Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool: a contest about the small details

March 21, 2010

No major tactical surprises here, and no surprise outcome either. Ferguson’s default line-up for these ‘big’ games is a flexible 4-5-1 shape (which means no Dimitar Berbatov) whilst Benitez was always going to go with Lucas ahead of Alberto Aquilani for a more solid midfield away at Old Trafford.

In that sense, the sides were both slightly more defensive than most fans would have hoped for, and this contributed to a relatively mediocre game, despite the excitement of two goals in the opening ten minutes.

United started with something approaching a 4-1-4-1 system, with Michael Carrick in the holding role and Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung higher up the pitch – a brave move from Ferguson, in that it pitched Carrick solely up against Steven Gerrard. But this plan backfired – Carrick was caught out twice in the opening five minutes against Gerrard, and the second instance led to Liverpool’s opener. Ferguson changed this immediately after – moving Darren Fletcher deeper to assist Carrick, meaning United’s shape was closer to 4-2-3-1.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the game was quite how defensively-minded the wide players were. Whereas players like Valencia, Nani, Kuyt and Maxi are often deployed to shut down the opposition full-backs (and this was partially the case here, of course), today much of their work involved tracking each other, and assisting their own full-backs. This led to a bit of a stalemate for most of the game in wide areas. It was interesting that the second-half deadlock was broken only when when Fletcher, a central midfielder, came to the right and the run of Gary Neville created an overload against Emiliano Insua, with Maxi having been drawn inside to track Valencia’s run.

But United found this game difficult. Their 4-5-1 shape, with Rooney up top alone, has proved wonderfully successful in big games away at Arsenal and home and away against Milan, resulting in 3-1, 3-2 and 4-0 victories, because with this system, United play primarily on the counter-attack. Arsenal are known for their tendency to leave their own defence exposed by throwing too many men forward, whilst Milan suffered because their three forwards showed no defensive awareness whatsoever. But against this Liverpool side that kept at least five (generally six) men behind the ball at all times, even in possession, United were unable to launch many counter-attacks – it’s difficult to think of a single instance when they managed to create an opportunity in this manner.

Their goals both came from the right-hand side – interesting, as this site has previously commented on their tendency to attack down that flank. Indeed, after the Arsenal game ZM commented on how often United looked to play long balls into that area, and today the first goal stemmed from this – a 50-yard ball finding Park on the right, who nodded it down to Valencia, who then won the penalty. The most interesting thing was the position of Daniel Agger, who got caught far too wide on the left (creating a huge space between the Liverpool centre-backs for Valencia to run into) and then makes no attempt to get back into position to tackle. Why was Agger so far to the left? Was he concerned about Emiliano Insua being dominated in the air against Valencia and/or Park? Either way, it was such a soft goal for Liverpool to concede so soon after going ahead.

Liverpool changed things by introducing the three obvious players – Aquilani, Benayoun and Babel, but as so often with Benitez, he did things in a way which must be so frustrating for the players, constantly switching them into different positions. Aquilani came on ‘in the hole’, then was moved back into central midfield after barely ten minutes. Gerrard started off ‘in the hole’, then moved to the left, then was switched to the right. Benayoun came on for Lucas, but only after 81 minutes (20 minutes after Liverpool went behind), and was then deployed in a central role, with Gerrard stranded out on the right. Surely, with Liverpool desperately needing a goal, Gerrard should have been kept in the centre? He actually created two good chances when he pulled the ball back twice for Torres, but these chances were both created when he got himself into a reasonably central position where he was more easily able to link-up with the Spaniard.

Benitez always sets out his sides in a solid and organised fashion – but he’s never been the greatest at game-changing substitutions when Liverpool need a goal. He did not need both Mascherano and Lucas on the pitch for 80 minutes – you shouldn’t need two defensive midfielders to stem the creative threat of Park alone, and certainly not if your main aim is to find a goal yourself. His first substitution should probably have been to remove Lucas and either (a) put Aquilani in that role, or (b) introduce Benayoun alongside Gerrard and play something approaching a 4-1-4-1 to take the game to United. Lucas gets far too much criticism; he is a decent player – but he’s not the man to find you a goal.

An unremarkable game both in entertainment value and in tactical terms.

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