Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool: United exploit the space around Spearing

February 11, 2012

The starting line-ups

Two goals from Wayne Rooney took Manchester United to the top of the Premier League.

Sir Alex Ferguson moved Ryan Giggs out to the left, bringing in Paul Scholes after his impressive cameo against Chelsea last weekend. Chris Smalling was out, so the defence picked itself.

Despite Craig Bellamy and Andy Carroll enjoying a decent partnership in recent weeks, Kenny Dalglish picked neither and went with Luis Suarez upfront alone. Jose Enrique returned, so Glen Johnson went back to right-back.

The first half was a fairly tame encounter that didn’t have the intensity the atmosphere around the game would have suggested. A stoppage after just 30 seconds (when Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra collided) meant the game took a while to get up to full speed and settle into any kind of tempo. When it did, neither side passed the ball particularly well in the centre of midfield, and there was little goalmouth action at either end.

Midfield battle

The game was basically about a fairly slow attritional central midfield battle. The use of Giggs wide on the left meant that United had three passers in midfield (Carrick, Scholes, Giggs), all who like time on the ball to settle and control the game. Dalglish’s use of Jordan Henderson rather than Charlie Adam meant there was more possibility to press United and stop them stamping their authority on the game, but Liverpool were actually quite negative without the ball, sitting deep and letting United play. Early on, United stuggled to transfer the ball from deep positions to the final third, and Liverpool actually enjoyed a decent spell of possession.

But the more the first half went on, the more United took command. Carrick moved higher up and often found himself tracking Steven Gerrard when the Liverpool midfielder moved to the left (he and Henderson often switched places) which opened up space for Scholes to control the game. He had another highly effective performance from deep, spreading the play and setting the tempo of the game.

Spearing problem

Where United really got control was between the lines of midfield and attack. In theory, there was a simple 1 v 1 battle there, between Jay Spearing and Wayne Rooney. But Spearing failed to play this position well, and probably for the first time since he became a semi-regular in Lucas Leiva’a absence, he looked out of his depth.

He wasn’t really sure to what extent he was supposed sto be following Rooney across the pitch. Sometimes he tracked him towards the flank and then had vacated his zone. Sometimes he stayed he stayed in position and Rooney picked up the ball either side of him. But, in fairness, this was as much about a clever United strategy as it was Spearing’s fault – Ryan Giggs played very narrow as a ’second number ten’, in much the same way Park Ji-Sung stayed inside in the recent cup game (below, look how centrally he received the ball compared to Valencia on the right). In addition, Danny Welbeck dropped deep into that zone, and even Scholes moved forward to prompt an excellent flowing move that ended with his own header forcing Pepe Reina into a save.

United’s tactic was basically to get bodies around Spearing and play past him. That is the problem with playing 4-1-4-1 without the ball – the holding player is expected to cover a lot of lateral ground, and there’s the danger that players other than the number ten can move into that space untracked.

When United had the ball, Giggs, Welbeck and Rooney often formed a triangle around Spearing

Giggs was the key player in all this. But – and it’s a big but – it also meant he was in a poor position defensively. He was caught too narrow when Liverpool worked the ball out for Johnson’s left-footed shot that curled narrowly wide. Had that gone in, it would have been fair to attribute it to Giggs’ positioning, so it had benefits and drawbacks.

On the opposite flank, Antonio Valencia again got the better of Jose Enrique. The Spanish left-back didn’t look 100% fit – he turned down plenty of opportunities to get forward and stretch the play, though by staying in position he largely nullified Valencia’s threat later on.

Second half

But this was all about the midfield battle. It was surprising, with United’s dominance late in the first half, that Dalglish didn’t change things and offer Spearing more support by moving Gerrard or Henderson deeper into more of a 4-2-3-1. A double pivot would have provided more security.

Sure enough, United went ahead just after half time. The first goal was from a corner after a good spell of possession, and the second was a symbolic, if not tactically inevitable, illustration of Spearing’s woes – he gave the ball away to Valencia, who slipped in Rooney to score.


Much of the second half was a static, lifeless contest at 2-0. Ferguson made no substitutions in the entire game despite good options (including Tom Cleverley) to choose from, summarising how happy he was with the shape of his side.

Dalglish made a double change to go 4-4-2. Spearing and Stewart Downing, certainly Liverpool’s worst two players on the day, were sacrificed with Andy Carroll going upfront with Suarez, and Bellamy down the left. Gerrard and Henderson were now the midfield two, and the benefit of a duo there was underlined by the fact United created relatively little at 2-0, and didn’t have such a clear area of dominance in front of the defence.

Final minutes

However, that was partly because they eased off, concentrating upon keeping possession in the midfield and killing the tempo of the game. At one point, they kept the ball for so long in midfield that it prompted ‘olés’ from the crowd at an extremely early stage in the game. The reason for that was because Gerrard and Henderson were sitting so deep, and Suarez and Carroll were playing so high, that there was about 30 yards of space with no Liverpool player in, making it very easy for United to keep the ball there.

Carroll at least provided a different threat to the Evans-Ferdinand partnership that had largely kept Suarez quiet. A set-piece goal got Liverpool back in the game, and United’s relaxed attitude at 2-0 to threatened look like complacency. But they had been right to slow the tempo, and they played by far the better football throughout the game, even without being at their best.


United’s main positive was the way they took charge of the space in and around Spearing, getting bodies around him to form triangles and create danger on the edge of the box. Spearing certainly didn’t have a good game, but then he was clearly outnumbered and needed help from others. The natural understanding of Rooney and Welbeck also helped here, while Giggs’ positioning was vital, even if his passes often went astray.

Liverpool set up very negatively, without either the pace of Bellamy to run at United, or the height of Carroll to cause them problems in the air, as they did at Anfield. David De Gea’s problems may have been overstated in some quarters, but it’s clear that he struggles with high aerial balls, and it’s also obvious that United are not as good at defending set-pieces without Nemanja Vidic. Liverpool’s failure to test United in this fashion was odd (as, going back two weeks, was the decision to stop crowding De Gea at corners when it had already worked once).

Liverpool didn’t improve much after the substitutions – they got back in the game late on, but it wasn’t through any great craft from open play.

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