Tactics Watch: Liverpool vs Man United

ESPNSTAR.com's Kelvin Yap dissects the tactics behind Manchester United's hot-blooded victory over unlucky Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday.

Where is the respect?
Kelvin Yap

By Kelvin Yap

It could be said that Sir Alex Ferguson would have gladly taken a draw at Anfield coming into this fixture.

He set his team out conservatively and it was obvious that United were banking on counter attacks to smash and grab a goal if possible, but the priority was to not go behind in the first place.

This was why Giggs started in the middle instead of Scholes. Among the two veterans, Giggs is more direct and can bring the ball into the opponent half by himself better than Scholes, who prefers to pass and slowly move the whole team forward.

Also, United's full backs were ordered to stay behind the Liverpool wide men at all times, which means that United committed little when going forward and were probably banking on a moment of brilliance from Robin van Persie or Shinji Kagawa for a goal.

United ended up defending very deeply for most of the game, with their defensive line pushing not more than ten yards outside their box.

On the other hand, it was painfully obvious that Brendan Rodgers wanted a win very badly by resting most of the first team squad in the midweek tie against Young Boys. It's not surprising, really - a first league win for Liverpool against their fierce rivals would give their insipid start a much-needed morale boost.

Rodgers changed little to his side, using Joe Allen as a deep playmaker, Jonjo Shelvey as an attacking midfielder and captain Steven Gerrard as the link-up man.

 Evra the center of attention

The noticeable difference was on Liverpool's right wing (United's left flank), which was where most of the action occurred. It's obvious that Rodgers pinpointed Evra as United's weak link, switching Sterling, whose speed and direct style is a threat to the less agile full back, to the right wing.

Sir Alex Ferguson anticipated the move and set up his side to reinforce the area around Evra, deploying Giggs as the left-sided deep midfielder to set up a 2-on-1 against Sterling when dropping back. 

Nani, who usually ganders forward at every opportunity, was also tasked to track Kelly's forward runs and did very little overlapping himself. Perhaps because of his shallow starting position and orders to not go too far down the line, Nani had a horrid game, misplacing seven out of 13 passes in Liverpool's half - none of them within five yards the penalty box, which is his usual area of operation.

On the bright side (for Ferguson, at least), the strategy worked defensively the crowded flank managed to hold Liverpool at bay.

The ineffective United attack

Instead of having Nani on the left, RVP pulled wide to the left flank to provide width for United.

Because Ferguson did not dare commit to many men up front, Van Persie's wide position effectively neutralises itself. 

When the Dutchman drags wide, he relies on Kagawa or Giggs to make the late run and latch onto the ball, but Allen and Gerrard were disciplined in tracking back to their own box.

The other option is to go through Kagawa down the middle, but van Persie's floating role exposed the still-developing partnership between the duo when the Japanese passed down the middle when van Persie was wide and vice versa on several occasions.

Kagawa is extremely effective in and around the box when the opponents are pinned back because of his close control and ability to find team mates with a short pass. 

Credit must be given to Allen, who stuck to his man-marking role well and forced Kagawa to pass early, which meant 1) either passing back to Giggs (and giving the defence time to regroup) or 2) attempting a long pass to Van Persie, which exposed his short passing range.

Early changes for Liverpool

Liverpool found little joy down the right flank after about 20 minutes and changed their approach in attack.

They still continued bringing the ball into United's half of the pitch down their right but played the early pass across the front of United's back four instead of going down all the way, where Sterling found that he had to beat Evra and another United player (usually Giggs or Nani, depending on the situation).

It worked because Giggs was more concerned with sticking to the flank and helping out Evra, which left a hole between Carrick and the back four. Since Jonny Evans was tracking Suarez's movements, Borini smartly cut in between and behind Rafael and the less mobile Ferdinand to receive passes across the penalty box.

In the end, Borini failed to score because of a poor first touch and alert tracking back by Rafael, but it highlighted the danger in Liverpool's passing ability and Rodger's tactical versatility.

A borderline red card to change the shape

Shelvey's sending-off was a borderline case for a red card. Yes, it was a harsh, but the ref had valid grounds to make a case for a red card. Like I said - it was a borderline case, but a valid one nonetheless.

The tackle looked a lot worse than it was because Evans (who also went in two-legged) was nearer to the ball and got to it first. Also, the occasion and high-octave of the match didn't help matters, given this fixture's propensity to produce red cards. 

In the time between the red card and the half time break, Liverpool dropped deeper in a 4-4-1 shape to hold out until Rodgers could properly brief his side.

It's interesting to note that United did not make use of the disorganisation in the Liverpool side in the five minutes and were still tentative in committing men to the attack, which only emphasises on the point that they would have been happy with a draw at Anfield.

Chaotic start to second half

Both teams changed their shape in the second half, but the two goals came more from the fact that both teams were still getting used to their new shape than the effectiveness of the change itself.

Liverpool went for a 4-4-1 formation at the start of the half with Suso taking Borini's place, making use of his ball-playing ability to keep the ball in place of Borini, who was more of a finisher.

United swapped the ineffective Nani for Paul Scholes, pushing Giggs out wide. This provided more control and better ball retention, useful when having the numerical superiority.

Gerrard's goal was brilliant control and finishing from the Liverpool skipper, who was given too much space in the box in the first place with three United players in front of him.

While Rafael's goal was also a result of individual brilliance, it can be noted that it resulted from United's first sustained spell of possession in Liverpool's box and his first foray into the final third of the pitch. Even then, nobody expected him to curl one off the far post with his left foot.

Better ball retention with 10 men

Again, United chose to slow the pace down despite their extra man, which emphasised Ferguson's desire to come away with a draw rather than risking a loss to go for all three points.

Rodgers realised that United were now two-on-two in the middle and found it hard to retain the ball, so he changed the formation to a 4-3-1-1 by bringing on Jordan Henderson for Sterling (See graphic on right).

Suso shifted to play a number 10 role behind Suarez, a position he played in Spain's youth team before, while Henderson joined Gerrard and Allen in the middle to help Liverpool retain possession and pressure United's midfield better.

The width came from their full backs, who had to work doubly hard to support the attack and defend their flank.

By building up the attack slowly, the full backs have time to push forward - the drawback being that they must never lose the ball in midfield to allow the full backs to recover their position in time.

The idea was to go back to the basic - defend by having possession (interestingly, Gerrard cut out his ‘Hollywood' passes, which shows that he can, but doesn't want to, play the short passing game), which they did well and managed more possession with 10 men and actually kept the ball better than the first half.

Unlucky Liverpool

Liverpool were actually doing really well and looked likely to hold out for a draw, if not a win, until they conceded an unfortunate penalty.

Valencia managed to break through United's back line, although it was very much down to bad luck after Agger was taken out and injured by Johnson at the halfway line.

This left Valencia on a free run and was helped by a rash challenge from Johnson, who was presumably panicking after his unfortunate clash with Agger. 

Also, there was very little evidence of contact between both players, but the referee was situated at an angle where his view of Valencia was blocked - and he chose to give the benefit of the doubt to the United man.

Even for the penalty, Reina managed to guess the correct side and get a hand to the ball, but didn't manage to push Van Persie's powerful shot away.


United got more than what they asked for given their stuttering performance - a view that Ferguson echoed after the match.

Their fans should begin to be concerned - only Giggs, Scholes and (strangely) Rafael appear to have tuned into full gear so far while the rest are still finding their feet in the new season.

Also, their injury concerns continue with Ferdinand's hamstring complain and Rafael's ankle injury

As for Liverpool, Rodgers' side didn't do much wrong - they simply need more luck. 

It's encouraging that their build-up play from the back has improved from the opening 3-0 loss to West Brom and the 2-0 loss to Arsenal.

Their future is bright as well given Suso's performance - he can easily slot in Shelvey's role behind Suarez in the midfielder's absence.

With matches against Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs down, Liverpool should be able to settle down for a steady run of games. If the luck balances out in the end, expect them to have an incredible run-in to the end of the season.

*Formation graphics are from www.sportsdood.com's 'Football Dood' app on Android

Kelvin will be analysing a Premier League match every Monday in Tactics Watch. You can reach him by following his twitter account @plevyakin for more tactical insights and football updates.

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