MANCHESTER UNITED vs LIVERPOOL
After a fortunate win against Southampton this match represented an opportunity for United to concretise their position in the Champions League qualifying places whilst confirming Liverpool as mid table also ran’s – at least for now.
In: Jones, Evans and Wilson.
Out: McNair, Smalling and Rojo.
- 3, that’s the magic number…..three at the back against three at the back and 3-0. United edged this tight game by taking their chances. United had more possession whilst Liverpool had more chances and more clean cut chances.
- It was a case of Uniteds strong right against Liverpool’s weak left. United attempted a tactic often used against United when they employ a three man defence, attempting to stretch the defence wide. This worked in different ways on the left and right with the decisive moments coming on the United right.
- Van Gaal’s mantra is becoming “keep the ball” again he complained that the side gave Liverpool chances by giving the ball away needlessly.
- Michael Carrick is very important to this United side. Calm and aware, he read the game well, made critical interceptions and held the defence together.
- David de Gea was excellent again making 8 saves, several in one on one situation as Liverpool fed the pace of Sterling to run in behind United’s high line.
Both teams set up with a three man defence complemented by wingbacks and in the opening ten minutes or so Liverpool pressed United high up the pitch. United managed to keep the ball pretty well but struggled for a while to get the ball over the halfway line. Eventually they resorted to hitting the ball long. It is ironic that United did not give the ball away close to goal in this period of intense Liverpool pressing as they did give the ball away close to goal latter in the half when the press was not as intense.
It wasn’t long before United began to beat the press and Liverpool were forced to sit back a little deeper. The pattern of the half then became set fairly quickly. Generally when United moved the ball up the pitch they tended to hit the ball diagonally towards the left for Wilson to chase. He did this manfully but didn’t have a lot of luck catching the ball. After the game van Gaal confessed that Wilson had been included for his pace and presumably to try and stretch the Liverpool back three out, (a tactic used by countless tams against United when they play a back three). This worked on the United left; the Liverpool player on that side was Johnson, who is more usually a full back and perhaps because of this tended to follow Wilson wide. Henderson the wing back on that side soon dropped back to help out.
On the other side van Persie tended to come narrow, whether by design or as a natural movement to follow the diagonal passes going towards Wilson. Lovren the Liverpool player on that side also stayed narrow. That left a lot of space on Liverpool left and was an open invitation for United’s right sided wingback Valencia to attack that space. Liverpool’s wing back here was Moreno and he generally seemed more comfortable attacking rather than defending, when he did defend he looked poor. Time and time again Valencia attacked this space and had some success in doing so.
This is how the first goal came after only 12 minutes. Liverpool attacked United and Sterling, playing ahead of Lallana and Coutinho in a front three got in on de Gea. De Gea saved and the ball was moved quickly out to the United right into the path of Valencia. He was able to advance unchallenged because Moreno was so far up field. Allen the left-sided player in Liverpool’s central midfield pair was forced to come across to cover. Valencia beat him and bore down on the Liverpool area before pulling the ball back to Rooney who had time and space to fire home from the edge of the box. Boom! Rooney had this time and space because in moving across Allen had left the other member of Liverpool’s central midfield pair, Gerrard, isolated. This happened time and time again throughout the half with Allen covering for the absent Moreno. Moreno wasn’t forward all the time of course but even when he was back, like Allen he struggled to contain Valencia who was often ably assisted by van Persie, Mata and Fellaini.
After the goal United now started to press Liverpool and they looked rattled. For about five minutes it looked as if they were there for the taking but then they stabilized with Gerrard marshalling their shape. Gerrard was forced to do this throughout the match and as a consequence he made little impact on Liverpool’s attacking efforts.
The pattern of the game remained unchanged with United enjoying more possession but Liverpool perhaps creating the better chances when they had the ball. De Gea made one further excellent save from Sterling before the second goal. Rodgers was playing a front three of Coutinho to the left, Lallana to the right and Sterling slightly more advanced through the middle. Coutinho and Lallana looked to thread the ball into the channels either side of Carrick. De Gea saved well to prevent him scoring.
For United Carrick looked our most assure outfield defender; calm and considered. He provided countless interceptions with his reading of the game being excellent as ever. He was also useful on the ball with assured passing. He rarely gives the ball away. Jones and Evans often looked rusty and the United defence were caught out far too often by threaded balls in behind which Sterling could run onto. Carrick alone could do little about these and his other two defensive backs were slow to react, (although Jones, the least fit of the three apparently improved as the game went on). This problem was exacerbated by United’s lack of a natural defensive midfield player with Rooney and Fellaini filling in here.
The problem for United throughout this game is that they kept giving the ball away in dangerous areas. This is something United have done in many games this year but is especially a weakness when playing a back three. Then they have a tendency to give the ball away in their own half by playing square balls across the pitch in front of their defence. This leaves the back line exposed after the loss of possession. Is this because playing this system the four in front of the three are too square to each other or is it just because of individual errors? When United play the ball up the pitch from the back rather than across the pitch this both beats the press of the opposition and takes play away from the danger zone more quickly.
Watching a recording of the game from television again, on several occasions one could hear a voice from the dug-out shouting “keep the ball”. We couldn’t tell if this was van Gaal or not but it could have been because this is becoming his mantra. This would have been a far more convincing performance had United kept the ball for longer. The main culprit was Fellaini who passes the ball shorter and squarer than is appropriate for a defensive midfield player. A midfield player can do that higher up the pitch but doing so in front of the defence invites the opposition to press and early in the game Fellaini gave the ball away in these areas far too often.
United continued to push at the Liverpool right creating space for Valencia on the Liverpool left. Shortly before half-time Young who was having another excellent game advanced in support of Wilson on the left and cut inside Henderson to cross. Van Persie got the faintest of touches and the ball dropped for Mata to head home close to the far post. Boom! 2-0. Mata was off-side but the officials presumably missed the touch. Again Wilson and van Persie had moved across taking the Liverpool defence with them. Moreno, Allen and Lovren were nowhere to be seen.
Rodgers introduced Balotelli at half time in place of Lallana and Liverpool changed to a front pair of Sterling to the left and Balotelli to the right, (although they did switch sides from time to time), and Coutinho centrally behind. This created more problems for United with Balotelli often acting as a target for Sterling to run off. Carrick coped pretty well against this leaving Jones and Evans to pick up Liverpool’s most advanced players but with Carrick always looking to pick up the spare man who was going to pick up Coutinho? This task initially fell to Fellaini who did a fairly good job of it.
We refer to Balotelli as being the target but actually when he came on at the start of the second half it appeared as if he had been introduced to try and get someone, anyone, sent off. He appeared to use his elbows illegally on at least one occasion, made a number of bad challenges and appeared to dive on a couple of occasions. United received four bookings in the first half; was this a deliberate ploy to try to get someone sent off in the second half in view of United’s two goal half-time lead?
The problem for United however was that despite having a two goal lead and still having more of the ball Liverpool were getting more and more chances with Balotelli and Sterling both getting in one and one on de Gea. The chance Liverpool had in the 51 minute illustrated the problem. A sloppy back-pass by Evans saw Sterling run in against de Gea. He tried to go round the keeper who forced him wide and as the Liverpool player turned back on himself saved with his legs. This demonstrated both the sloppiness of United’s passing in the deep but also the excellence of de Gea who again had a great game.
United’s stand out performer in this game was David de Gea. He was excellent making 8 saves, several in one on one situation as Liverpool fed the pace of Sterling to run in behind United’s high line in the first half and again in the second when Balotelli joined what felt like a fairground coconut stall at times. You can criticize the Liverpool forwards for profligate shooting but de Gea did not make thing easy for them by staying calm, standing up and making them beat him. They couldn’t.
On 71 minutes van Gaal saw fit to remove Wilson and bring Herrera on to help stiffen the centre of midfield. Rooney moved up front and Herrera replaced him alongside Fellaini in midfield. As a consequence United held out and as the game wore on Balotelli seemed to lose interest with his movement getting poorer and poorer. Immediately after the goal United scored again and again the goal demonstrated Liverpool’s weak left hand side. Mata broke and fed Rooney on the left. He crossed and the ball was half cleared by Lovran but only as far as Mata who disguised a reverse pass to van Persie who was unmarked on the Liverpool left. Moreno had been substituted by this point but his replacement, Markovic was nowhere to be seen. Van Persie shot home first time. Boom!
The pattern of the game continued unchanged, United had most of the possession, Liverpool had the better chances and de Gea proved equal to them. Falcao replaced Rooney on 78 minutes and McNair replaced Jones in the last minute.
United’s difficulties as a consequence of giving the ball away close to their own goal persist and they have to improve in this regard if they are going to dominate in the manner van Gaal requires. There does appear to be a problem when Fellaini is played in this area rather than further up the pitch. United’s periods of possession prevented Liverpool from building up a period of sustained pressure and whilst Liverpool had a lot of clear cut chances these were spread evenly across the whole game and so are remembered as isolated incidents. De Gea who was excellent was equal to them all.
Comparing the two clubs use of the tactical system, both back threes looked vulnerable, whilst United’s wing backs looked more secure and offered at least as much going forward. United’s forwards had the stronger punch.
United are still third and six on the trot.