Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United: United come from behind to win

September 23, 2012

The starting line-ups

Liverpool started stronger, but Manchester United gained control of the game after Jonjo Shelvey’s dismissal.

Brendan Rodgers used Shelvey as the highest player in his midfield triangle, and Glen Johnson continued at left-back.

Sir Alex Ferguson rested Nemanja Vidic, and played Ryan Giggs, rather than Paul Scholes or Tom Cleverley, in the centre of midfield.

Liverpool dominated the first half, United the second – Shelvey’s dismissal was a huge turning point in terms of the tactical battle.

First half

The two sides came into the game with wildly differing approaches. Liverpool were doing their usual under Rodgers, seeking to gain control through ball retention, while Manchester United were attempting to play on the counter-attack.

With that in mind, the key battle in the game was obvious – at the base of the Liverpool midfield, it was Joe Allen’s tussle with Shinji Kagawa. Allen was sitting deep and dictating Liverpool’s possession play – he played more passes than any other player over the 90 minutes. Kagawa, on the other hand, was trying not to be drawn into the midfield battle, and instead remained high up the pitch close to van Persie. United’s shape without the ball often looked like 4-4-2.


Clearly, Kagawa was trying to play the role he played with Borussia Dortmund, which involved not contributing significantly in the defensive phase of play, and instead trying to find space to initiate counter-attacks . He did that by drifting around behind Allen, and his major defensive task was to form a barrier between Allen and the ball, preventing easy passes being played into him from the Liverpool defence.

The movement of the other two Liverpool midfielders into deeper positions allowed Liverpool to play the ball into the midfield zone, and from there they dominated possession. Here, Kagawa’s lack of defending (in the opening stages) meant Allen was able to get the ball easily. This wasn’t poor play from Kagawa – it was just the nature of United’s approach, relinquishing control of the midfield zone in favour of forward passing options.

3 v 2 becomes 4 v2

Ferguson, then, was content with 2 v 3 in the midfield zone. What United couldn’t deal with was 2 v 4, which is what happened when Luis Suarez dropped into that zone. This was essentially the problem for Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick in the 2011 Champions League final – it wasn’t the simple numerical superiority of the opposition holding midfielder playing higher up the pitch than United’s number ten (that day it was Wayne Rooney), but the opposition false nine furthering the problem.

Liverpool created a fine chance when Suarez dropped into that position, then played the ball to Fabio Borini cutting in from the left – the move came to an end because of Borini’s poor first touch, but that was a great example of how Liverpool were playing. Suarez was able to drop deep and pick the ball up in space, and his centre-forward position was then taken up by one of the wide players. Borini was brought in to play the Pedro role, and that move is exactly what Messi and Pedro have been doing for the past couple of seasons.

United struggle

United’s approach was about getting the ball to Kagawa in space, but they failed to involve him in their attacking play in the first half. There were two main problems here – first, Allen remained in a disciplined role and often cut off passes towards him (and on a couple of occasions, stopped him through fouls). Second, Liverpool’s pressing meant United’s first ball out of defence was wayward, and therefore their transitions were poor.

A combination of the problems ((a) Liverpool’s dominance of the ball, which Ferguson would have expected, but not to that extent and (b) Kagawa’s lack of touches) meant Kagawa eventually dropped goalside of Allen more frequently, it was roughly 3 v 3, and the game was more balanced when Shelvey was dismissed.

10 v 11

Both managers made a half-time change. Ferguson replaced Nani with Paul Scholes, pushing Ryan Giggs wide,, and increasing United’s capacity for keeping the ball. For Liverpool,¬†Borini was injured, so was replaced by Suso. Rodgers did the natural thing with ten men, dropping Suso and Raheem Sterling deeper, and moving to a 4-4-1 system.

The first 10-15 minutes of the second half was rather dull tactically: Liverpool were more cagey with ten men, United just wanted to get into the game. Strangely, the first two goals came in this period, when the two sides were standing off.

United take charge

As the second half continued, Manchester United asserted their dominance on the game because of the extra man (and the extra passing quality thanks to Scholes). In the first twenty minutes of the second half, United significantly outpassed Liverpool.

Many coaches may have been content with a decent shape and little of the ball, but Rodgers is highly focused upon ball retention. That was probably why he opted for a slightly surprising switch – Sterling had been troubling Evra, but was removed to make way for Jordan Henderson.

The sides from 66 minutes until the winning goal

Now, Liverpool opted for a completely different formation. It was more like 4-3-1-1 – Allen holding, Gerrard and Henderson shuttling, Suarez upfront, and Suso playing the link role, while picking up one of the United holding midfielders when United had the ball.

Liverpool now had extra bodies in the centre of the pitch, trying to compete in terms of possession. They also pressed more, with two energetic forwards in the centre and Henderson’s extra mobility.

The switch probably didn’t have a key effect upon the scoreline, but it did change the overall feel of the game – the tempo was higher, and both pairs of full-backs were encouraged to get forward: Evra and Rafael had no direct opponents, while Johnson and Martin Kelly had to provide width.

In the end, it was simply poor defending which allowed United in for their winner – Liverpool conceded possession cheaply with their defence high up the pitch, a continual theme in their matches so far this season.


At 11 versus 11, Liverpool were the better side. United were seeing little of the ball, which was broadly expected, but they also struggled to move forward quickly on the counter, which was more of a significant problem. Liverpool didn’t go ahead during their period of dominance, which is another frustrating pattern under Rodgers, but the signs were there – particularly with that Suarez-Borini move – that the players were on the same wavelength.

The Shelvey dismissal was unquestionably vital. Ferguson actually only made one change between that incident and the winning goal, introducing Scholes to give United more control in the middle. It’s difficult to tell how much impact the change had, coming only five minutes after the red card, but as against Southampton, United passed far better once Scholes was involved.

It’s too simplistic to say that Liverpool lost, so Rodgers’ change in formation failed – but more players were free, the game was more open, and that probably favoured the side with extra players.

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