LIVERPOOL vs MANCHESTER UNITED
International break over and back to business with a Monday night trip to Anfield. Liverpool have improved a lot over the last year since the arrival of Jurgen Klopp and this was likely to be a test for United, but it was a test for Liverpool too. They are vibrant and energetic going forward but potentially vulnerable at the back.
In: Fellaini and Young.
Out: Lingard and Mata.
- This was a disciplined resolute defensive performance from United. They limited Liverpool to only a couple of shot on target which is significant given that most neutrals expected Liverpool to blow United away such was their recent form.
- The key point is that United didn’t automatically drop into a low block surrendering the initiative. United pressed Liverpool high early in the game refusing to surrender territory. If Liverpool did get into the final third they then dropped deep, but by refusing to be over cautious early on they made it difficult for Liverpool to develop.
- Herrera had a superb game. Working hard he tracked Coutinho and still managed, working with Fellaini to screen the defence when necessary. This was perhaps Herrera’s best game for United.
- United’s wide players worked hard defensively but were largely unable to offer much going forward, particularly on the break. As a consequence Ibrahimovic and Pogba were a bit isolated at times.
- United seemed to tire a little after 60 minutes but regrouped and dug in settling for what they had. They frustrated Liverpool which is never a bad thing.
For this game Jose Mourinho brought Marouane Fellaini back into the side to play as part of a double pivot alongside Ander Herrera. This meant pushing Paul Pogba forward into a number 10 position behind Ibrahimovic. On the left Ashley Young came into the side in place of Lingard; Rashford played on the right meaning that Juan Mata was rested. United’s shape was a 4-2-3-1.
United’s starting shape and Fellaini coming back into the side
Liverpool have been on fire this season, pressing teams high and scoring plenty of goals. Many expected them to be quick onto the offensive here sweeping United aside. That was the conventional wisdom going into the game, but it did not work out that way and if anything it was United who took the early initiative. To dispel a myth lets state categorically that United did not park the bus; at least for about 60 minutes. The early contest was tight but as a pattern emerged it was United who appeared the dominant force. They didn’t create a lot but significantly disrupted Liverpool’s flow and when Liverpool managed to get at United, which was significantly rare United defended with great discipline. This was the pattern of play for the whole first half and resulted in a 0-0 half time score line and a relatively subdued home crowd.
We can pick out a few interesting patterns to illustrate how United were so effective. Firstly they did not surrender ground. Whenever Liverpool had the ball in their own half United were brave enough to defend with a high line and press. This resulted in countless situations where United won the ball back early and Liverpool themselves laboured to get out of their half. In these situations Young and Rashford pinned the Liverpool fullbacks back meaning that it was their prosaic centre backs who had the ball. Herrera and Fellaini were also fairly high which meant that if Liverpool tried to play the ball through the centre of the pitch it was often intercepted. United could do this because of the pace of Smalling and Blind who anticipated well. Sturridge up front was isolated. Generally Herrera stayed close to Coutinho with Fellaini forming a strong spine with Pogba and Ibrahimovic. These three did not allow Liverpool players a great deal of time on the ball and ensured that Henderson and Can could not significantly influence or direct the game. Several commentators have made the point that Pogba was fairly subdued and did not impact upon the game. In an attacking sense this is correct but in the first half he worked very hard for the team and was a significant part of preventing Liverpool gaining momentum.
The second important point is connected to this and that central spine. Simply when United won the ball, they often kept it. With five players down the middle of the pitch plus the busy Herrera United were more than a match physically for Liverpool and avoided being overpowered. The home side could not bully United with all these players being able to stand up to their physicality and beat any of Liverpool’s attempts to press and win the ball back early. This and United’s willingness to pass early in possession and move well off the ball meant that even if United didn’t create any clear cut chances they did retain possession for periods, so taking the sting out of the game.
The final point relates to United’s defensive shape when Liverpool did cross the half way line. If they beat the United press our wingers would drop back into the full back areas allowing the full backs themselves to move narrow tracking Firmino and Mane. United now defended with a back six and with Fellaini and Herrera alert screening the defence. Pogba and Ibrahimovic had a freer role, but freer to harry and disrupt alert to any loose balls. This worked and it worked well because Herrera and Fellaini were never passive. Liverpool rarely looked like getting beyond them in central areas and Bailly and Smalling didn’t actually have that much to do. The home side were limited to speculative efforts from range.
Half time 0-0.
Not a lot changed at the start of the second half. United had one good chance when Pogba used neat footwork to create a yard of space to deliver a cross to Ibrahimovic beyond the last defender at the far post. Unfortunately Ibrahimovic failed to direct his header and the chance, United’s best of the game, went begging.
Liverpool were still struggling to make a significant impression and as a consequence it was Klopp who made the first change removing the largely ineffectual Sturridge after 60 minutes and replacing him with Adam Lallana. Liverpool now pushed Coutinho slightly further forward with Lallana very mobile but generally a lot deeper. Coutinho was looking to make diagonal runs towards the Liverpool left inside right channel creating overloads with Firmino. These runs prompted the Liverpool midfield to pass the ball forward earlier and the pace of Liverpool’s passing seemed to increase. This did have an impact as Liverpool looked to be getting on top. Moving the ball forward quicker meant that the play often got behind Fellaini and it was beholden on Herrera to do good work tracking Coutinho. Both he and Valencia were excellent through this period.
Another feature of this period however was that both Fellaini and Pogba looked tired, a little leggy perhaps and when Rashford pulled up with cramp Mourinho decided to make his first change introducing Rooney in the 77th minute. Rooney didn’t do much in attack but instead stayed deep and narrow on the United right helping to police that side which was the area where Coutinho was running and Liverpool were doing most of their attacking. Perhaps this was the reason that Klopp chose to replace Milner with Moreno late in the game assuming that there was now little threat from United on that side.
In truth there was little threat anywhere from United now who satisfied themselves with efforts to restrict Liverpool. From around the 65th minute onwards United did sit much deeper and adopted a low block, surrendering space and the initiative. Despite this United held out and restricted Liverpool to only a couple of chances. De Gea was equal to them.
Shaw replaced Young who had worked very hard all night in injury time as United ran down the clock.
Contrast this performance with that against Manchester City a few weeks ago. This time United executed a game plan with discipline and were effective in what they were trying to do. We are sure United had a game plan against City, but did they execute it well in that first half? This then shows that work on the training ground is beginning to pay off; the players are becoming more receptive the managers instructions.
The secret of United’s success here is that they did not surrender the initiative. With a strong spine of Fellaini, Pogba and Ibrahimovic they disrupted Liverpool and did not sit back too deeply too early. When Liverpool did get into the United final third they then adopted a low block making it hard for the home side, who only really looked genuinely threatening when United tired after the hour mark. Despite this United regrouped and denied Liverpool space and clear cut chances. They may have settled for what they had at that point but having stifled Liverpool for so long they did not have enough momentum to make a break through, Tough!