Liverpool 1-1 Manchester United: little technical quality in open play, goals from set-pieces
A poor first half was followed with a more positive second, but neither side stamped their authority on the game.
Kenny Dalglish went with the expected side – Steven Gerrard returned to play just behind Luis Suarez, with Dirk Kuyt in the side on the right.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s line-up was far from expected – he used Phil Jones in midfield, with Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Nani all on the bench.
Liverpool probably had the better of the game – 15 shots (to United’s 11), five on target (to United’s two) and more clear-cut chances. The overall tactical battle was uninteresting, however – static, pedestrian and cautious for the majority of the 90 minutes.
A high-tempo start resulted in many passes going astray. Liverpool’s pass completion ratio in the first ten minutes was was 68%, compared to 75% in the rest of the game, whilst United’s was 64% early on, and 73% thereafter.
Formations and positioning had much to do with the lack of creativity from both sides. The central midfield battle saw obvious individual clashes – Lucas Leiva was close to Ryan Giggs, Charlie Adam was closed down by Phil Jones, and after a spell of freedom early on, Darren Fletcher was marshalled by Steven Gerrard from around the 15 minute mark. Giggs probably had the most space of any of the midfielders, since Lucas was keen to occupy a space in front of the defence rather than track his man across the pitch, but Giggs’ impact upon the game was negligible.
The interesting early feature concerned Gerrard and Kuyt. The Dutchman would drift inside into the centre of the pitch, and then Gerrard would drift wider to the right (see below) meaning Darren Fletcher and Patrice Evra had to pass players on rather than follow them and get dragged out of position. This combination aside, there was little movement to develop passing angles or get players into space, and the first half was static.
One feature of the line-ups that did provide interest – in theory rather than in the game – was the use of Jones in midfield. He was expected to be used as the holding role in front of the back four, but instead played higher up to the right, told to stick tight to Adam. It was slightly surprising that he and Fletcher played this way around – if you want someone to do a job on Adam, you’d expect the energy of Fletcher to be more appropriate than the physicality of Jones, who looked uncomfortable positionally and prevented United’s attacks from flowing forward. At least Fletcher had some time on the ball in deeper positions when Gerrard moved to the right, and played some decent forward passes. Jones’ role was similar to Pepe’s against Barcelona at points in the Clasico series last year – a nominal centre-back fielded high up the pitch.
The battles on the flanks rarely looked like contributing to a goal. Park Ji-Sung was tracking Jose Enrique rather than looking to take him on, Martin Kelly remained defensive and in position against Ashley Young, Stewart Downing couldn’t outpace Chris Smalling, and Kuyt was coming inside. Downing sometimes drifted to the right, but Liverpool became lopsided and too compressed into one zone.
The strikers had to fend for themselves. Danny Welbeck’s movement and link-up play was good, but no-one ever ran in behind him. Luis Suarez was a handful and stereotypically won lots of free-kicks (five, from Liverpool’s 12 won overall) but could never quite beat both United centre-backs on his own.
The second half continued in similar fashion, although the game was less frantic and passing was crisper – this contributed to a more enjoyable game, and more goalscoring chances.
Tactically, the first change was Dalglish removing Lucas and bringing on Jordan Henderson, who played the Gerrard role with Gerrard dropping deeper alongside Adam. Gerrard-Adam is not an ideal central midfield partnership – it lacks structure with both players naturally moving forward and leaving space between the lines – but against Giggs and Jones it was hardly like to be an issue. It did seem to invite the introduction of Rooney to play in the number ten role, however.
By the time Rooney arrived, United were 1-0 down after Gerrard’s free-kick, and it seemed that Ferguson had left it too late to exploit Liverpool’s weakness behind their midfield. At 1-0 up, the home side could play a defensive-minded game and leave Suarez to cause problems on the break.
In truth, there didn’t seem to be much invention or imagination in the way Ferguson got United back into the game, it simply involved bringing on the three obvious attacking options – Rooney, Hernandez and Nani – with Park, Young and Jones off. United went to 4-2-3-1ish, or maybe 4-2-1-3ish, since Rooney was very deep in midfield and Welbeck and Nani were high up on the wings. Sheer weight of attacking numbers pushed United forward, but they created little and like Liverpool, relied on a set-piece for their equaliser.
Liverpool didn’t attempt a shot between the two goals, but then stormed forward again and took advantage of the lack of structure in United’s midfield. Henderson, their only substitute, was the brightest player and got himself into good positions, but maybe Andy Carroll could have come on to provide an aerial option for their late corners.
This game lacked a creator. There were functional midfielders and those trying to direct the game from deep, but no-one to provide a threaded through ball. The players in that zone were all too occupied with nullifying their opponents rather than creating; when Henderson came on, the question about his role was not ‘Which position will he play in?’ but ‘Which opponent will he track?’
It wasn’t an attractive game, nor a fascinating tactical battle.