have an emphasis on size and power at youth level, then Barcelona came along and it was suddenly all about small players with a low centre of gravity.

It's not. Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Leo Messi are world-class players, who happen to be small.

Before that, France produced the best group of players they've produced, so it was, "Let's copy Clairefontaine".

If you're the same size or shape as Thierry Henry, it doesn't mean you're as good as him.

Most of all, you need a football brain. It sometimes feels like how far you run is the be-all and end-all these days.

Most of all, you need a football brain. It sometimes feels like how far you run is the be-all and end-all these days.

How far does Messi run? He walks around a lot between those devastating bursts.

When Barcelona won 2-0 at Arsenal in the Champions League last season, he covered less distance than any other outfield player in their team, but scored both goals.

There's also a danger of reading too much into Liverpool being top of the Premier League's distance-covered table and Manchester United being bottom of it before they meet at Anfield.

There's a place for such statistics, but you can't be bogged down by them.

It's more to do with United playing a different game tactically from Liverpool. If you're dropping off, you won't cover as much distance and Jose Mourinho's teams, historically, have always been a bit more pragmatic.

The danger of the aggressive Liverpool/Manchester City/Tottenham approach, the top three for distance covered, is that you run out of steam, whether it's over 90 minutes or the course of the season.

That happened to Tottenham last season and to Mauricio Pochettino's teams at Espanyol.

In his three full seasons there, from 2009-12, his side won four of their final 14 matches in the first campaign, two of the last 13 in the second and three of the last 14 in the third.

When I played at Liverpool, we didn't carry a big squad and just ticked over during the week.

You can do too much work on the training ground and have to be careful of that. You can put on a monitor that will tell you how strong your thigh is, how strong your calf is and how strong your lungs are.

The one thing that you can't put a monitor on is what goes on inside your head. Some people hit the wall and then go through it for fun, others start to stroll around.

In United's squad, Daley Blind has a terrific football brain and Michael Carrick is from the same mould.

Carrick sits there and works out where the game is going and is still their best holding midfielder.

Blind's not blessed with any great athleticism in terms of size, power and pace, but he senses danger before most other players.

Liverpool are clear favourites today, but this fixture is never easy because of the competition and history between the two clubs.

Liverpool will come out the blocks to make the breakthrough, and, if United are able to weather that storm, it's anybody's game.

There's so much to like about the current Liverpool team, but they must learn to manage the game when they're not bossing it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2016, with the headline 'Reds must play with their heads to go the distance'. Print Edition | Subscribe