Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United: Patient game settled by route one winner
4-5-1 v 4-5-1 became 4-4-2 v 4-4-2, and Liverpool just about came out on top.
Kenny Dalglish had surprisingly named three recognised centre-backs in the Liverpool line-up, while Craig Bellamy was on the bench with Andy Carroll upfront alone.
Sir Alex Ferguson was without Nani, Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones, so played a 4-5-1 system with Danny Welbeck upfront, and Paul Scholes deep in a midfield three.
For a match that was expected to be a fiery, ferocious scrap, it was actually rather tame. Both sides played calmly in the centre of the pitch but lacked creativity in open play.
The first question was about which shape Liverpool would play. On paper, it seemed logical that they would play a 3-4-2-1ish system, as the side featured roughly the same players that had set out that way against Stoke at home recently. However, Jamie Carragher was deployed as a ‘centre-half’ in front of the two centre-backs, anchoring the midfield.
It’s uncertain whether Dalglish named his side intending to play that way. It is possible that he would have picked Carragher wanting to play with a back three – but then, upon seeing United were only playing one upfront, preferred the extra man in midfield rather than an unnecessary 3 v 1 at the back. Either way, Carragher allowed Liverpool that flexibility, and the option to have a spare man however many forwards United played. Such a player shouldn’t be underestimated.
That said, Carragher is clearly a makeshift holding player. Like a lot of centre-backs played as a holder (one good example would be Everton’s Johnny Heitinga), he prefers to track a specific man, as he would against the number ten when the opposition play a 4-2-3-1. (Lucas Leiva, incidentally, is the opposite. He’s good enough to play either role, but always seems more comfortable energetically sweeping between the lines rather than tracking a specific opponent.)
Anyway, United were 4-5-1 with three central midfielders playing rather deep, so Carragher had no-one to track. He didn’t really know what to do with himself – he lacked the mobility and the passing skills to help Liverpool compete, and therefore United were much better in the centre of the pitch in the first half. They were more adept on the ball, and they also had the fluidity to tilt the midfield triangle and work moves through the middle – Scholes popped up in the box a couple of times.
The battle in the midfield was being won by the away side – that was no surprise once the formations became clear. 4-3-3 v 4-3-3 – the free players were the two deeper midfielders. Who will dictate the game more with the ball – Scholes or Carragher? It’s hardly a debate, and by half time, Scholes had made 75 passes, Carragher only 23.
But United didn’t turn their dominance of possession into consistent pressure. The only other interesting tactical feature of the game was how they used their wide players – Antonio Valencia hugged the touchline as a classic winger, while Park Ji-Sung came off the flank, becoming more and more central as the game went on. Indeed, by the end of the first half, it often looked like United were 4-4-1-1, with Park behind Welbeck and Giggs covering the left flank. With Park inside, Patrice Evra moved forward to push Stewart Downing back. The goal came from width down the right and Park coming off the left to get into the box, summing up their tactics.
Liverpool had gone ahead from a corner, by the simple but effective tactic of crowding around David De Gea, then hanging the ball up into a position he couldn’t get to. The odd thing in these situations is that when there is a concerted effort to prevent a goalkeeper getting the ball, he perennially tries to do so anyway, almost as if he has to prove a point that his tactics haven’t been compromised. Had De Gea stayed on his line, he might have saved the ball – it hit him on the head before going in.
Fifteen minutes passed without much tactical interest, with the exception of one thing – Liverpool changed their tactics at corners, no longer crowding De Gea. This made little sense with the goalkeeper visibly nervous – it’s not as if the successful tactic was some kind of clever ‘trick’, it was simply something United couldn’t cope with. Liverpool had little creativity in open play, and relinquishing a good chance to profit from a dead ball situation was an odd move.
After an hour, Dalglish made two substitutions but kept the same formation. Charlie Adam came on to replace Carragher in the holding role. Meanwhile, Dirk Kuyt replaced Maxi Rodriguez, with Downing going to the left.
(At least, that’s what effectively happened on the pitch. In fact, the substitutions were actually made the other way around – Adam replaced Maxi, and Kuyt came on for Carragher. This clearly wasn’t the natural way to do things – it was simply a winger for a winger, a central midfielder for a central midfielder, in a 4-3-3. Perhaps this was unintentional and simply a case of paperwork being handed over to the fourth official in a certain way, but when making a double substitution, it always seems worth a manager swapping players the ‘wrong’ way around like Dalglish did here. Even if it creates two minutes of confusion for the opposition, it’s worth it.)
Gerrard briefly played the holding role, but then Adam took over. Adam isn’t a holder himself, and Liverpool’s problems at Bolton last week largely came from Adam and Gerrard being unable to pick up driving runs from midfield. However, in a patient game based around passing, Adam could afford to be a holder; United offered neither the threat of a number ten, nor runs from midfield. Liverpool looked a bit better after the changes – they passed the ball quicker in midfield, and now had width from two players on their natural sides, helping to stretch the play.
With around 15 minutes to go, the managers made effectively the same change – pacey strikers for midfield veterans. Bellamy replaced Gerrard, Javier Hernandez came on for Scholes. Neither manager really wanted a replay – they both went for the win.
The game opened out a bit more – defences had to play slightly deeper and no longer had a spare man. The midfields altered slightly too, and for some reason, possibly linked to the departure of Scholes (who might have been tired by this stage), United lost control and Liverpool were the better side late on.
However, the midfield had nothing to do with the late winner. Pepe Reina’s long ball found Carroll, who nodded it on for Kuyt to finish. Evra was poorly positioned, but Carroll had a key impact for both goals. It reinforces the view that Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans are probably United’s best centre-back partnership at present, but will struggle against physical number nines.
The final question is this – did the pace of Bellamy force United to defend deeper, and make the goal possible? For Reina’s goal kick for the goal, United seem to be defending 10-15 yards deeper than they were for the previous long goal kick, on 55 minutes. Had Smalling not dropped so deep, Kuyt would have been offside and the game might have finished 1-1.
Neither side played their best football – like the league meeting (largely forgotten because of the aftermath) there was a lack of invention and creativity in the final third, particularly in central positions between the lines. The goals came from (a) a corner, (b) a cross and (c) a long goal kick. It never seemed likely there would be a clever goal from a through ball, for example – the game was patient and based around passing, yet not particularly beautiful.
There were essentially two games here. One was 4-5-1 v 4-5-1 for 75 minutes, when United were better because they had better passers in midfield. The other was 4-4-2 v 4-4-2 for 15 minutes, when Liverpool got the winner because they had a big centre-forward more suited to more direct football.
Maybe this game will kick-start Carroll’s Liverpool career – for both goals he did the dirty, unfashionable things that turned out to be extremely helpful.
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Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United: Patient game settled by route one winner