Manchester United 3-2 Liverpool: Berbatov x 3
Manchester United threw away another two-goal lead – but a Dimitar Berbatov hattrick saved them.
Sir Alex Ferguson went with a 4-4-2 – the first time he has done this in a ‘big’ game since Liverpool’s 2-0 victory over United last season. John O’Shea moved to right-back to replace Gary Neville.
Roy Hodgson went for Fernando Torres upfront alone at the top of a compact side. Raul Meireles was the link player, with Steven Gerrard deeper in midfield. Joe Cole made his return on the left side of midfield.
The home side started extremely strongly, getting the ball quickly forward to their front four players and pinning Liverpool back inside their own third. Liverpool defended with two banks of four, and Meireles got goalside of Paul Scholes and attempted to close him down, to stop him dictating play. Liverpool defended reasonably well when the ball came into the box early on, but they weren’t able to find out-balls to get the ball up the pitch and stop United coming back again and again. Fernando Torres only completed three passes in the opening half, and was barely involved in play.
Contrast in styles
The battle down United’s right-hand side looked like it was going to play a big part in the game. Nani had recorded four assists from four right-wing crosses in his previous four games, and Paul Konchesky started the game by trying to get as tight as possible. The Portuguese winger created relatively little though, and the biggest threat down that side came when John O’Shea motored forward and he and Nani caught Joe Cole 2 v 1 (with Konchesky having moved too central), reminiscent of the situation Darren Fletcher and Gary Neville created to create Park Ji-Sung’s winner in the same fixture last season.
Liverpool’s football was more based around short passes and keeping possession. Indeed, they completed more passes than United in the first half (220 to 176), despite being second best for almost the entire 45 minutes. They had the right idea, however – they were working the ball slowly across the midfield, using their numerical advantage to narrow United’s midfield and working the ball out to the flanks into crossing positions. Unfortunately, the crosses themselves were dreadful – a sliced effort into the stands from Konchesky and an overhit punt from Christian Poulsen the most obvious examples.
Aside from a break where Wayne Rooney and Berbatov combined brilliantly and moved the ball out to Nani who wasted a good position, United were mostly faced with trying to break down two banks of four solidly behind the ball. With 2 v 3 in the midfield, and Scholes and Darren Fletcher unable to find much room, United were looking to get crosses in. Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel dealt with this well, but Torres did not when marking Berbatov at a corner, and the Bulgarian headed in. It was the only shot on target United had in the first half. It was also the second goal Liverpool have conceded from a corner this season (the first being against Manchester City).
Hodgson changed nothing major at half-time, although Joe Cole looked to be coming into the centre of the pitch more often. United still hit the ball forward and wide quickly. Fletcher did this with a wonderful 60-yard ball to Nani, who cut inside onto his left foot, and crossed for Berbatov who finished acrobatically. United looked out of sight.
Liverpool change formation
Liverpool switched to 4-4-2 with the addition of David N’Gog for Maxi Rodriguez, with Meireles coming out to the right. And immediately they got a goal back – Jonny Evans got himself into a poor position and make an equally poor challenge on Torres. Gerrard converted the penalty. The threat of an additional striker clearly caused United problems straight away, although in truth it was an individual mistake from Evans rather than a well-crafted goal.
Despite Torres’ notorious success against Nemanja Vidic in previous contests, following his unsuccessful first-half against the Serbia international he made a deliberate effort to make runs off the back of Evans and O’Shea instead. It was O’Shea’s clumsy tackle on him created the free-kick for Gerrard’s second – and here we can attribute the goal to the presence of a second striker – Ngog’s run to the right flank dragged Evans out of position and created the gap for Meireles through ball. But again, it was a needless tackle as Edwin van der Sar would have been favourite to get to the ball (presumably why Howard Webb showed O’Shea a yellow card and not a red).
The shift from 4-4-1-1 to 4-4-2 got Liverpool back into the game – but it also cost them defensively. Paul Scholes became completely free in the centre of midfield, and he had time to knock the ball out O’Shea, who crossed for Berbatov’s third. Three crosses, three goals. Ferguson brought on both Darron Gibson and Anderson to shut up shop with a 4-5-1.
Each side only had one successful method of creating chances. United got crosses in towards Berbatov, Liverpool played the ball into space behind the defence for Torres. Those two approaches created all five goals.
It was a minor surprise that United started with 4-4-2, but they showed they know how to play this way – they get the ball quickly into advanced wide positions and put the ball into the box. It’s a simple formation, and sides that use it successfully generally do so with a very simple approach.
Hodgson’s tactical shift got him back into the game. It’s slightly easier to move from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2 when facing a 4-4-2 than when facing a 4-5-1, as you’re merely conceding your own midfield advantage rather than giving the opposition an extra man in that zone. Ultimately, however, the match game down to the fact that Liverpool couldn’t defend from crosses, and Berbatov took advantage.Manchester United 3-2 Liverpool: Berbatov x 3