MANCHESTER UNITED VS LIVERPOOL
16.03.2014

In the run up to this game the talk was all about how the tables have been turned. Over the last couple of decades it has usually been United chasing the major honours and Liverpool trying to throw a spanner in the works. Could United now do the same to Liverpool’s challenge for the title?

PERSONNEL

In: Vidic.
Out: Smalling.

KEYPOINTS

  • This was a very poor United performance. It lacked energy, competitiveness and method. With the exception of a handful of players the whole team needs to take a long hard look at themselves.
  • The manager has to take a share of the blame here. This fixture is always one of the biggest of the season. Motivation shouldn’t be an issue, but it was difficult to see any tactical logic to United’s approach to this game.
  • The combination of Mata, Rooney, van Persie and Januzaj looks good on paper, but the not so good on grass. The manager has to find a way of combining the talents at his disposal to get the best out of them and at the moment it just isn’t working. A new tactical approach seems needed.
  • Liverpool played with a midfield four in a diamond and with Sturridge and Suarez ahead of them as willing runners. United with Carrick and Fellaini in midfield could not compete two against four and were overrun. This was clear from very early on but nothing was done to change things.
  • Van Persie has recently been accused of not being interested and wanting out. If that’s the case then the lack of service he is receiving must surely be a factor. Here he was forced to go wide due to the lack of forward passes he received and from there he is unlikely to hurt people.

FIRST HALF

United started this game with Fellaini and Carrick as the central midfield pair with left to right Mata Rooney and Januzaj ahead of them. Van Persie played as the striker. Liverpool started as a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond. Suarez and Sturridge were the front pair and Raheem Stirling at the tip of the aforementioned diamond.

abGBweCamZ United in the 1st Half

Initially it was a fairly cagey start from both sides. United kept the ball well in the opening exchanges although they didn’t make much progress moving forward. Fellaini tended to chase the ball when Liverpool had it and with four in midfield he tended to sell himself leaving Liverpool with lots of possession. Inevitably United’s midfield two were overrun by Liverpool’s four. As a consequence of this Liverpool’s fullbacks, Johnson and Flanagan began to push on and give width. United played a midfield diamond on a number of occasions last year and one of the big criticisms of our use of this system was a lack of width. Liverpool overcame this in two ways, firstly the aforementioned fullbacks pushing on and secondly the running of Sturridge and Suarez. More of that later but suffice to say at this point that the pair often split effectively asking United’s defence whether they were going to move wide to cover or whether they were prepared to allow players from further forward to drop back and prevent an overload in the wide areas.

Much of Liverpool’s early probing tended to come down the United right. Sterling tended to drop wide into that area further overloading. Jones and Rafael worked well together here defensively to form a defensive barrier, but with Gerrard also positioned on that side Fellaini found himself dragged further and further wide. Mata also positioned in a narrow position on United’s right dropped deeper and deeper to the point that he could exert very little attacking threat. It was all Liverpool now. In the opening twenty five minutes or so they didn’t create that many gilt edge chances, but they were asking all the questions. Their movement and outnumbering of United in midfield had worked perfectly for them.

Overall Player Influence

Overall player positions and influence – note the concentration on United’s right

A couple of other points are worth making. Firstly United’s passing was ponderous and unadventurous. There were too many square passes, played in tight areas and inviting the press. The balance in midfield was all wrong. Carrick doesn’t work well when pressed and Fellaini doesn’t do enough to offer himself for the pass when others have the ball. Fellaini also seems slow in thought and deed. He has certainly shown himself to be lacking quick feet so far in his time at United. All this meant that hen United had the ball it was fairly easy for Liverpool to contain United and win the ball back.

The second point worth making was that when United had the ball nobody seemed willing to run beyond his Liverpool opposite number. This was the obvious reason why United’s passing was often so square. You can contrast this with the movement of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling who were always looking to run in behind United, always asking questions of the United defence. This is inevitably the reason Liverpool won so many penalties in the match.

PLAYING ON THE SHOULDER MARKING

The movement of Sturridge and Suarez causes problems all afternoon

The first penalty came after 34 minutes when a cross to a position beyond the far post was brought down by Suarez and instantly knocked past Rafael. Rafael instinctively stuck out his hand and conceded a penalty which Gerrard converted. This was an example of Liverpool’s strikers splitting with Suarez being picked out wide on the right. Suarez first movement was to push the ball past Rafael and ask the question, would a United player have looked to bring the ball down and find a team mate recycling possession rather than putting the defender on the back foot? In was a real shame that Rafael conceded the penalty as up to this point in the game he had probably been our best player.

PLUS POINT

Rafael showed some fight

After the goal Fellaini seemed to push much higher onto Gerrard. Liverpool played around him. Rooney had a double chance to score late in the half but United were lucky to go in at only 0-1.

SECOND HALF

Immediately after the restart United conceded anther penalty. This time Jones barged into the back of Allen to the ground. Gerrard stepped up again to make it 0-2 and United had a mountain to climb.

The game now went through a fairly scrappy period. United became quite frantic, often overcommitted and very nearly got themselves caught out as the game became stretched. Suarez and Sturridge found plenty of space as a consequence of the stretched nature of the game. Fellaini went through a phase of desperately chasing the ball and all too frequently was caught out of position. Mata and Januzaj also switched positions at this time, (as they had done a number of times in the second half.

A feature of United’s play worth noting relates to Robin van Perise. There has been lots of talk of unrest relating to van Persie and of him criticising tactics. What was noticeable in this game and increasingly noticeable as the game wore on was how often he drifted wide to pick up possession. This is a symptom of United lack of forward passing. Much of United’s passing is currently too slow and too square so van Persie s not getting any service in central areas. He looks frustrated, some have said disinterested. We think it’s the former not the later and we think it’s understandable.

Having failed thus far to make a significant impact on the game David Moyes made his first change on 74 minutes introducing Welbeck and Cleverley for Fellaini and Januzaj. Fellaini had been awful, and Januzaj. Januzaj had not really been in the game, often finding himself isolated on the right touchline. He looks like he needs a rest and too much is clearly being asked of him at the moment.

Not long after the substitutions United conceded another penalty when Sturridge dived in the box. This time Gerrard hit the post but the dive got Vidic sent-off when there was clearly no contact.

Michael Carrick now went to centre back as United formed up as a 4-3-2.

abGBwj5afgUnited after Vidic dismissal

If United couldn’t compete with eleven men they certainly couldn’t with ten and inevitably Liverpool scored again when Suarez ran onto a defence splitting short pass to fire home. De Gea also made a world class late save from Suarez to keep the score down.  On 87 minutes Moyes replaced Rafael with Ferdinand. Why?

CONCLUSION

This was a really poor performance from United, both in respect of individual performances but critically in term of the tactical approach. Liverpool came with a plan, and whilst Brendan Rodgers is known to change tactics from game to game United seemed caught unawares by their approach. Some aspects of the Liverpool game plan were typical, (notably the movement of Sturridge and Suarez). Surely United could have done more to counter the Liverpool approach if not from the outset then by making changes during the game. United were outnumbered in midfield with Liverpool’s diamond overrunning Carrick and Fellaini and the runs of Liverpool’s forwards and fullbacks threatened United’s back line constantly. This game seemed to just happen to United with Liverpool taking control early in the match and then seemingly able to do as they liked.

That brings us to the second significant issue; where was the fight? This is United versus Liverpool. You know that it is a given that you will have to compete in this fixture, you will have to earn the right to play, but United were slow and lethargic from the outset, Liverpool were full of energy and running both in attack and in defence. They had a sense of purpose, United did not.