Liverpool Manchester United tactical analysis Premier League

Liverpool – Manchester United: Super sub Shaqiri seals the deal with a double in Liverpool’s big Premier League victory (3-1)

Liverpool’s dominant display on the ball managed to edge out a passive Manchester United side. United’s lopsided pressing shape was outnumbered time and time again but they seemed more than happy to soak up pressure and block as much as they could. In doing so, José Mourinho’s team put up a good fight against a one-sided, free-flowing Liverpool attack. Despite some luck on the finishing side of things, Jürgen Kopp’s side ran out deserved winners.

Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.


From the eleven that knocked SSC Napoli out of the Champions League on Tuesday night, Klopp made four changes – two in midfield and two in defense. Trent Alexander-Arnold was out through injury so in came Nathaniel Clyne. At center-back, Dejan Lovren stepped in for Joël Matip. Further ahead, Jordan Henderson and James Milner were replaced by Fabinho and Naby Keïta respectively.

On the flipside, there were wholesale changes made by Mourinho from his ‘warm-up match’ against Valencia in midweek. Only Eric Bailly and Romelu Lukaku kept their starting places.


Liverpool - Manchester United 3-1 Premier League

Both teams’ setups with Liverpool being shown as the pressing side, here.


Liverpool’s midfield control enables high intensity start

In some games this season, Liverpool have elected to sit off their opponents a bit more and remain centrally compact. This was not even close to being the case here. They were lightning fast out of the traps, never giving United a moment of rest.

What helped them maintain this overpowering start was their possession setup. Mourinho wanted his side to press high up whenever they could, but both side’s lopsided structures created confusion at the cost of the visitors. In essence, both managers set their teams out in 4-2-3-1 shapes, but to varying degrees.

In Liverpool’s case, it was almost like a midfield three as Keïta ever so slightly tucked in from the left but still remained quite high up. Georginio Wijnaldum was actually positioned as an advanced midfielder on the right with Fabinho taking up the central, holding role.

In United’s case, Diogo Dalot played a hybrid role of sorts. He dropped deep enough to be classed as a wing-back but remained high and narrow enough against Keïta to potentially be seen as a wide midfielder. This was the opposite on the far-side The far side is the side of the pitch where the ball is not. – which was Liverpool’s right side for the majority of the first half – as Marcus Rashford stayed high and tight to Clyne. It was indicative of his general position wherever United were defending on the pitch as he was one of the key focal points of their counterattacks.

Where the problem came was that Wijnaldum was dropping in line with Fabinho and was thus exploiting the gap between the two holding midfielders and the pressing attackers. It might seem as straightforward as Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matić stepping up whilst Jesse Lingard and Lukaku press the center-backs, but when you factor in the forwards, who were constantly dropping into the midfield line, it creates a dilemma.

Obviously, United could not afford to leave such a massive hole in the center of their shape, so they had to allow easy access into Wijnaldum.


Liverpool Manchester United 3-1 Premier League

Wijnaldum in space to receive.


From there, Liverpool could push to the final third and assert more dominance with the ball.

The issue that arose next for the visitors was the space they were giving up in front of their shape. Only the midfield pairing were attempting to cover this space as Lingard, Lukaku and Rashford held their positions high up, waiting for opportunities to counterattack. Now, not only were Liverpool’s attackers being afforded the time and freedom to combine in and out of the United shape, moving it from side to side, but they were also able to pin their opponents in.

The distance between defense and attack for United resulted in a major disconnect that prevented them from being able to string together dangerous attacks or simply just calm possession, that could help stabilize the tempo.

United’s passmap shows their direct approach. Their formation was a crossover between a back three and a back four, depending on how to classify Diogo Dalot.


Liverpool’s attacking focal point

With Sadio Mané on the right and Mohamed Salah at center-forward, Klopp had a clear focus to attack down one side, and it was causing United a few problems. Without the added support against overlaps and such, Mané could combine with Clyne and others nearby to get behind opposition defenders in the channels. After working it to these deep positions, the aim was to cut it back. However, Mourinho’s men were quite content to get bodies in the way and let the home side do this.

Despite seemingly dangerous openings down the flanks, then, it was not coming to much. That being said, it was through that same attacker, Mané, that Liverpool managed to get ahead.

Linking back to United’s issue of giving up too much space in and around their defensive line, Roberto Firmino – who had been popping up unmarked all over the place – and Fabinho were afforded some time on the ball. Fabinho clipped a ball in behind for Mané. The wide attacker’s run was surprisingly untracked by Ashley Young as he went clean through on goal and took his opportunity well.


United exploit pocket of space to draw back level

It is not unfair to say that United’s attacks were unthreatening. And that goes for the whole game, not just the first half. Their most common form of attack was their midfielders, defenders and even goalkeeper simply pumping it into Lukaku or them trying to feed it into the channels.

The one glimmer of hope came from Herrera. It was not so much Herrera as a player that caused problems but rather his position on the pitch.

In the high-pressing 4-2-3-1 shape that Liverpool were showcasing, there was a gap to the side of Fabinho, on the left, as, quite often, the home side’s press veered towards the right flank. Herrera, being positioned as the right side of United’s midfield pairing, put him in a good position to receive away from both Fabinho and Keïta.

Just a minute before the goal, a similar attacking pattern occurred with Herrera exploiting the space and playing Lukaku into the channel. Here, he picked it up in that same open channel, this time playing it into Lingard, who then found Lukaku to the side of Lovren. Lukaku’s drilled cross was fumbled by Alisson, which opened the door for Lingard to step in and capitalize on an atrocious mistake. Against the run of play, United were back level just like that.

Liverpool’s passmap shows Keïta’s tucked-in role from the left wing, making the formation a mix between 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and even 4-4-2 diamond at times.


Second half alterations continue tight encounter

Mourinho swapped on his go-to impact substitute, Marouane Fellaini, quite early this time. The Belgian came on at half time for Dalot. So, if it wasn’t a back-four before, it certainly was now. Fellaini stepped into the number ten slot as Lingard moved wide to the right.

The result of this, or at least the intention, was to improve compactness and intensity in the middle. With three hard-working midfielders instead of just two, United could close down players in front better – albeit still with many struggles – and were now even able to use Herrera to shut down overlapping runs. With the midfield trio basically collapsing right on top of their back-four, they group interchanged positions, looking to track every run possible.

As for Klopp’s alterations, he, slightly later on, brought on Xherdan Shaqiri to provide a further link in attack instead of Keïta. Now we were seeing more attacks funnel down the left side. Herrera tracking Mané’s runs from the left was seemingly a good thing as he was getting the better of the midfielder in one-versus-one situations.

This was clear for Shaqiri’s just two minutes after he came on. Mané squared up and beat Herrera to advanced down towards the goal. Very fortuitously, though, it must be said, his attempted cutback towards Salah took a nick off Matić, followed by the reaction kick out from David de Gea before Shaqiri’s first time effort flicked up off of Ashley Young to fire in off the crossbar.

With so many bodies still sitting behind the ball, attracting these kinds of efforts, Liverpool continued to pelt them De Gea’s way. In the eightieth minute, it paid off once again. Shaqiri and Firmino combined in the space in front of the defense as Shaqiri’s shot from outside of the box bounced up off of Bailly to end up in the near corner.


Expected goals plot Liverpool Manchester United 3-1 Premier League



For the most part, you could say United made a good account for themselves defensively. Aside from Mané’s big chance and some inviting cutback chances, there was not a whole lot else Liverpool managed to create. Crucially, though, the fact United posed next to nothing in attack – with their one chance coming from a goalkeeper blunder – is all you need to know when it comes to deciding which team had the better of the game.

Klopp’s side return to the top of the pile with this major victory, making it five wins in five in all competitions. Mourinho’s side have now only won one of their last six Premier League matches, stilling sitting a worrying eight points off of the other top five sides.



Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots.

Peter (20), lives just outside of London. He’s been writing about tactics and such for over a year now, contributing to a couple of sites during that time. His main club is Arsenal but he’s also followed Real Betis quite heavily since Quique Setién took over last year. This form of writing has become a great passion of his and, although he’s unsure of what his end aim is, he’s enjoying being given new opportunities to continue doing so. [ View all posts ]


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