Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool: United press

January 14, 2013

The starting line-ups

Manchester United dominated the first hour, then hung on in the final stages.

Sir Alex Ferguson named Danny Welbeck in his starting XI, with the out-of-form Antonio Valencia on the bench. Jonny Evans was out injured, so Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic played at the back.

Brendan Rodgers kept Daniel Sturridge on the bench, preferring Stewart Downing and Raheem Sterling.

Liverpool fought back in the second half, but took too long to get going, and United dominated the majority of the game.

United shape

The use of Shinji Kagawa, Welbeck and Ashley Young in the same team offered Ferguson many possibilities – in theory, any of the three could be used on the right, the left or in the centre behind Robin van Persie. The most natural combination would probably have been to put Welbeck right, in place of Valencia, keep Young in his usual left-sided role, and play Kagawa in the position he thrived in at Dortmund, as a number ten.

But Ferguson instead played Young on the right, Kagawa left and Welbeck upfront. It was a surprising but reasonably effective move – Welbeck provided great pace upfront and was crucial in United’s pressing, the main feature of the first half, while Kagawa drifted inside from the left to become another passing option in central midfield. Young was quieter, partly because of injury.

Liverpool pressing?

But the main feature of the game was the difference in pressing. In general, Liverpool didn’t attempt to close down the Manchester United centre-backs, despite Luis Suarez being the Premier League’s best striker at leading the pressing from the front. Maybe Rodgers felt that, with three midfielders in deep positions (rather than Suarez being supported by an advanced midfielder – Jonjo Shelvey’s played that role recently) it would be pointless for Suarez to press two centre-backs on his own.

Instead, Liverpool’s midfield lurked deeper and tried to press the first pass from the centre-backs into forward positions. The wingers occupied the full-backs, and in the first ten minutes it was obvious that Joe Allen had been instructed to close down Michael Carrick whenever the United midfielder received the ball. This was a decent plan – Carrick often struggles against close physical attention – but was flawed. First, Allen wasn’t the ideal option to play this role – Shelvey and Jordan Henderson are both more energetic players and superior at making life difficult for opponents. Second, Allen’s main defensive role was to drop deep and stay close to Lucas Leiva – which meant that he had to advance 10 or 15 yards up the pitch to close down Carrick, giving him time to play an easy pass. Steven Gerrard, meanwhile, simply didn’t press Tom Cleverley effectively.

When Liverpool troubled Carrick with the use of Suarez in a deep role after half-time, his passing was much less noticeable

United pressing

In stark contrast, United pressed very well. It was interesting that Ferguson was so determined to stop Liverpool playing out from the back – in other ‘big’ games this season, he’s favoured a counter-attacking approach, happy to let the opposition dominate the ball before breaking quickly down the flanks, particularly against Chelsea and Manchester City. This match was different, being at Old Trafford, and Ferguson had triumphed over Rodgers’ Swansea last season at the Liberty Stadium through pressing, forcing a mistake from Angel Rangel, which resulted in the game’s only goal.

Here, van Persie generally occupied Daniel Agger, while Danny Welbeck stayed on Lucas and the midfield backed up the forwards nicely. At least three times in the first half, Liverpool conceded possession in dangerous positions because of United pressure – Pepe Reina passed the ball straight to Young early on, while Gerrard was caught in possession by van Persie (redeeming himself with a last man tackle), and Allen presented the ball to Welbeck under pressure from Carrick, a more effective piece of pressing than anything Allen had done on Carrick.

Working the ball forward

The difference in pressing was inevitably a huge factor in the sides’ respective abilities to work the ball forward. Liverpool didn’t help themselves – Downing and Sterling played very narrow, maybe to offer clear forward passing options, but they made Liverpool’s play congested and United’s task easier when closing down. In fact, there was a lack of genuine width throughout the game, even when Valencia was introduced, although there was good attacking play from all four full-backs – Glen Johnson and Andre Wisdom got into promising positions, Patrice Evra assisted van Persie’s opener, and Rafael nearly assisted a second for van Persie, after a great ball from Carrick just before half-time.

Suarez’s lack of service in the first half was amazing. He started to drop deep away from the centre-backs, with Rio Ferdinand following him out when Suarez was in his zone, but Nemanja Vidic standing off, more concerned about pace in behind him. At the other end, van Persie was very clever with his movement towards the ball, and Lucas’ attempts to prevent passes being played into him were largely unsuccessful, and opened up space for others to exploit between the lines.

Liverpool change shape

Sturridge was introduced for Lucas, allowing Suarez to drop deeper

Rodgers decided to introduce Sturridge for the second half, bravely removing Lucas, leaving Gerrard and Allen in front of the back four. Although Sturridge went to a centre-forward role, Liverpool’s shape was more 4-2-3-1 than 4-4-2 – the wingers stayed high up the pitch (Borini replaced Sterling), while Suarez was clearly in a deep position, linking play as a number ten.

The game was now completely different. With both sides playing two central attackers and the midfield zone less congested, both were playing more directly. Suarez was essentially playing in the midfield zone, meaning Carrick and Cleverley had to sit deeper and make United compact, so pressed Gerrard and Allen less. They got time on the ball, and Gerrard suddenly became a key player, having been invisible in the first half.

United had chances, often by hitting the ball forward to Welbeck directly (Skrtel hauled him down when caught on the wrong side, which conceded the free-kick for United’s second) but Liverpool improved dramatically after the change in formation. It wasn’t just Sturridge’s threat in behind, it was Suarez’s freedom – and it was surprising Ferguson took so long to address this problem.

It was the 77th minute when Phi Jones was introduced to play as a defensive midfielder, with Kagawa sacrificed and Welbeck going left. It shouldn’t have taken so long – Liverpool had been allowed back into the game, and now they had an extra attacker, United basically needed another defensive-minded player in response.


Both sides had spells of dominance. United dominated in the first half by pressing Liverpool high up the pitch, forcing mistakes, while Liverpool excelled in the second half after introducing Sturridge. The difference in their number of attempts sums up the contrast before and after half-time.

Ferguson’s starting strategy worked wonders but his delayed reaction to Liverpool’s second half threat was odd, while Rodgers was the opposite. His initial tactics were unsuccessful, then he adapted cleverly – although the inevitable question is whether he was simply correcting how own initial mistakes. Still, having changed formation nicely against both Everton and Chelsea previously, and showing bravery to make a tactical substitution in the first half to change shape in the home win over Wigan, it’s clear Rodgers has the ability to influence games from the bench.

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