MANCHESTER UNITED vs LIVERPOOL
15.01.2017

After a first leg League Cup semi-final win delivered a ninth straight win United returned to League action with a game against Liverpool. Always a big game, this felt like an even bigger game in that a win here would see United gain ground on a teams above us in the table. Despite a six game winning league run United remained sixth, but a lot closer to those teams as the top of the table bunched up. The return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic after illness seemed critical.

PERSONNEL

In: Rojo, Carrick, Martial and Ibrahimovic.
Out: Smalling, Mata, Rooney and Rashford.

KEY POINTS

  • This was a tight game, and with lots of pressing for long periods. That pressing made the game scrappy. Neither side played particularly well, so a draw was probably a fair result.
  • It was however a high quality tactical battle. Klopp stole a march on United in the first half and thereafter Mourinho made changes at half time and during the second half to his strategy to wrestle the game back. This worked to the extent that Klopp abandoned his methods later in the game and United got their reward.
  • United were more aggressive and more direct at the start of the second half with the introduction of Rooney and their preponderance to play more direct early forward passes. This continued throughout the half and with United pushing Liverpool back the visitors needed to rely more on counter-attacks.
  • United looked at their best when they moved the ball forward quickly into wide areas, attacking Liverpool’s fullbacks and exploiting Liverpool’s narrow midfield shape. But they often seemed to focusing their efforts more on the Liverpool right against the debutante Alexander-Arnold even when Valencia attacking the Liverpool left was the free man.
  • Mourinho sent on Fellaini and shuffled his players towards the end, playing the high ball forward quickly even more towards either Ibrahimovic or Fellaini and then looking for the knock down for either Rooney or Mata. This was supplemented by more balance in the form of two attacking fullbacks. Ultimately this salvaged a point.

FIRST HALF

Jose Mourinho reintroduced Michael Carrick and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for this game as United reverted to their now usual 4-3-3 shape with Carrick at the base of midfield and Pogba and Herrera further forward. Liverpool changed their shape and to great effect in the first half. They usually set up as a 4-3-3 as well but here they adjusted with their two forwards Origi and Flamini starting wider and Lallana sitting deeper almost as a false nine. This gave Liverpool a narrow midfield diamond with Lallana always fairly close to Carrick.

basic first half          Liverpool press

United’s basic first half shape and Liverpool’s pressing movements

The opening 15 minutes was a fairly tight affair with both teams pressing each other and with hardly anyone having time on the ball. The temptation in these situation is to hit the ball long and in actual fact it was Liverpool who started to do this first. They tended to push the ball back to Mignolet in goal who would kick long as Herrera, Mkhitaryan and Martial pressed Liverpool whenever they tried to move the ball around at the back. This was a small battle won but one which might not have benefitted United. We say this because whilst United’s press forced Liverpool to knock the ball long Liverpool’s didn’t force United to do so and perhaps as a consequence United’s midfield struggled. The true story of the half was the Liverpool press and its effect in midfield. Liverpool hit the ball long, United won it but this only set up an opportunity for Liverpool to then press United high up the pitch.

As stated Liverpool set up with a narrow midfield diamond with Lallana pressing Carrick. Behind him Wijnaldum and Can pressed Herrera and Pogba. This left Henderson free at the base of the Liverpool midfield. He was the only player on the pitch who seemed to have anytime. When United had the ball along their defensive line Firmino and Origi, with fairly wide starting positions would press United’s centre backs with Lallana adjusting position as a back-up. Liverpool’s press was aggressive at pace and always in two’s and three’s. Effectively the diamond tended to stay high and adjust laterally across the pitch. All this stifled United’s attempts to play out from the back and whilst United often kept the ball they were rarely able to build-up play effectively.

Pogba chance

Pogba chance

It was ironic then that United had the better of the first half chances and even more ironic that these often came from situations where United pressed Liverpool and the visitors lost the ball. The best of these fell to Pogba who was played in by Mkhitaryan after Herrera had won possession. He pushed the ball wide when he should have scored. What you can say about all this is that the Liverpool tactical adjustment for this game didn’t allow the visitors to take the game by the scruff of the throat, it remained a tight game; their tactics effectively made the game tight.

The first goal is always important in a tight game and unfortunately for United it went to Liverpool. This was conceded via a penalty given for handball by Pogba as he attempted to defend a corner. The corner was conceded after Jones was caught by the Liverpool press. Pogba lost Lovren as he did on several similar occasions and disorientated stuck his hand up. 27 minutes played and Milner stepped up to score.

Milner converts Liverpool's penalty

Milner converts Liverpool’s penalty

After this goal United seemed to be lacking a little self-belief as they now tended to dwell on the ball that little bit too long. This of course invited Liverpool to press more intently and United’s play began to look a little ponderous. There are a couple of other features of the half worth emphasising.

As described United’s play became more ponderous after the goal but no-ones play was more ponderous than Pogba’s who had a poor game. Pogba is a strong player who tends to hold the ball and draw people too him as he holds off the challenges. He then tend to play a killer pass to someone left in space by his ability to draw people in. This didn’t work here because Liverpool hunted in packs. As a consequence he was often left trying to hold off the challenge of two or three players and he became swamped. The thing to do in this situation is to pass the ball early and then look for the return pass, but that is against his natural instincts.

This could be contrasted with the busy work of Herrera who more than matched the pace of Liverpool’s game. He worked hard and moved the ball early and effectively. United’s second golden opportunity of the half was made by him. He advanced on the United left and played a tight one-two out on the touch-line with Martial. He then ran on through the inside left channel before playing a pass into the feet of Mkhitaryan. He advanced beyond the Liverpool defence but the angle made it difficult to get his shot past Mignolet as the keeper came off his line.

Mkhitaryan chance

Mkhitaryan chance

The final point to make about the half is that United did not exploit the lateral space often enough or well enough. With Liverpool’s narrowness and their constant shuffling across the pitch to press the ball United needed to switch the ball early and quickly from side to side. When they did this they often found Valencia in space and looked at their most dangerous even if the quality of his ball into the box was a disappointment in these situations.

At half time United had some thinking to do.

SECOND HALF

The thinking yielded a half-time substitution and a chance of shape as Mourinho introduced Rooney for Carrick and adjusted to a 4-2-3-1. This required Herrera and Pogba to drop deeper into the pivot roles with Rooney taking up the number 10 position behind Ibrahimovic. Of the two pivots Herrera tended to sit whilst Pogba moved up and down depending upon the game situation.

early second half          ROONEY

United’s shape early in the second half with the introduction of Rooney

These changes did a couple of things. Firstly they meant that Rooney was sat on top of Henderson who had a lot less time on the ball and secondly they ensured that United had a man close to Ibrahimovic if they looked to hit the long early pass to the front to beat the press. This is exactly what United did and now Liverpool’s pressing suddenly seemed a lot less potent a weapon in stifling United. United looked to hit the ball long, principally towards Ibrahimovic who would often then knock the ball on onto the left side channel or back towards Rooney. This allowed United to get at Liverpool and they began to enjoy lots of possession in the Liverpool half.

Pogba playing deeper also seemed to allow him to see the shape of the play more clearly in front of him. With no Carrick to track Lallana now focused on Pogba but not with quite the same effect as Pogba began to pick up plenty of second phase ball which he would then direct out towards the wing. Usually this was directed towards the left presumably to try and test out the debutante Alexander-Arnold. Unfortunately this roved generally ineffective for a number of reasons. Firstly that side of the pitch was usually more crowded with Rooney tending towards that side, Matrial and Darmian all in close attendance. This dragged Liverpool across leaving space on the other side for Valencia, (Mkhitaryan often went quite narrow), but for the first twenty minutes of the half United did not switch play enough so did nit exploit this. The second reason is that Darmian is a fairly cautious full back and did not provide enough going forward to generate effective overloads.

United were now beginning to dominate possession and perhaps as a consequence Klopp introduced Coutinho for Origi in the 60th minute. This also changed their team shape with to a 4-3-3 seemingly abandoning their earlier game plan for one where they looked to use Coutinho to hold the ball and to try to hit United on the break.

United’s second substitution in the 65th minute was perhaps intended to address the over emphasis on the left and Darmian’s lack of attacking thrust. At this point Mata replaced Martial. Mata positioned himself on the right and Mkhitaryan moved to the left. Mkhitaryan seemed to be posing a far bigger concern for Liverpool but United were still struggling to exploit the inexperience of Alexander-Arnold. The other thing that this substitution achieved however was that it created even more space for Valencia to attack simply because of the natural inclination of Mata to come narrow. United now started to switch the ball quicker and earlier towards Valencia and as a consequence their attack looked far more balanced. Liverpool were struggling to cope with the long early pass now but as most of these were towards Ibrahimovic the strategy was a bit over predictable. United were now dominating possession and the hard running done by Liverpool in executing their pressing game seemed to be telling.

mid second half          late second half

United’s shape after their second and third substitutions. Despite lots of criticism Pogba’s role in distributing the ball, switching play late in the game was important

To crank things up a bit further Mourinho made another change in the 76th minute. Now Fellaini replaced Darmian. May might have expected United to now go three at the back but instead Mkhitaryan was moved back to left back. United’s shape was now completely changed, completely balanced and completely suited to how they were intending to play the final 15 minutes or so. They now had two big players as targets for the early forward pass in Ibrahimovic and Fellaini. These two made the direction of that pass less predictable. They had two players narrow in attacking areas to feed of the knockdowns from this pair in Mata and Rooney. They had two attacking fullbacks to give forward thrust from the deep when needed in Mkhitaryan on the left and Valencia on the right. Pogba and Herrera stayed deeper and looked to switch play as often as possible to the wide areas when United had got the ball into the attacking third via the long pass. The rapid switching cranked up the pressure on Liverpool whose players had worked extremely hard in executing their hard running tactics for the entire match.

Would they crack? Yes Boom! In the 84th minute. Valencia won the ball by the touchline on United’s right and combined with Valencia to create a crossing opportunity. The ball reached Rooney who sent it back to Fellaini whose header hit the post. The ball went wide to Valencia who returned a cross for Ibrahimovic to head home from close range.

Boom!

Boom!

After this goal the game became an end to end contest with both teams looking to snatch a late winner. The score though remained 1-1.

CONCLUSION

A point saved or two points dropped? The equaliser keeps the unbeaten run going which is a good thing but United dropped two points further behind Tottenham and Arsenal. The answer to this question will depend on next weekend’s results as United go to Stoke whilst Tottenham and Manchester City, two teams above United play each other. In the sense that whilst Liverpool were missing a few key players whilst United were virtually at full strength this felt more like two points dropped.

After the game Mourinho made a comment that Liverpool shouldn’t be criticised for playing a defensive game. Many have assumed that this was a tongue in cheek remark, but actually he is right in this. Most of the things Liverpool did in this game were designed to stop United playing, to counter United’s strengths. They took the lead of course through a soft penalty, (from United’s perspective), and whilst they had a number of shots prior to this penalty all were easily blocked snatched efforts. At that point they hadn’t had a clear cut chance resulting in De Gea having to make a save.

Match statistics - United had the larger share of possession with significantly more completed passes. They had less shots but actually more clear cut chances.

Match statistics – United had the larger share of possession with significantly more completed passes. They had less shots but actually more clear cut chances.

One reading of the game then would be that Liverpool pressed, (effectively assertive defending from the front), and changing team shape got their defensive tactics right. Thereafter the contest was one where United looked to change, adapt and adjust to overcome those tactics. In the end they managed to do so and so were well worth the draw.