MAN UTD v LFC MATCH ANALYSIS: How the defence overcame the attack

This highly anticipated Man Utd v Liverpool match proved to be an interesting affair well worth watching as both teams lose two points each on Sunday evening at Old Trafford. A very different game compared to the first match these teams played at Anfield. It is safe to say nobody will be happier than Antonio Conte after his arch rivals fail to secure a win.

CONTEXT

Before the match, United had a great string of six straight wins in the league and haven’t lost a game since end of October. With a win over their Merseyside rivals they could close the gap to two points and possibly even sneak into the top four. Playing at their home ground they clearly had to take the risk and go for it.

Sitting in second spot, five points behind Chelsea, Liverpool was in better position but had to maintain the pressure on The Blues while keeping the distance from Tottenham that was two points behind. Certainly a difficult task ahead of big rival match that was made even harder without the best goalscorer, Sadio Mane, who was away with Cameroon squad. Additionally, Liverpool still didn’t win this year drawing league games against Sunderland and the FA Cup game against Plymouth while they have lost against Southampton in the League Cup.

While both teams started quite cautiously, Liverpool looked particularly vulnerable. Man United was set out determined to impede their ability to transition from defence to the middle third. Whenever Mignolet had the ball Herrera was joining Ibrahimović in closing down passing options while the whole squad went high up the pitch to man mark Liverpool players.

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Great team pressing from Man Utd made it difficult for LFC to transition to attack

In case Liverpool was able to get into the middle third, a combination of man and zonal marking was employed to cut out the passing options. Above we see the situation where Klavan is able to get on the ball fairly high. However, positioning of Man United players meant he really had only two passing choices. A back pass to goalkeeper that would trigger high pressing or a long ball towards rather small forward line. As only Origi has the ability to tame high balls these usually ended up with Man United retaking the possession.

The key in above situations was the positioning of three central midfielders who man mark Liverpool players thus cutting off the possibility of a pass in the central area. Ibrahimović is keeping the horizontal pass to Lovren impossible while Valencia is marking Milner (both out of the picture). The role of the Mkhitaryan is crucial. He needs the ability to make the right decision while choosing between the following:

a) press the ball carrier forcing a rushed clearance or even snatching the ball off the defender
b) stay within formation and cover his man (Milner)

Obviously in this situation Mkhitaryan has chosen to close down on Klavan which produced a chain reaction as Milner had to be picked up by Valencia and whole defensive line needed to shift to cover for this move if the pressing was to be successful.

However, Man United pressing proved to be well synchronized throughout the match. Particularly in the opening half hour Liverpool had difficulties to get out of the defensive zone in an organized manner.

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Due to great pressing from Man Utd, majority of LFC’s forwards passes were taken from their defensive zone

Map shown above marks the forward passes from both teams up to 28th minute of the match. You can see both teams had similar numbers (47 successful out of 77 for Liverpool and 46 out of 74 for Man United). However, Liverpool had majority of those passes initiated in their own defensive zone. United, on the other hand, managed to get higher up the pitch before going for a forward pass during this period of game. It is safe to say a good team pressing Man United has shown directly contributed to this and made Liverpool virtually ineffective in the first 30 minutes of the game. Liverpool was able to threaten United only via set pieces and, luckily enough, they got a penalty after Pogba made a crucial mistake in 28th minute.

This, however, didn’t change the overall shape of the game. United has continued to attack predominantly down the left hand side as you can see in the above “forward passes” image. Whether it was a deliberate attempt to exploit young Alexander-Arnold in the right back spot remains unclear. In any case, United often tried to unsettle the visiting team by overloading that side as Mkhitaryan cut inside.

While Carrick was playing his standard holding midfielder role, he was making sure he stayed behind the ball together with two center backs. Herrera and Pogba were altering themselves in forward runs but United found it difficult to get into scoring positions during set attacks.

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Great defensive work by Liverpool left Man Utd offensive players isolated

Above you see a typical situation where United is attacking LFC’s set up defence. Herrera is painfully isolated in the center midfield while his team mates are far too advanced up the pitch. The screenshot also speaks to how defensive and cautious Liverpool was in this match especially after they got a lead. While Man United overloads the left side of the pitch, Valencia is the only outlet on the right. When Herrera managed to get into the offensive position, he was completely cut off as well as Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Martial. This was mainly due to hard defensive work from Liverpool which fell back into 4-5-1 formation when defending.

While Liverpool found it difficult to get on the ball and play their game, they relied on counter attacks but weren’t really successful doing so. Ironically, it was United that created more and better chances off the counter attacks during the first half. Pogba and Mkhitaryan had both good opportunities after Liverpool handed over the ball in the middle third but failed to convert.

Despite the change in the half time (Rooney for Carrick and slight formation alteration from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1) when United went more attacking the things on the pitch changed very little. United was still able to threaten only when they managed to dispossess Liverpool and launch a counter attack. Ibrahimović was crucial in those counter attacks as once the ball was won in the middle, his team mates were looking for him to hold on it. United used well Milner’s offensive stance and Ibrahimović often changed the point of attack down the right flank for on rushing Valencia but they failed to score.

Significant changes came in the 60th minute. As Jurgen Klopp introduced Coutinho Liverpool was finally able to hold the ball in the central midfield area and get into counter attack. On the other side, United was losing patience relying more and more on the crosses. Mata didn’t provide the creative spark Mourinho was hoping for and in 75th minute he went all about crosses. Darmian left the field and was substituted with Marouane Fellaini. As a consequence, Mkhitaryan went to left full back, Rooney was moved from CAM position to left wing and Fellaini went up with Ibrahimović.

This only meant that in last 15 minutes of the game Liverpool had more control with Coutinho on the pitch while the hosts tried to lump the ball forward to two tall players from deep and from flanks. United failed to create anything substantial and the plan clearly didn’t work until it actually worked.

To conclude, for the major part of the match United managed to tame the visitors with great closing down and pressing. However, they weren’t able to break down their defence through the combination play. Liverpool rarely looked so ineffective on the offensive as in the first half of the game but as nerves started to play with United in the second half, they have managed to pick themselves up and will be disappointed to have lost two points so late in the match.

 

This analysis was first published at soccerspecific, a coaching education platform with the mission of creating and sharing the highest quality of coaching information in order to positively impact player development around the world.

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A detail that cost United the win against Arsenal, Man Utd v Arsenal match analysis

Before the match at Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger met Mourinho 14 times and failed to get a single victory against his side. Everything he thought about for the Saturday game was useless and, in the end, he was saved by a bit of luck and good intuition. Two changes gave him an assist and a first goal against Mourinho in nine long years to claim a point in a match with Man Utd.
THE CONTEXT

Arsenal came to Old Trafford without defeat since Day 1 of the Premiership wit three wins and two draws in last five matches. Wenger’s team was a clear favourite against the hosts that didn’t connect two wins in a row since August. To make it worse, United had to face Arsenal without suspended Zlatan Ibrahimović and without both starting center backs, Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling. Nevertheless, Mourinho was encouraged by a win in League Cup against Guardiola’s City and two matches in Premiership without a loss. Thus, he ditched six men defence he employed to get some kind of result against Liverpool and Chelsea, and went for relatively open match against Arsenal. Well, to his standards at least.

Although he didn’t park the bus, Mourinho didn’t want to risk too much either. It was yet another difficult game for him since a defeat would settle him back after carefully nurturing his team shaky confidence level in recent games.

MANCHESTER UNITED – DEFENSIVE ORGANIZATION

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United didn’t rush mindlessly into pressing Arsenal and covered spaces in the middle

Above you can see how he, mostly successfully, closed the middle of the pitch forcing Arsenal to build up down the flanks. He was defending zonally oriented on a man while Arsenal was transitioning to the middle third.

He did press Arsenal on his half, however, he did it very selectively. There were two triggers for Man Utd to get out of their defensive shape and close down on opponent in their half.

First trigger were deliberate long balls from their own defensive line. United doesn’t dwell on the ball in their half if they can avoid it. Even less so when opposition is pressing high. Without Ibrahimović upfront, Mourinho instructed his defenders to clear the ball into specific areas. Mainly down the flanks and near the touchline. Reasoning behind this is that receiver of the pass will have less space to cleanly trap the ball. This was the trigger for whole squad to raise their defensive line. Rashford was first man to chase the ball ensuring the receiving full back/defender has also minimal possible time to turn towards United goal and pick his next pass. In meanwhile, midfielders ensured to man mark anyone who could receive that pass. Theoretically this would give Man United a chance to clear the ball on their own terms and react to it with a possibility to win the ball high up the pitch.

Another pressing trigger was largely a reaction to Arsenal actions as United players would defend from front to chase down any back pass to Peter Čeh. The point behind wasn’t really to win the ball high, but to force an opponent to hoof the ball in an uncontrolled manner and then regain the possession since Arsenal lack any strength or aerial ability in the advanced positions. Theoretically, that would allow United to win the ball deep/medium position while opening routes for a quick counter attack when they still had their attacking players in advanced positions against unbalanced defence.

ARSENAL COUNTERING UNITED ZONAL DEFENCE IN MEDIUM BLOCK

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While Arsenal managed to get into the middle third, if Sanchez couldn’t think of something to do with the ball, they were largely without an idea against quite deep and staggered UTD defence

Above you see one of solutions that Arsenal provided to avoid the marking in middle third. One of the weaknesses of man oriented zonal marking is that defender will follow the opponent in his zone. Arsenal is using this with clever off the ball movement from Mesut Ozil and Chilean Sanchez. While Ozil leaves his position in middle towards the right channel, Pogba follows him opening the space. This, in turn, is used by Chilean who drops deep from his central forward position. Depending on reaction of defence, he might have time and space to face goal side or, at least, pick a back/sideways pass.

Arsenal used reverse movement as well to the same effect. At times it was Theo Walcott who would make horizontal movement from right wing position into the centre of the pitch. This would either pull away his marker Darmian or make an overload in the middle. If Darmian followed, a space would open for right back Jenkins to exploit.

MANCHESTER UNITED – OFFENSIVE ORGANIZATION

Due to high value of points in this game (more for the confidence of the team than table position), United was quite reluctant to commit too many men to offensive. This was surely influenced by presence of Theo Walcott who can exploit the space if given. Thus, Darmian largely stayed back together with Michael Carrick to cover for counter attacks. This meant Mourinho had only two central midfielders and Juan Mata to connect their midfield and attack. Despite this, the work rate and off ball ability of Mata/Herrera proved quality more important than quantity.

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While Arsenal was quite solid on defence, the quality of Mata and Herrera provided numerous troubles for them. Above animation is an example of typical movement those two made. Herrera was able to find space and use the ability of Martial’s one trick (cut inside) to receive the pass and unbalance the defence. After Herrera got attention from defence pulling out of the line one of the centre backs there was space behind that was open for Mata to exploit.

This cooperation in the end resulted with seemingly easy finish from Mata from inside the box. However, while it looked pretty straight forward clear chance, it took great deal of composure and technique to connect with such a fast ball. You will notice it was gain a third man’s run that concluded Man United move.

Unlike Mourinho, Wenger was trying to unsettle United defence with number of players in the offensive third. While Sanchez was very effective in a deep lying striker role coming deep to pick a pass, he had no support Mata provided to his team mates. Whenever Sanchez went deep Ozil and Walcott went infield often joined by Ramsey. Unlike United, that failed to give an advantage to Arsenal as their runs were predictable and United defence always had an answer due to deeper stance.

To conclude, United did very well to both, limit Arsenal and create in front of their goal. Visitors were saved by a bit of luck and hunch from Wenger who, midway through the second half, introduced Olivier Giroud and changed the fruitless approach. In the end, Mourinho might be held accountable on the fact he left Rashford on the left flank when Oxlade-Chamberlain was introduced. It was young forward who was supposed to mark Arsenal winger in right back position when fatal cross to Giroud was swung in. Either way, Murinho didn’t get what he wanted despite a solid performance and his team is still looking for confidence although this game seemed a step in right direction. Arsenal on other hand, had a poor performance, especially in the second half and lost the opportunity to challenge the very top of the table. Yet, it is a long season.

EPL: Liverpool v Man Utd analysis; A masterpiece from Mourinho

Jose Mourinho got the stick and stone from media and fans as his Manchester United drew against Liverpool at Anfield in, what was labelled, the worst derby of the decade. Fans just can’t accept defensive stance he took at Anfield after spending huge money in the summer on transfer. However, having good players doesn’t really equal good team and that is only one of the things that comes into the equation.

Before the match Liverpool was the favourite to win the game. They haven’t been so efficient in decades while United is still in search for best 11. They had big trouble overcoming Ukrainian side Zorya in Europa League and managed only a draw in their last match with Stoke. It is safe to say the mood in the dressing room is far from perfect. To make it worst, after big match against Liverpool, Man Utd has to play Fenerbahce, Chelsea and Guardiola’s Man City in next ten days.

 
All that together made it a very difficult game for Mourinho who had to make some important decisions. Above all, Mourinho didn’t want to lose the game since that would drop the morale even further as he approaches difficult ten days. He did everything to avoid that and with style, taking care of most threats his opposition posed. Last time he faced a team that plays the ball from back was against Man City. Mourinho opted for quite deep defence and very passive approach with zero pressing. Man City completely dominated United in that match and punished the choice. So, against Liverpool, Mourinho chose to obstruct opposition high up the pitch in order to stop their transition into the middle third. This way he made home side suffer numerous possession turnovers and, what is perhaps more important, Liverpool lost confidence in build up and smooth approach to rival’s goal.

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Clearances aren’t most ellegant way to play but they are surely better than getting caught in gegenpressing. Especially if your forwards can win most of the headers

He also sent his team on the pitch with clear idea not to succumb to gegenpressing. “Heavy metal” football that Klopp employs is a trade mark of his team. To avoid that trap Mourinho didn’t want too much fiddling with the ball in own third. De Gea’s ball distribution shows he didn’t make single short pass during the match and if you look at the above diagram of clearances made, you can se United punted the ball on numerous occasions. Being pragmatic is what Mourinho does best and if clearing the ball means not being caught in gegenpressing, then United will and did punt the ball almost every two minutes during the game.

Often disputed Marouane Fellaini found his way into the starting line up as, together with Ibrahimović and Pogba, he is extremely useful in those situations. Statistics show that those punted balls weren’t really so hopeless as United managed to win aerial duels three times more than their opponents. It isn’t a coincidence as almost ten per cent of passes United made were chipped balls for tall and strong Ibrahimović, Pogba and Fellaini. While it is very dubious offensive plan since most of second balls off the headers get scooped by defence anyway, it is still a plan and United played to their strengths. In the end, the best chance they had came in 53rd minute when Ibrahimović headed the ball unusually poor.

However, remember that main idea behind the game plan was not to concede the goal by not getting caught in gegenpressing. The offensive plan was just a side effect of main goal.
However, Mourinho had to think how to stop Liverpool on the ball once they do break the pressing. LFC plays a particular brand of football where full backs provide width while attacking trio is relatively free to roam and switch positions hoping to exploit the width created by wide and offensive full backs.

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Bus being parked might be ugly sight to see, but if it means you will cover half spaces and deny time and space for three central forwards… Who cares? Mourinho doesnt

Above you can see Liverpool in offensive shape with Clyne and Milner very wide while offensive players plus two attacking minded midfielders (Can and Coutinho) look to break through the defensive block. However, Mourinho nullified the space they need by having two energetic wingers who marked full backs. You can tell how well prepared and thought out was Mourinho as he Ashley Young got his first starting spot since January. His ability to repeatedly run up and down the pitch was crucial for Mourinho. Ability Lingard lacks.

Using wingers to mark opposition full backs tightly liberated defensive fore from direct threat and made the half spaces occupied and unapproachable by Firmino, Mane, Sturridge and Coutinho. Mourinho simply nullified the space they need to operate. With Fellaini, Herrera and Pogba in center midfield United completely closed down space and time Liverpool would need to develop their flair and direct runs to the goal. This approach, coupled with quick direct forward passing, insured Liverpool had no chance to catch them in possession to spur counter attack and no space to play direct towards the goal nor ability to create overloads.
Despite having 65 per cent of possession, Liverpool managed only three shots on goal and only one was really dangerous. An incident from 58th minute when Liverpool was able to find Emre Can who managed a shot from inside penalty area. While United had even fewer opportunities, they really didn’t care. They came to seal off one of the most potent teams in Premiership and they did it almost perfectly. While that meant only few players in offensive positions and anger from fans, Mourinho really won’t care. He had a task, studied it well, and his players executed it even better.

Despite the outrage on the social networks, real loser was Juergen Klopp. He failed to adapt and only once he put Adam Lallana on the pitch his team was more dangerous. However, by that time, visitors were already even more decisive to keep bodies behind the ball. In the end, both managers will be happy. Liverpool was favourite but still didn’t lose and they have few “easier” games ahead while United bought some time before difficult weak ahead while keeping the clean sheet against one of the best attacks in the league.