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Siyang Xu writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Premier League match that ended Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United.
In one of the most anticipated Monday Night Football games in years, José Mourinho reminded his critics of his managerial capabilities with an outstanding, if ugly, defensive performance at Anfield. Limiting a Liverpool side that had scored 28 goals in their last 11 home league matches to just three shots on target was no easy task, even if there was arguably justifiable criticism over Mourinho’s unwillingness to play a more expansive, attacking game.
Liverpool: 1. Karius ; 2. Clyne, 32. Matip, 6. Lovren, 7. Milner; 14. Henderson, 23. Can, 10. Coutinho; 19. Mane, 15. Sturridge, 11. Firmino.
Manchester United: 1. De Gea; 25. Valencia, 3. Bailly, 12. Smalling, 17. Blind; 21. Herrera; 27. Fellaini; 19. Rashford, 6. Pogba, 18. Young; 9. Ibrahimovic
It was immediately clear from the very early stages that Mourinho’s primary focus was stopping Liverpool from getting into their rhythm by any means possible. United made sure to slow the game down as much as possible from the first whistle, taking as much time over dead ball situations as they could legally get away with. As early as the 8th minute of the match, after Eric Bailly had shielded the ball out of play for a goal kick, he stepped over the ball and simply left it there, waiting for De Gea to walk over and pick it up himself, instead of passing it to De Gea to take the goal kick immediately. Similar delaying tactics were deployed at throw-ins and free kicks; on one occasion, Ashley Young tried to take a quick free kick to catch Liverpool off guard before Mourinho’s screaming on the touchline stopped him in his tracks.
Small fouls were also a key part of United’s plan to keep the ball out of play as much as possible, committing 20 in total (United committed 23 over their previous two games combined, for comparison). Playing with energy and feeding off team mates’ movements is a key part of Liverpool’s attacking phase and by regularly breaking up play in this way, United prevented Liverpool from building any momentum. The strategy also meant that the players were unable to feed off a deflated Anfield crowd, something Mourinho eluded to the importance of in his post-match interview:
“We controlled the game not just tactically but the emotion of the game. That was probably the quietest Anfield I had [managed in].”
Of course, the game still had to be won on the pitch and Man Utd were very successful in their disruption of the Liverpool’s build up play. The team was set up with a passive front two in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba with man-orientated midfielders and defenders behind them. The front two didn’t look to press the centre backs, but rather protect the middle of the pitch and shut off passing lanes to Jordan Henderson.
Whenever Liverpool’s centre backs tried to play the ball forward with a short pass, the recipient would be immediately pressed by his respective marker from Man Utd. This press was very aggressive, with the defender always getting tight to his man, often attempting to make a tackle and regain possession in the process. Man Utd’s physical dominance over Liverpool in these 50/50 1vs1 situations was of huge help, with the defender often able to out-muscle the player on the ball. Jurgen Klopp spoke of the effectiveness of this aspect of United’s defending:
“This kind of defence is difficult to play [against]. The man-marking is really difficult, they are stronger than us. We wasted energy in the first half for nothing.”
With Henderson being marked out of the game by Pogba/Ibrahimovic’s cover shadow, he often dropped back to create a situational three at the back in build up.
Despite this 3vs2 advantage, the three players for Liverpool struggled to make good use of the ball. United were clearly very happy for Liverpool to pass it between themselves at the back, with no attempt at pressing until the ball was played to a full back or into midfield. There were perhaps times where United’s front two could have pressed a bit more aggressively as there were certainly opportunities to win the ball high up the pitch, but Mourinho had made it clear that the main focus was ensuring the ball did not pass them into midfield along the floor.
Despite this, the three Liverpool players weren’t even confident of passing between themselves, despite having the extra man (or two, if you include Karius), and often cleared the ball at the first sign of pressure. With more confidence in possession, one of Liverpool’s back three could have carried the ball forward and tried to entice Pogba or Ibrahimovic to make a challenge, in turn drawing him out of position and creating space elsewhere. One of the few times Liverpool were successfully in building from the back was in the second half, when Lovren was able to carry the ball into midfield.
On this occasion, a quick switch of play across the back three meant that Lovren had space to advance forward with the ball. Dejan Lovren was able to make a blind-side run behind Ander Herrera, giving the Spaniard a conundrum of whether to close down Lovren leaving Coutinho free, or to continue marking Coutinho and let Lovren advance. In the end, Herrera chose to press Lovren, who was able to play a pass to Coutinho, now positioned dangerously behind Manchester United’s midfield.
However, instances such as this were extremely rare as Liverpool struggled to pull Ibrahimovic and Pogba out of position to create enough space to carry the ball into midfield. The hosts tried various other methods of trying to build up successfully – for example, Henderson and Can would rotate positions to try and confuse Man Utd’s man markers, or Coutinho would drop deep into almost a left-back position, knowing Herrera would not follow him that far – but they all ultimately failed to progress the ball safely up the pitch. In the end, Liverpool resorted to playing a long ball for most of the game, playing into the hands of Untied’s bigger, stronger side who would win the first and second balls most of the time and regain possession.
Liverpool’s success thus far this season has mainly been down to their excellent attacking combination play. With all six of Liverpool’s attacking players regularly coming into central areas, Klopp’s men would create central overloads with multiple players positioned between the lines, before playing quick combinations to penetrate the opposition’s defensive block. This would often force the opposition’s midfield to become very narrow, trying to cope with the number of Liverpool players in the middle, leaving space for Clyne and Milner to bomb into on the wings.
This was largely nullified on Monday night, with Mourinho’s defensive block managing to contain Liverpool’s attack. Man Utd’s back four was extremely narrow, which made sense given that Liverpool’s wingers would be positioned the same. This meant that Blind and Valencia were able to mark Mane and Firmino in their respective half-spaces and cover a shorter distance to press them. They were therefore able to press quicker, immediately after they had received the ball, preventing them from having time and space to turn and attack United’s back four. To protect the wide areas which were now open as a result of the full backs tucking in, Mourinho had his wingers come very deep, often with the ball-far winger dropping into the back line to form a lopsided 5-4-1 (shown below), or even a 6-3-1 when both wingers dropped back. Note how Man Utd are able to maintain coverage horizontally across the pitch whilst each player is able to maintain close access to the man they are responsible for marking.
Liverpool’s staleness in attack was also the result of their change in attacking personnel, with Daniel Sturridge coming into the team for Adam Lallana, who had picked up a knock before the international break. With Sturridge playing as a striker rather than Firmino, Liverpool are a lot less fluid in their movement. Sturridge tends to be a lot more static in build up, staying on the shoulder of the last line and only making runs in behind the defence or around the box, which detracts from Liverpool’s ability to make central overloads deeper down the pitch. With Henderson dropping back into the defensive line and Sturridge staying pinned to the centre back, the four remaining midfielders were easily contained and marked by Man Utd’s man-marking system (by the two central midfielders and two full backs, as shown in earlier diagrams).
When Lallana came on as a substitute for Sturridge in the second half, the game completely swung. Firmino returned to his position as a striker, and as if a switch had been flicked, Liverpool’s movement seemed to return to its brilliant best, putting United’s goal under a lot more pressure in the final half an hour. This is because Liverpool’s attacking movements and combinations are often a chain of events – once one player begins their run, another sets off on a complimentary movement, which in turn sets off a third player and so on. The key point is that this chain is often set off by a movement from the striker, and with Sturridge neglecting to do so in the first hour of the game, Liverpool’s combination play looked a lot more static as a whole. When Sturridge is on the pitch, he is always occupying the ‘centre forward’ position, which of course connects the players in the left and right half space. With that centre player not moving, there can be no rotation between Liverpool’s front three, as there is a much longer distance to run to swap position from half-space to half-space than from half-space to centre. Without Sturridge, the player occupying that central position frequently changes, giving a headache to the opposition defence as they aren’t sure who to mark.
Against Man Utd’s man-marking system, quick rotations amongst players can easily disorganise the defence as defenders aren’t sure whether to follow their man out of the zone or mark the new player in their zone. If the defenders do decide to switch markers, it first of all requires outstanding communication, but even then, there is always a moment of uncertainty during the changeover, a moment Liverpool often look to capitalise on with quick diagonal runs. After Lallana’s introduction, there was much better fluidity amongst Liverpool’s attackers, with Emre Can even filling in the ‘centre forward’ position as other players rotated around at one point.
The diagram below is the move which led to Firmino racing through on goal late in the game. The first and key movement is Coutinho (note how he is now occupying the striker’s position, having rotated with Firmino earlier in the move) dropping away from the back line, showing for the ball. As soon as the ball is played to Coutinho, Firmino sets off on a run in the channel, and Lallana also makes a horizontal movement to support Coutinho, in case he is not able to find the ball in behind first time. On this occasion, he was able to flick the ball around the corner and it is likely that Firmino would’ve been able to find the net had it not been for an outstanding last-ditch challenge from Valencia.
Mourinho made it very clear with his game plan that defence came first and his forwards were not given the freedom they probably wanted when United were on the attack. Runs were always made with caution – not bombing too far ahead without ensuring there were at least six players behind the ball at all times – with the full backs never overlapping unless the winger had dropped deep. This resulted in the player on the ball often being completely isolated on the counter, forced to try and beat several players by himself; a method which of course did not yield high success rates.
United’s forward pass map (shown above) highlights their caution offensively. Almost all the passes are long – De Gea did not pass to a defender once in the whole match – and aimed towards wide areas. This is because the wings are a better area to counterpress due to the presence of the touchline, and so if Man Utd did lose the ball, they would be able to recover possession relatively easily.
This direct approach also meant that Liverpool had no opportunity to press United high up the pitch as they would have liked to. Mourinho has previously said that he believes that matches are won by the team that makes the fewest mistakes in possession. It was evident that his strategy in this particular match was to make sure that Manchester United did not have any opportunities at all to make mistakes in possession, denying Liverpool the chance to utilise their strengths in transition.
Mourinho has said that he did not go to Anfield looking for a draw, but it’s without doubt that he’ll be pretty content coming away with one. Manchester United managed to contain Liverpool almost completely for 90 minutes, and when the team collective did let him down, his goalkeeper certainly did not, producing two key saves in the second half. Offensively, they perhaps could have been a little more expansive, possibly just to win a corner and attempt to make use of their height at set pieces, but it is understandable that Mourinho was keen to ensure that United were not caught out on the counter attack.
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