Manchester United – Liverpool: Solskjær’s Sailors Drown In The Red Sea (0-5)
Recent contests between the two royal red houses of English football have failed to produce the spectacle neutrals crave. This duel was an exception, but it came at the cost of one side’s dignity. Swept away in a brutal first half, Manchester United paid the price for their lack of direction, begging the question of how much longer a fragile kingdom can last under its incumbent leader.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
The rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United is the heritage fixture of English football. Yet, ahead of the latest edition of this clash, only one outfit in its current form befits their rich history.
The rhetoric of a cultural reset under Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Manchester United may have revived memories of a golden age, but those images have long faded into the background. A sluggish start to the season has laid bare familiar flaws that the manager seems no closer to solving, but the fixture list offers him little hope of respite. And few teams are to be feared more at this moment than their guests.
Liverpool have set about righting the wrongs of a turbulent year, sitting a point off the leaders Chelsea without a loss to their name. And at the forefront of their run is an attack that has bagged at least twice in their last nine games. So would the Merseyside whirlwind tear apart this shaky Mancunian outfit?
Solskjær is fighting a losing battle to imbue this team with balance in its current 4-2-3-1 system. Yet, despite watching his side rack up a two goal deficit against Atalanta in midweek, he picked the same starting eleven. Thus, both Fred and Bruno Fernandes overcome injury scares to feature in this game.
Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp went for his usual 4-3-3 system. He made two changes to the team that started in the 3-2 win over Atlético Madrid last time out. Diogo Jota played from the off, taking the place of Sadio Mané as the left winger, handing Roberto Firmino his third start in a row upfront. Ibrahima Konaté then replaced Joël Matip as Virgil van Dijk’s partner at the heart of the back four.
A case of what could have been
The odds stacked up against United ahead of kickoff, but they had carved open Liverpool in just three minutes after evading a pressing trap. The play reached Mason Greenwood, who squared the ball to Bruno Fernandes in the box. But the talisman blazed over the bar. And the miss proved to be costly.
Moments on, Fernandes burst forward to trigger a press, only for Liverpool to shred United’s block. Working the ball through the front three, they teed up Naby Keïta on Luke Shaw’s outside shoulder. The midfielder raced into the box, slotting a shot past David de Gea to put the away team in the lead.
Principled pressing wreaks havoc
On the other hand, as one would expect, a competent high press was a primary feature of Liverpool’s display. They deployed an asymmetric 4-1-4-1 setup to smother the home team in their buildup phase. Mohamed Salah made arced runs from out to in to close down Harry Maguire. The trick here was that he took up an indented position in line with Firmino, standing much higher than Jota on the left wing.
More intriguing was how Liverpool covered for Salah. Keïta did not stagger wider to shift outward behind the winger. Instead, Trent Alexander-Arnold lurked higher in the event of switches of play. But Keïta had a prominent vertical role, seizing chances to shuttle forward and shut pressing traps on Fred. Since Salah guided the ball inward and blocked the room for Fred to drop to the side of Maguire from his more central position, the two roles complemented each other well. Indeed, Firmino could have doubled the advantage after six minutes off the back of one of several clean turnovers.
19th minute: Successful Liverpool pressing sequence. Salah and Firmino press from the front, guiding the play inward to a possible central pressing trap, where Keïta wins a duel with Fred.
Scintillating Scousers deliver first half blitz
On the ball, Klopp’s men were relentless too. United’s 4-4-2 block was porous, and among their most worrying issues was a lack of defensive clarity on the flanks. The wingers and fullbacks were often unsure of how to hand over the task of dealing with an overlapping fullback on the ball far wing. And Liverpool had the tools to exploit this hesitation. Firmino’s crafty movements and timely combination play connected attacks across the pitch. Moreover, the two wide men often moved to pin the fullbacks inside in narrower positions, giving Alexander-Arnold and Robertson the freedom of Old Trafford.
45 + 4th minute: Buildup to Salah’s second and Liverpool’s fourth goal. Before play starts, Firmino takes the attention of Scott McTominay, who briefly marks the forward. Curtis Jones’ evasive run forces Aaron wan-Bissaka to pause, allowing Andy Robertson to pass to Jota and threaten forward with a diagonal inward run. Firmino then gestures to make a deep run. McTominay shifts to cover the space between the lines, leading Maguire to over shift to the right.
A brace from Salah followed a goal from Jota; all three goals resulted from similar patterns of play. The back four would end up clustering centrally, leaving swathes of room for Liverpool to use out wide. Flat crosses and intricate pieces of link-up concluded their attacks, leaving United on the end of a crushing four goal deficit at half time. Surely another comeback in the second half was implausible?
Solskjær’s substitutions cannot bail him out
Solskjær brought on one new player ahead of the second half. Greenwood made way for Paul Pogba, who played to the right of McTominay, and Fred as a third member of United’s midfield. He would have hoped to stem a relentless attack, but the substitution yielded little positive impact. In the 49th minute, Firmino harried Pogba, stripping the ball from him. Henderson then slid an incisive pass with the outside of his boot into Salah, who dinked an effort over de Gea’s trailing leg to seal his hat trick.
If a five goal mauling from Klopp’s men was not enough pain to bear, a garish cameo for Pogba came to an abrupt end on the verge of the hour mark. Stretching to control a return pass from Fernandes at a corner, the substitute lunged into a ground duel, catching Keïta with his studs. The referee brandished him a yellow card, only for VAR to compound United’s gloom by upgrading the punishment to a red.
Down to ten men and five goals adrift, United wished to avoid further humiliation. So, Solskjær made two more changes to his team, taking off Fernandes for Edinson Cavani and swapping Rashford with Diogo Dalot. He also set up his men in a 5-2-2 shape, where Dalot played on the left of the back five.
The guests kept tormenting United, picking their moments to break into the final third by switching halfspaces. The hosts soon adjusted the role of Cavani to handle the onslaught. Once they dropped off, the striker retreated into midfield, letting the double pivot stay wider. If Liverpool shifted the play to the back four from the flanks, he then moved in front of Fred and McTominay to shadow Henderson.
72nd minute: A sequence to show Cavani’s role in the 5-2-1-1 block. The striker drops between the double pivot, retreating further than Fred to cover Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Handing him over to Shaw, he then pushes out towards Henderson once the play circulates backward to Ibrahima Konaté.
But the game state ultimately dictated the end of this match. Liverpool did not need to force the issue with their emphatic lead, winding down the attack to end their scoring spree. Etching a new chapter in the history’s books at the final whistle, Klopp’s men had delivered a thrashing long in the making.
Positive results for United have invariably papered over cracks that are only growing into chasms. Such a damning outcome from this game is not a shock, but rather it highlights the faults that have plagued their season. Even if a trip to Spurs could see the side get back to winning ways next time out, Solskjær’s flaws may have sealed his fate. Competing at the elite level looks to be a step too far.
Consigning United to a dark day on their own turf, Liverpool should revel in this victory. A merciless display in front of goal gave way to an explosive scoreline, but their ruthless automatisms in transition set the two outfits apart. Furthermore, Salah’s hat trick and Firmino’s stellar showing have kept up the thrilling form of the front three, who capture where Klopp’s men find themselves at the moment. This side is an elite collective rolling back the years, and who knows where their brilliance will take them?
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