Manchester United 1-0 Liverpool: Liverpool fail to recover from early goal and red card

January 9, 2011

The starting line-ups

Kenny Dalglish’s first match in charge ended in defeat, as Manchester United won without impressing yet again.

Sir Alex Ferguson started Javier Hernandez upfront for the second consecutive game, and recalled Nani after illness. Rio Ferdinand returned at the back, as did Jonny Evans.

Kenny Dalglish was without Joe Cole and Glen Johnson, and also dropped Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Paul Konchesky and David Ngog. Daniel Agger, Martin Kelly, Raul Meireles, Dirk Kuyt and Fabio Aurelio came in.

The only goal of the game was scored inside ninety seconds – Ryan Giggs converted a penalty won by Dimitar Berbatov, before we’d even been able to assess the two line-ups.

Liverpool 4-1-4-1

When the game settled down, it seemed Dalglish had set Liverpool out in an energetic 4-1-4-1 system, with Lucas Leiva the midfield anchorman, and the four players ahead all given license to move upfield and support lone striker Fernando Torres.

This worked well with the main change in Liverpool’s game compared to the Roy Hodgson regime – pressing. Whereas under Hodgson Liverpool used to drop back into their own third of the pitch and wait for the opposition to come onto them, Steven Gerrard and Raul Meireles closed down Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher, knowing that Lucas was the insurance policy behind them. Meireles played slightly deeper than Gerrard because he also had a responsibility to get out towards Nani, and double up on the Portuguese winger.

Midfield scrap

Despite being a goal down, Liverpool were probably the better side when both sides had eleven men on the pitch. The game was scrappy and therefore was contested mainly in midfield, and Liverpool’s numerical advantage in that zone helped them dominate the game for much of the opening period. In addition, the wide players played reasonably narrow (possibly a feature left over from the Hodgson days) which further helped Liverpool stamp their authority on the game in the middle.

Liverpool immediately after Gerrard's dismissal - they went to a 4-4-1 shape and were unable to close down as effectively as with their starting formation

The match was changed when Gerrard was dismissed for a tackle on Carrick, and Liverpool had to change their system. Although it was hardly a mass reconstruction job needed – Meireles simply dropped in deeper alongside Lucas and Liverpool went 4-4-1 – it was the turning point in the pattern of play. Without Gerrard, Liverpool couldn’t press United high up the pitch, and were forced to be more submissive and let United take charge of that zone.

Ironically, considering he was the one who was fouled in the red card incident, the man to profit most was Carrick – he was given time on the ball and helped United retain possession. They created relatively little but frustrated Liverpool by keeping the ball and slowing the tempo of the game, when Dalglish’s men looked happier when the game was bitty and fast-paced.

Liverpool defend well

Despite being forced to invite pressure, Liverpool back four defended well as a unit – far better than in the midweek defeat to Blackburn. Kelly had an excellent game at right-back – all three goals that Liverpool conceded in the Blackburn game came down their right-hand side (the man responsible, Johnson, missed this game to be at the birth of his child) so it was an obvious improvement.

On the other flank, Meireles and Aurelio dealt with Nani well and prevented him from crossing the ball – which was crucial considering all three of Berbatov’s goals in the league meeting between these sides came from balls into the box.

Game fizzles out

The game was without much incident, however – with the early goal, plus the trailing side being down to ten men, there was a lack of urgency and little goalmouth action.

Liverpool’s change in formation came after Ryan Babel replaced Maxi Rodriguez – he played higher up the pitch in a system that looked like a cross between 4-4-1 and 4-3-2, with Babel using his pace to cover two positions. Kuyt tried to do the same on the opposite flank but looked exhausted and generally settled for holding his position in midfield, which meant that Liverpool weren’t able to support Torres (and later David Ngog) enough.

Ferguson kept United as 4-4-2 – even when bringing on Anderson he made a straight swap for Fletcher, rather than removing one of the forwards. United started the second half trying to get a decisive second goal, but by the end of the match they were happy to keep possession in non-threatening areas. With Liverpool down to ten men and too tired to close down, it resulted in a fairly comfortable final few minutes for the home side.


Dalglish will have pleased Liverpool’s fans – with only a day in charge of the club he barely had time to change anything major, but the simple shift towards a more positive style of football (most notably without the ball) marks a move away from Hodgson’s regime. The red card was a huge blow for Liverpool – without that, they may have got themselves back into the game.

United were unexciting in both performance and in tactics – Ferguson kept 4-4-2 and with Nani subdued, his side lacked creativity despite dominating the game.

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