Manchester United – Liverpool: An awful stalemate dominated by injuries and offensive struggles (0-0)
Manchester United and Liverpool drew in a dull game that was heavily conditioned by the multiple injuries that occurred during the first half. Liverpool maintained control of possession throughout the game, but they struggled to create danger in the final third. The second half brought little changes to the game state.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Perez.
For Manchester United, results have improved significantly under new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær, with the manager giving his attackers more freedom. However, it is important to remember that United’s results have been better than their actual performances. Strikers have been very efficient and goalkeeper De Gea still stops the unstoppable. United’s issues mostly lie in their defensive structure – 11th in the league in expected goals conceded – partly because of the offensive risks Solskjær is taking. This problem is enhanced by the fact that United often struggle to take the initiative against big opponents and prefer to strike on the counter.
Against Liverpool, Solskjær decided to go for a 4-3-1-2 midfield diamond shape in attack, which often looked like a 4-4-2 in a low block. A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. The goal of David De Gea was guarded by Luke Shaw, Victor Lindelöf, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young. In midfield featured a trio of Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay—who took over from an injured Nemanja Matic—and finally Juan Mata in front of them as number ten. In front of Mata was the striker duo of Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku.
Liverpool have managed to compete neck-to-neck against Manchester City for the Premier League title in one of the most exciting title races of the decade. This season, the side of Jürgen Klopp have significantly improved their defensive quality and versatility, leading the league with the fewest expected goals conceded. Liverpool have achieved this by, surprisingly, shifting over to a more conservative medium block but with very efficient pressing. This has turned them into one of the strongest defensive units in Europe. On the attack, their classic front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino still produce many goals even though they have not been as productive as last season.
Against Manchester United, Jürgen Klopp made relatively few rotations in his usual 4-3-3 formation. The goal of Alisson Becker was defended by Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and a surprising James Milner covering for Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back. The midfield trio was composed of Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho, and Jordan Henderson, and the usual suspects as the forward trio.
Match prediction, standings and implications going into the weekend.
United fail to press and counterattack well
The first half was marked by United’s injury troubles. Ander Herrera had to be subbed out for Andreas Pereira (21st minute), Juan Mata came out injured for Jesse Lingard (25th minute), and then Lingard had to come off for Alexis Sánchez (43rd minute). On top of that, And Marcus Rashford played most of the game with a knock after a harsh challenge. Therefore, it was hard for both sides to maintain focus due to these interruptions, and United’s ability to control the game suffered due to these unexpected changes.
Liverpool’s 4-3-3 shape in attack against United’s 4-3-1-2 pressing scheme.
United initially aimed to press Liverpool with their 4-3-1-2 midfield structure, with Lukaku and Rashford taking on Liverpool’s central defenders, and the number ten – Mata first, then Lingard – pressing Fabinho. For the most part, this initial press failed to work, thanks to Liverpool’s confidence when playing out from the back, led by Van Dijk and Fabinho. Liverpool moved the ball too quickly from one side of the pitch to the other, usually finding ways pass United’s pressing, especially through the wings.
This meant that United could not really recover the ball higher up the pitch. They often had to recover the ball in deeper zones and try to launch counterattacks. They were usually stopped by a very solid Liverpool defense who, once again, were led by Van Dijk and Fabinho, always brilliant in intercepting and anticipating potential counters. Mata, Lukaku and Pogba tried to break through with good passing combinations and layoffs, but they rarely succeeded.
Usually United can take of advantage of the speed of their forwards in counterattack situations, but Rashford and Lingard were in no physical state to make their usual runs and their replacements—Mata and Sánchez—are not that fast. That is why United only produced three shots throughout the first half, one of them in the box (Lukaku’s chance at the end of the half).
Liverpool control possession, but struggle in the final third
Given United’s situation, it would seem logical that Liverpool would dominate the game. However, even though Liverpool controlled most of possession throughout the first half, they struggled heavily in creating chances.
Liverpool’s best moments in the attacking buildup were led by Fabinho and Van Dijk, who moved the ball confidently through long passes and ball carrying. However, when that did not happen, Liverpool often abused playing on the wings or making passes into space for their forwards. While this certainly gets the job done when it comes to ball progression, it often meant that Liverpool could not create chances through the center (which are more dangerous). They were mostly confined to predictably creating danger on the wings.
Saying that Liverpool relied heavily on the right wing would still be a euphemism.
The best moments in the final third happened when Mané or Salah would come short and take a more creative role, moving in between the lines and in the halfspaces. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. These movements would drag United defenders out of place and start valuable passing combinations through the center. It did not help that Firmino was not having a good day, which was made even worse by the injury that led him to be subbed out for Daniel Sturridge.
United’s defense must take a lot of credit, too. McTominay and Herrera were excellent at breaking up play and screening in front of the defense, while Smalling and Lindelöf had a very solid and error-free game when defending their box.
United defends deeper and the game state remains mostly the same
With the substitution of Lingard for Alexis Sánchez and the start of the second half, United changed their game plan. Instead of pressing, they opted to defend in a low 4-5-1 block. An injured Rashford stayed as a striker up front, while Lukaku and Sánchez behaved as right winger and left winger, respectively. United was officially in “survival mode”, with their main goal to keep the 0-0 score.
Liverpool’s 4-3-3 shape in attack against United’s 4-5-1 deep block.
It was a good decision by Solskjær if we consider that Liverpool’s biggest struggles were not in buildup phases, but in the final third. Liverpool controlled 69% of possession in this half, but they still only produced a miserable three shots, and two of those came from corners! They featured very similar issues to the first half, with the team struggling to play in the center lanes and focusing too much on the wings.
To address this issue, Klopp substituted Jordan Henderson with Xherdan Shaqiri in the 72nd minute. Shaqiri tried to play more centrally, operating mainly in the right halfspace and trying to promote passing combinations, but the outcome was still the same. Liverpool still mostly played on the wings, and incoming danger was cleared by United’s focused defense.
This match almost feels like a victory for Manchester United, who survived their injury setbacks with a good ol’ low block in the second half. It is another good result for Solskjær and his men, but tactical issues remain. For example, top teams can find holes in United’s pressing game. Meanwhile, there seems to be a mismatch between what works best for Pogba, Rashford, Lingard, and Martial (speed, counterattacks, transitions), and what works best for Mata and Sánchez (slower possession game). Given the injuries of the team’s counterattacking specialists, Solskjær might have to change the game plan a bit to adapt to his slower forwards.
As for Liverpool, this is certainly a worrying result. Not only because it gets Manchester City even closer to them, but also because it shows how bad their attacking struggles are. Liverpool’s offense depends too heavily on the one-versus-one abilities of Mané, Salah and Firmino, and when the trio are not in inspired form, Liverpool struggles significantly in creating chances. That being said, at least the team can rest easy knowing that the defensive trio of Alisson – Van Dijk – Fabinho has their back and are performing well week in, week out.
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