United returned to action after the international break with a trip to Merseyside to play Liverpool at Anfield. With Fellaini injured on international duty and Pogba not ready to return from his injury layoff United’s midfield looked a little threadbare going into this game.


In: Darmian, Herrera and Martial.
Out: Fellaini, Mata and Rashford.

Formation and General Approach

Jose Mourinho set up his side in a 4-2-3-1 shape for this game with Herrera and Matic as the two midfield pivots. Ahead of them Mkhitaryan occupied the number 10 position with Martial to the left with Ashley Young to the right. Liverpool’s basic shape was a 4-3-3 with Firmino as the central player of a front three, Salah to the right and Coutinho to the left. In midfield Jordan Henderson anchored a triangle with Can to the left and Wijnaldum to the right.

united   liverpool

Liverpool and United basic shapes and movement patterns – both were ultimately responsible for the stalemate

Those were the basic shapes but there was a bit more to it than that. United’s approach was very conservative, perhaps too conservative. This approach saw Young and Martial dropping deep, one or other of them so deep that United seemed to have a 5 man defence at times. What happened was that if Liverpool pushed on their right via Salah, Young would drop deep to help Darmian out on that side. This minimised Salah and Phillipe Coutinho opportunities to develop overloads in wide areas and particularly to move inside the United fullbacks and link in high areas with Firmino. The consequence of this was that as the first half wore on Firmino and Coutinho started to drop deep to compensate for an inability to form linkages across the front line by seeking stronger linkages with the midfield three. The problem for United was that the central midfield was already an area where Liverpool were outnumbering United. This enabled Liverpool to dominate possession (60% across the game) but that possession was in deep areas away from the United goal and so Liverpool did not have too many clear cut chances. You can ask why Liverpool’s midfield did not create more in a situation where United had effectively surrendered control of the ball, but that is a question for them not us. If Jose Mourinho’s priority in this game was to avoid defeat this strategy worked but it did lead to a game without much goal mouth incident to excite the fans.

Lukaku and Mkhitaryan

With such a defensive approach there is always the risk that your front striker will get isolated and essentially that is what happened here. There is an ongoing narrative that Lukaku doesn’t do it in big games or at least still has something to prove in those matches and no doubt those who have an interest in pushing that agenda will point to the chance he missed here late in the first half, but the most telling statistic regarding Lukaku is that this shot was United’s only shot on target.

Lukaku - isolated

Lukaku – isolated

This all illustrates a point about United’s approach to the game rather than Lukaku’s performance; he was feeding off scraps and was usually isolated. Consider these statistics, Lukaku had only 22 touches in the game, he made 11 passes, had 1 shot, delivered 1 cross and attempted 2 dribbles. Much has been made of one Lukaku tackle for which he should have been booked and of a potential sending off after an alleged stamp on Lovren are nothing but for us that is the usual Klopp-trap. We say alleged because whilst the players foot did make contact with the Liverpool man as he lay on the floor he did not himself seem aware of this, merely attempting as he was to recover his own balance and stay on his feet after making contact.

Lukaku - only 11 passes in the match

Lukaku – only 11 passes in the match

So to Mkhitaryan. He had an equally difficult game and you have to decide whether he was asked to drop so deep or whether he did so in response to the situation where Liverpool had taken control of so much possession. We tend to think that this was the deliberate first of these two posibilities as we are all aware of how uncomfortable Jose Mourinho is when his side is outnumbered in the middle of the pitch. More of that below but Mkhitaryan’s statistics tell a story. Mkhitaryan made 27 passes, created 1 chance, had 1 shot and delivered 3 crosses. He also made two dribbles.

The result of this was Lukaku’s isolation which had the subsequent consequence of limiting United’s ability to break out and hit Liverpool on the counterattack or in fact develop any periods of sustained possession which might see them move up the pitch as a critical mass.

De Gea

Since the match there has been much talk of how De Gea saved United here. This is nonsense but is a thesis which has its origin it a quite breath-taking and world class point blank save in the first half. Credit where credit is due this was a great save and the United keeper played a significant part in securing a draw, but if this was De Gea against Liverpool he would not have stood a chance and the point is as much to do with the defensive shape in front him as his excellence when called upon. He was excellent however and that save was breath-taking, but he didn’t have that many other moments when he was called upon to make saves anywhere near that level, which actually says something about Liverpool even if people don’t seem to want to say it.

Breath-taking save

Breath-taking save

Caution and 3 versus 2

That seems all the more pertinent given that Liverpool significantly outnumbered United in the middle of the pitch. The basic formations made this a three against two contest with Herrera and Matic facing the three of Henderson, Can and Wijnaldum. It wasn’t as simple as that though because Mkhitaryan tended to drop deep for United and Firmino and at times Coutinho tending to drop deep for Liverpool. That meant that it was often five against three in the middle of the pitch; Firmino moved into the space between Matic and Herrera who had to keep an eye on him whilst also tracking either Can or Wijnaldum. Henderson tended to stay deeper. Mkhitaryan tend to drop to United’s right where he could help Herrera and Young. This was key because Coutinho was also dropping into this area. Effectively this left Henderson as the free man. Presumably this was a plan as whilst Liverpool were able to dominate the ball Henderson isn’t the greatest threat on your goal when operating from deep.

After the game Mourinho made the point that Liverpool didn’t attempt to change things at any point and in doing so suggested that they were cautious in their approach. This is true, they effectively changed their front line but never their strategy.

We have previously asked the question what Mourinho would do in a game where he doesn’t have a lead or where the opponent doesn’t blink first by changing things. Here is an answer; against certain teams nothing. But that isn’t quite the whole story because Mourinho made changes to personnel if not strategy. Was this in an attempt to make Klopp make a change? Jose suggested as much in post-match interviews and Klopp suggested he was very mindful of this describing United as one of the best counter-attacking sides in the world. Caution and over caution ruled for both sides.

A point won or two points dropped?

Only time will tell. United’s approach was one designed to avoid defeat so on one level that is objective achieved. United would of course liked to have won but were not prepared to take risks. Effectively United were saying to Liverpool you are at home, you are seven points behind us and you need the extra points more than we do. What this view ignores is the opportunity to take further advantage by exploiting a clear Liverpool weakness. That weakness is their ability to defend when teams beat their press and get at them, their ability to defend close to their own box.

United were content to beat their press in order to push Liverpool back and make the home side start their moves from deep positions close to their own goal safe in the belief that Liverpool didn’t have the guile and United themselves had the defensive organisation to resist. What United didn’t do was beat the press to get at them. Klopp’s gengenpress strategy is designed to win the ball back early and in high areas and then to play quickly and with craft in and around the opponents box. If they have to start from further back it’s harder to do this because United were able to block the areas in which Liverpool’s more enterprising players like to operate. In deeper areas their less accomplished players proved themselves unable to open United up.

Where United missed a trick was in not getting at the home sides defence themselves. This was a price Mourinho was prepared to pay by sitting so deep. We know Mourinho is a master at setting up a team to do this so ultimately we learned more about Klopp and this Liverpool side than we did about Mourinho and his United side.

With several of Liverpool’s front players dropping deep they were effectively reducing their own ability to gengenpress and exploit their strengths in order to minimise United’s opportunities to break. Post-match Klopp as much as admitted this.

From United’s perspective one has to ask whether United’s strategy would have been quite as conservative if Pogba, Carrick and Fellaini had been available. We would hope not but given that they were all injured here this wasn’t in the circumstances such a bad result. It was certainly a better result for United than the home side and better than the anti-United lobby would like to admit.