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.
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.
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.
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.
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.