Manchester United beat Liverpool 3-1 at Old Trafford with all the goals coming in the second half following an uninspired opening 45 minutes where both teams failed to register a single shot on target and had 3 shots overall between them. After the interval Van Gaal made a key change which ignited his team’s offensive play; namely bringing on Young who almost instantly had a hand in United’s opening goal. United then took advantage of the increased space on offer scoring twice more while Liverpool grabbed a consolation goal with Benteke’s outstanding bicycle kick.
Man Utd (4-2-3-1): 1. De Gea// 36.Darmian, 12.Smalling, 17.Blind, 23.Shaw// 31.Schweinsteiger, 16.Carrick// 7.Memphis, 21.Herrera, 8.Mata// 27.Fellaini
Liverpool (4-3-3): 22.Mignolet// 2.Clyne, 37.Skrtel, 6.Lovren, 12.Gomez// 21.Lucas, 7.Milner, 23.Can// 11.Firmino, 28.Ings, 9.Benteke
Substitutions: Young for Memphis (45’), Martial for Mata (65’) Schneiderlin for Carrick (72’)
Ibe for Firmino (65’) Origi for Ings (‘74) Moreno for Lucas (87’)
Liverpool’s defensive system
Liverpool defended in a 4-1-4-1/4-4-2 shape that depended heavily on the positioning of United’s midfield 3 with Lucas patrolling the 10 space. Firmino and Ings had vital roles on the flanks where they had to match the marauding runs of United’s full-backs which are a major part of United’s attacks. They defended with a zonal man-man system in midfield where Milner and Can would follow Schweinsteiger and Carrick respectively when they entered their zones which were generally above, behind and around the halfway line. When Schweinsteiger and/or Carrick dropped deep Milner and Can were given some licence to push forward with them which at times made their system more of a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1. Their aim was clearly to reduce the chance of the duo creating chances by putting them under heavy pressure and unsettling them. Rodgers hoped this would force them to play backwards to escape the pressure that the energetic pair of Can and Milner would subject them to. Furthermore if done correctly Carrick and Schweinsteiger would have to drop deeper and deeper to have time on the ball which would cause them to lose connection to United’s forwards. This would make United’s attacks disjointed, direct and ultimately more predictable which is a key principle of defending.
For most of the first half this strategy worked with United having no shots on target and only 2 shots overall. United lacked runners and when runs were made they were either ignored or they failed to pick them out accurately. This made Liverpool’s task relatively comfortable, the defensive line pushed up maintaining compactness by limiting the space behind their midfield line and congesting the space for United’s midfielders. Despite his goalless start to the league season Rooney is far more mobile and intelligent with his movement than Fellaini and he could have forced Liverpool’s defensive line to drop deeper mindful of his ability to get in behind their defence, alternately he could have punished them for holding a high line by getting on the end of through balls.
However when Liverpool attempted to press high they showed at times an alarming lack of compaction and co-ordination which would cost them goals against opponents with more attacking prowess. Below is an example where they try to prevent the short goal-kick but end up beaten with 1 pass and Carrick has acres of space to move into, fortunately for them United’s movement was too slow and they were unable to take advantage of Liverpool’s failed press.
United’s Attacking Issues
There is a common misconception amongst football fans that dribbling is no more than an aesthetically pleasing quality. This is certainly not the case, dribblers add cutting edge to attacks and their ability to beat 1 or more players creates gaps in defensive systems for themselves or others to exploit. In the first half United were crying out for players to take on and beat defenders, Memphis should have been the one to provide this but suffered an off-day. As a result when United managed to create 1v1 opportunities for him he would either lose possession to Clyne, who got the better of him, or turn back and pass it which meant United spent the first half circulating possession, in the ineffective ‘U’ shape, without any cutting edge. This was the first of United’s three-pronged attacking issues.
If a team lacks dribblers to help them create chances they will need excellent passing and movement in the final 3rd to disrupt a defence and penetrate teams directly with through balls to exploit these runs (this is in order to create good quality chances). Unfortunately for United they lacked this as well for two reasons, firstly Fellaini was up front who is not mobile or able to make intelligent runs. Secondly the double-pivot pairing of Carrick and Schweinsteiger are more comfortable assisting ball circulation and playing vertical passes but (especially at their age) neither are dynamic midfielders that will make dangerous 3rd man runs. Although once aware of Liverpool’s defensive approach Schweinsteiger moved much further forward as he was not particularly needed to assist the build-up, and United resembled a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid. Meanwhile Herrera (due to LVG’s instructions) roamed between the lines as opposed to making runs behind Liverpool’s defensive line. While Memphis attempted to make runs they were either lacking conviction or simply ignored by his team-mates.
The image (right) shows all 3 of the aforementioned attacking issues. The ball comes out to Memphis and he has the chance to take on Clyne and potentially Milner who has shuffled to assist his full-back. Memphis is not confident enough to take Clyne on which is fine as he has attracted two players to the ball meaning there is a large space for Schweinsteiger to run into and a simple pass down the line would have found him. However Schweinsteiger does not make the run down the line instead running centrally towards Fellaini. Fellaini himself lumbers forward but lacks subtlety and speed in his run (things a natural forward could/would provide) which of course made Skrtel’s job easy. Lastly Memphis’s pass execution was poor meaning that yet another attacking move broke down for United.
Van Gaal subbed the ineffectual Memphis for Ashley Young and the presence of a player willing to take on and beat a player was felt within minutes. Young dribbles towards the by-line drawing Clyne close before quickly knocking the ball between his legs when Clyne impedes him giving away a free-kick on the edge of the box (which Blind scored from a well-worked routine). It was LVG’s proactive substitution (Young for Memphis) that led to the opening goal. If the pattern of the 1st half continued United’s move would have broken down around the point of the scene above.
It was now United’s turn to play more on the counter-attack, having fallen behind the onus was now on Liverpool to take the initiative and Van Gaal introduced new signing Martial knowing there would be space for him to attack with his pace. For the most part United defended well (although Liverpool managed to create a couple of dangerous situations) maintaining good compactness and pressing Liverpool well in their initial build-up phase (winning possession in Liverpool’s half 17 times) by committing enough players to avoid being outnumbered as the image below shows.
United’s second goal also came from a situation that was all too rare in the first half which was possibly a sign that Van Gaal saw his sides attacking issues in the 1st half and took action to correct them as any good manager should do.
Martial (circled) makes a run infield taking Gomez with him opening the space for Herrera to run through the right half space where he receives the ball due to a fantastic pass from Carrick, Herrera then scores from the resultant penalty. From this point United were content to run down the clock by retaining possession although they lost it once or twice in poor areas their control of defensive transitions protected their defence. The midfield pair of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger were almost always in position to affect the 1st ball receiver’s decision by pushing forward which often made them hesitate and pass wide giving United time to recover their defensive positions.
Liverpool seemed to struggle with the drastic shift in approach required for them to get back into the game as they had spent much of the first 50 minutes on the back foot and were now required to sustain pressure on United. However they continued to be poor in possession which owed not only to average positional structures but to poor execution of simple passes, which is quite simply unforgivable at this level of football. Due to United’s central focus, the excellent cover provided by Schweinsteiger and Carrick/Schneiderlin and Liverpool’s poor occupation of zone 14 they began to focus on wide areas to create chances. The lively Jordon Ibe gave them some much needed impetus, his 1v1 ability and pace troubled United although it was all a bit too late Benteke’s goal gave them brief hope before United’s debutant Martial wrapped up the points two minutes later.
Where does this leave them?
Louis Van Gaal’s United maintained their 100% record against Liverpool and were deserved winners against a Liverpool side thoroughly lacking ambition that only got into the game after falling behind. Despite the win United have a number of issues (mainly in attack) that will need addressing if they are to challenge for the league title and the paucity of options in attack, that led to Fellaini starting up front, is certainly a worry. However their defensive solidity was again evident in this game (albeit against opponents with little attacking intent and ability) which will give the manager and fans alike hope that they have a base to work on. With Champions League games returning to United’s fixture list Van Gaal may need to utilise the depth of his squad to maintain good form across competitions.
From Liverpool’s point of view a strong start to the league season (in terms of points not performances) has petered out with a draw being followed by consecutive losses. Rodgers immediately finds himself under, somewhat premature, pressure particularly with Jurgen Klopp currently unemployed. With daunting league fixtures against Everton, Tottenham, Chelsea and Southampton on the horizon in October and the Europa league returning, Liverpool will have to improve drastically if Rodgers is to keep his job beyond October.
Originally posted on Outside of the Boot