Liverpool 3-1 Manchester United: Kuyt x 3
Dirk Kuyt scored all three goals in a comfortable victory for Liverpool.
Andy Carroll was fit enough only for the bench, so Kuyt and Luis Suarez played upfront. Daniel Agger was out, and Kenny Dalglish moved to four at the back, after last weekend’s poor performance with a back three at West Ham.
Sir Alex Ferguson surprisingly named a 4-4-2 shape. Darren Fletcher dropped to the bench, Ryan Giggs came in and Nani switched flanks. Wes Brown replaced the suspended Nemanja Vidic.
Dirk Kuyt’s goals may have been remarkably simple, but he fully deserved to be the hero because of his excellent all-round display that was the main reason Liverpool played so well.
Liverpool started much better – their movement was fantastic, their passing was slick. Steven Gerrard played a reserved role in the central midfield zone, just ahead of Lucas, but the four players ahead of those two had the license to move around the pitch, rotating positions and constantly catching United’s defence out.
Kuyt was the man who instigated many of these good moves with his movement to the flanks. His discipline and ability to ‘play a position well’ have been most obvious when playing out on the right in a Liverpool shirt, but since Kenny Dalglish took charge in January, Kuyt’s lone striker performances have been very good – at home to Stoke and away at Chelsea he was also one of the key players.
Kuyt opens up space
United’s two centre-backs – particularly Chris Smalling – were too keen to track Kuyt into deep positions, which opened up space at the heart of the defence. This space was exploited by plenty of runners – most notably Suarez, who played in the hole and ran directly towards goal, but also Raul Meireles from the right, who cut in and found himself in centre-forward positions.
At one point Smalling was seen encouraging his defence to move higher up the pitch, but United’s high line actually made them more vulnerable to the combination of Kuyt’s movement and runners from midfield. Ferguson famously got the better of Roma’s revolutionary 4-6-0 (with Francesco Totti pioneering the false nine role) by using his defence very deep – that might’ve been the answer here, with Kuyt dragging the defenders all over the pitch. His movement was usually towards the flanks:
United weren’t set up to cope with midfield runners. The combination of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes has rarely been used this season – having been exposed to Chelsea’s power in the second half in midweek, here they lacked energy. Darren Fletcher was on the bench having been used on the right at Stamford Bridge – there are still questions over whether he can do two ‘big’ matches in a short space of time given the energetic nature of his game, but he might have been useful here.
Indeed, United’s shape didn’t work as a whole. With Suarez playing in a deep role, Liverpool found it too easy to manoeuvre the ball through midfield towards their forwards. When Scholes and Carrick dropped deeper, they opened up space for Lucas and Gerrard. Until this week, Ferguson has been extremely committed to using 4-5-1 in ‘big’ games – it’s surprising that he has used 4-4-2 in two of his toughest away fixtures of the season.
United had much less movement from their forward four. Nani and Ryan Giggs often stayed wide and didn’t combine with the front two, though when they came inside, they were dealt with by Gerrard and Lucas. That opened up space for Carrick and Scholes – but their natural inclination is to hit balls to the flanks, which were now deserted. It was difficult to know how United should have gone about improving their game – more movement from the strikers would have been a start, but overall Liverpool coped well with everything United had to offer.
Individual battles were less important than the contrasting quality of movement and interplay. Meireles against Evra was an interesting duel, however – the Portuguese midfielder isn’t at his best out on that flank, but twice this season he’s subdued Evra and prevented him from overlapping and stretching the play.
Liverpool dealt admirably with the injury to Fabio Aurelio, which resulted in a complete reshuffle of their back four.
United were forced to bring on Javier Hernandez because of Nani’s injury, meaning Giggs went to the right and Rooney came to the left. Both those players wanted to come inside – Glen Johnson, now at left-back, was happy with Giggs coming onto his stronger foot, but Jamie Carragher, now at right-back, showed Rooney inside for shots too often.
Hernandez threatened with his movement inside the box – his outpaced Sotirios Kyrgiakos to a cross having pulled wide in opening minutes of the second half, and popped up for a late consolation goal. United had a decent spell just after half time, but in truth they were poor for much of the game – lacking creativity and confidence.
Liverpool sat back in two banks of four and soaked up pressure. That’s something they’ve done well all season – even when they were playing badly under Hodgson, a good defensive performance earned them a deserved win over Chelsea, and another should have resulted in a win on the opening day against Arsenal. They remain well-drilled when penned into their own third, and their biggest worry was how many free-kicks they conceded in and around the box. Liverpool’s tackling in their own half was actually quite poor – see Lucas’ tackling chalkboard below – but their defensive shape was excellent.
After Kuyt’s third goal, the game was essentially over, and the subsequent substitutions had little impact.
Better movement and interplay from Liverpool’s front players was the key here. Kuyt v Berbatov was an interesting comparison – and not just in terms of work rate. Kuyt’s pure energy was combined with intelligent movement to provide a better focal point for Liverpool’s attacks. The goals may have simple, but the Dutchman’s all-round performance was superb.Liverpool 3-1 Manchester United: Kuyt x 3