Throughout this season there has been any number of journalists, TV and Radio pundits queuing up to question van Gaal, his methods and to doubt his reputation as a strong tactician. On Sunday Van Gaal went to Anfield and pitted his wits against Brendan Rodgers. Van Gaal came out on top, getting his tactics, selection and team shape right and in so doing he outwitted a man widely considered as amongst the strongest and most intelligent tacticians in the domestic game. Van Gaal showed his true worth, exposing the shortcomings of Liverpool’s strategy and English football punditry.
How did he do it?
In recent weeks United have moved to a 4-3-3 shape in attack and 4-1-4-1 shape in defence. But that simple description of team shape doesn’t tell the full story. When one team shape faces another there are always key areas where one shape may create strengths and other areas in which that same shape may present problems. The important task is to get the right players into the right positions in a shape to counter the opposition’s strengths and to make subtle changes in approach to ask the opposition questions. You might move a player sideways, higher or deeper to counter an opponent and these subtle adjustments make all the difference. On Sunday Van Gaal made adjustments in order to ask Liverpool important questions. Rodgers and Liverpool simply didn’t have the answers.
The two big questions he asked Liverpool were: What will you do if we beat your press? Secondly: Are your players actually good enough to cope with our press? Liverpool never came up with an answer to the first question; the answer to the second question is clearly “no.”
Since the game at Old Trafford in December, Liverpool have usually played a 3-4-3 shape. For a while Rodgers chose to play Sterling as one of the front three but recently he has featured as a wing back. Coutinho is a key player in this system. He has played as one of two players behind Sturridge but recently he has also played as the central player in the front three but drops deeper behind the other two to try to find space between the lines. That has meant Lallana and Strurridge playing at the front. This is where he played in this game. The other key features of this system have been the wingbacks moving across the pitch to combine with Coutinho and create central overloads and Liverpool’s general use of an aggressive pressing game. Allen and Henderson sit slightly deeper, with Henderson the deeper of the two, playing in front of the three man defence.
Liverpool general shape and Coutinho, United never gave him time and space
Liverpool have generally taken the initiative in games lately and so haven’t had to rely too heavily on their defence. When you defend with a three your wing backs have to defend as well as attack. Few teams have made them do that because Liverpool have been successful in dominating games. Sterling is an attacking player and Can on the right side of the defensive three is a midfield player. Moreno at left wing back hasn’t demonstrated that he is a top level defender yet. These features all point to that first question. But to make Liverpool defend, United had to beat the Liverpool press.
Over the last few weeks United have settled into a 4-3-3 in attack/4-1-4-1 in defence. This shape has served United well, allowing width whilst still allowing United to dominate the centre of the pitch. The return from injury of Michael Carrick has been a key factor, along with the physicality of Fellaini and the busy-ness of Herrera, Young and Mata. This shape has also allowed Rooney to return to a striking role. As with Liverpool, the ability to press the opposition is vitally important to United and this has been enhanced by the return of Carrick. Carrick usually sits deeper, although to retain team shape he will move forward with the press. His presence is important because it allows Herrera, Fellaini and others to be more aggressive in their pressing.
United general shape and Carrick with Coutinho in close attendance
Carrick is also important in setting the tempo when United have the ball, moving the ball forward more quickly and his presence giving other the confidence to pass more quickly and bravely.
The subtle changes; asking the questions
To pose the first of the big questions United had to beat the Liverpool press. They did this by virtue of two factors. The first was the speed of passing. Not unique to this game – United passed quickly and well against Tottenham – but they did it so well here that Liverpool players struggled to get close enough to United to make tackles; by the time they arrived, the ball had gone. This caused the frustrations which resulted in Gerrard being sent-off.
Team shapes and movement; Fellaini a key role
The second factor in beating the press wasn’t unique. This was the use of Fellaini as an out ball and, although not unique in itself, Fellaini’s positioning was a subtle change that made a significant difference. In a three man defensive system there is always an issue in the space in front of the outside centre backs and behind the wing backs. Fellaini positioned himself in this area and United repeatedly used a long pass onto Fellaini’s chest or head to beat the press. Fellaini brought the ball down and fed others so that United could develop a passing move that started in the Liverpool half. The problem for Liverpool was who should pick up Fellaini in this area. Can, a midfield player operating on the right-side of Liverpool’s back three, wasn’t sure whether it should be him, Henderson and Allen weren’t sure if it should be them and Sterling didn’t bother (physically it would have been a mismatch anyway). In the end they all picked him up, but Fellaini won the physical battle and simply laid the ball off to another United player. Well done him; United beat the press and in the first half that meant they could dominate possession and play in the Liverpool half.
The second big question was could Liverpool cope with the United press? Most usually Herrera and Fellaini led this press, with Rooney dropping deep to help, Mata and Young coming inside to help and Blind bravely pushing high to press Sterling. Liverpool didn’t cope with this because Allen and Henderson didn’t cope. Liverpool’s defenders were left with the ball and United could cope with that. The United press was additionally more effective because United went man for man against the Liverpool forwards. Jones and Smalling were excellent picking up Sturridge and Lallana, whilst Carrick stuck to Coutinho. As a consequence, whenever a Liverpool player had an opportunity to look up, he invariably did not have anyone free to pass to. Carrick was key to this, for not only did he pick up Coutinho, but he also gave the players ahead of him the confidence to press aggressively and effectively. Carrick was United’s insurance policy.
Post-match, several commentators picked out Rooney as a player who had a disappointing game. This is unfair. With Mata and Young dropping deep, Rooney was left as our only out and out attacker. He was usually outnumbered three to one and did really well off the ball in occupying those players. He did so well that none of them had the confidence to step forward regularly into the centre of the pitch in an attempt to equalise the inequality in numbers there. Outnumbering Liverpool in the centre of the pitch was important to United’s strategy and Rooney’s off the ball contribution in occupying Liverpool’s defensive three allowed this.
The downside of Rooney’s isolation was that United, whilst dominating possession, did not create many clear cut chances. When they did create a chance, it fell to Mata. Mata’s performance was outstanding and Moreno, Liverpool’s left wing back, along with Allen, could not cope with Mata’s movement, dropping deep or coming inside. Moreno followed him then lost him, Allen let him go and did not adequately support Moreno. Mata will be remembered for his goals, but in our view it was his movement which stood out. Outstanding.
All the above considers the first half. We make no apology for that because that was when the game was won. United’s first half performance created the Liverpool frustrations which led directly to Gerrard getting himself sent off, and whilst United were less cohesive as a team in the second half, Liverpool were always chasing the game.
Louis van Gaal has faced Liverpool three times as United manager and won three times. The victory at Anfield does not mean that United will qualify for the Champions League, and it doesn’t mean that he will always get his tactics right or that he will always outwit Brendan Rodgers. But he got his tactics exactly right on this occasion. Played three, won three; scouse buster!