The fixture between Liverpool and Manchester United is one that demands global attention. As a spectacle, it is England’s riposte to El Clasico, Derby della Madonnina, De Klassieker, and so forth. In short, it is a very big deal. The animosity between the cities may have its roots in issues beyond the football pitch but it is on it that it finds a platform to express itself. Thus, a game between the two sides is always plagued with intensity and a smorgasbord of emotions. The traditional giants may not be fighting for the ultimate prize of the title but they are 2 of the teams in the running for a spot in next season’s Champions League. The result at Anfield may not prove be the defining moment in the race but its importance didn’t have to be underlined ahead of the game.
Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United
Liverpool: 22. Mignolet // 23. Can – 37. Skrtel – 17. Lovren // 31. Sterling – 14. Henderson – 24. Allen – 18. Moreno // 20. Lallana – 15. Sturridge – 10. Coutinho
Manchester United: 1. De Gea // 25. Valencia – 4. Jones – 12. Smalling – 17. Blind // 16. Carrick // 8. Mata – 21. Herrera – 31. Fellaini – 18. Young // 10. Rooney
United’s pressing scheme and early dominance
Last season Liverpool blitzed many a side with a fast early start with the likes of Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling flying forward early in the game. Opposition teams were caught on the back foot more often than not and many of Liverpool’s memorable performances against big sides last season were characterized by an early goal. Manchester United therefore did exceedingly well to start off the brighter of the 2 sides at Anfield. United fans have bemoaned plenty of non-performances at Anfield but this game was certainly an exception especially the first half.
Manchester United’s pressing scheme has been a work in progress throughout the season with the chopping and changing not only in terms of formations but also personnel. However, it looks like Van Gaal has discarded the 3 at the back formation for now and we’re slowly starting to see the basic shape of the team with the Dutch manager finally finding the balance in the side he’s been looking for in recent weeks. What the Dutchman’s team did very well early in the game was not only start with confidence on the ball but also press with the right intensity.
The below graphic serves as a good example. With the ball on Liverpool’s right, Ashley Young is the designated active presser as he closes down the ball and puts Emre Can under pressure. Wayne Rooney is cutting off the easy option of the square ball while the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, and Michael Carrick staying close to the opposition midfielders. Interestingly, Daley Blind has stepped right up as well choosing to stay close to Raheem Sterling on the wing. All of this meant that Can’s options were limited and he was forced to take the option of a longer ball.
Another instance of Manchester United’s effective pressing is illustrated by the below graphic. Once again we see that United are sticking close to their men and not offering Alberto Moreno an easy way out. Faced by Antonio Valencia, the Spaniard panics and gives the ball away to Juan Mata. The cohesion seen in the below image is exemplary and one that served United well in ensuring that they dominated proceedings early in the piece.
However it was not all gung-ho from the away side. As shown above, they did press in packs but it was selective. The midfield did maintain their shape throughout the first half. In case Liverpool got the ball out, United tried to get men behind the ball and ensure that there wasn’t too big a gap between defence and midfield. The below graphic shows just that. With Liverpool in possession of the ball, Michael Carrick has dropped deep to sit in front of the back 4 while Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini form the base of the triangle in front of him. On the wings, Ashley Young and Juan Mata have also made it a point to track back and form a compact shape.
Liverpool unable to utilize space in behind Manchester United
Against teams that do press such as Manchester United did in the first half, the option of the early ball to the forwards can prove to be a useful one. For proof, look at Fellaini’s growing importance in Van Gaal’s set-up. Having struggled to deal with the opposition’s pressing, Van Gaal looked to the big Belgian as an outlet for his side. The more direct approach might not be everybody’s cup of tea but in terms of bypassing the opposition’s high press, it can certainly work.
This was what Liverpool had to try and do in the game. Devoid of a physical presence such as Fellaini, the long balls had to be more precise to find the runs of Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, and Alberto Moreno in behind the defence. In Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool were blessed with two players who excel in dropping into pockets of space. However United were successful in marginalizing their contribution to a great extent which meant that Liverpool had to look to Plan B. In this regard, they were hurt by the absence of a true deep lying playmaker in the side capable of pinging the ball 50-60 yards and finding his teammate with consummate ease and a runner from midfield who would look to get in behind the defence. One such situation is seen below where the United centre-backs have split to deal with their respective runs. The space opened up has not been filled by Carrick simply because there’s no runner from the Liverpool midfield attempting to exploit the gap.
Fellaini’s role in midfield
As mentioned above Marouane Fellaini has emerged as one of Van Gaal’s key players in the recent weeks. The Belgian has played in a number of different positions for his side but the latest one seems to suit him the best. Manchester United’s 4-1-4-1 formation sees him line up on the left of the central 2 in midfield. It is in this role that he’s excelled in their last 2 games. The 27 year-old tends to drift out towards the left and has formed a good partnership with Ashley Young and the left-back who was Daley Blind on the day.
With Liverpool playing 3 at the back, the focus of the away side’s attack was always going to be the left flank. Ashley Young looked to play high up the pitch on that wing trying to get goalside of Sterling and forcing Can to come meet him on the wing. This could potentially open up space for Fellaini to drive into or space is created for the right winger Mata to drift into on the other side. This particular tactic worked wonders for United in their drubbing of Spurs the week before and played an important role against Liverpool too albeit in a different manner.
Consider the first goal of the game. Fellaini took up a starting position on the left and Jordan Henderson followed him out to the left flank. The Belgian lost his man with a clever bit of movement. The asymmetrical nature of United’s midfield meant that Henderson was forced to drift away from what would be his natural starting position. Thus, Fellaini losing his man meant that Henderson’s midfield partner Joe Allen was forced to step up and face the Manchester United midfielder. The resulting event in this chain was Fellaini finding the now free Ander Herrera. Herrera has already shown he has an eye for his pass and his perfect through ball was put away by compatriot Juan Mata.
Brendan Rodgers makes the right changes but Steven Gerrard’s moment of madness costs the team
It came as no surprise when Gerrard was called upon by Rodgers at half time. The news that filtered through was that Adam Lallana was injured but the change was one that made sense anyway. As mentioned above, Liverpool could do with a player of Gerrard’s passing range and the transition to 4 at the back was another necessary change. With Rooney having a quiet game, there was certainly no reason to have 3 centre-backs on the pitch especially with the spaces out wide being exposed by United.
Rodgers’ changes were spot on and indeed could have given us a fascinating second half in terms of how United would deal with them. However it was not to be as Liverpool’s talisman seemingly took the instructions to stamp his authority on the game literally. In all fairness, Liverpool did not let their heads drop and did well to halve the 2 goal deficit. The Merseyside club put forth a better performance in the second half and conversely United did not maintain the pressing game that served them so well in the fast half.
Where does this leave them?
Liverpool will be bitterly disappointed not only with the result but by the fact that they simply didn’t turn up for the first half. They did show some fight in the second despite Gerrard’s moment of madness but in the end it proved too big a task for the ten man side. They’ve done really well to recover from a poor first half of the season and get themselves within striking distance of a top 4 spot. Indeed, a result at Anfield would have made them front runners in the race for 4th. However, putting the disappointment of losing to a rival aside, it’s nowhere near the end of the road for Liverpool. 5 points is hardly an insurmountable gap and a look at United’s fixture list will certainly give the Liverpool faithful hope.
Manchester United on the other hand will be absolutely delighted heading into the international break. Having been dumped out of the FA Cup by Arsenal and a top 4 finish far from in the bag, Louis van Gaal’s men were looking at a nervous end to the season. Yet something has seemingly clicked at Old Trafford or perhaps more pertinently at Carrington. The side is playing with more fluency, more confidence, and simply more like what you’d expect from a Manchester United team. 6 points from 2 back to back games against Spurs and Liverpool is just what they needed after the FA Cup exit.
Written by Arnab Ray
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