Manchester Utd 0-3 Liverpool: Rodgers plays a diamond midfield, Liverpool win easily

March 17, 2014

The starting line-ups

Liverpool were dominant throughout the match, and could have won by a few more goals.

Chris Smalling was a late withdrawal so Nemanja Vidic returned at the back, but otherwise David Moyes named his expected XI.

Brendan Rodgers replaced Coutinho with Raheem Sterling at the top of the diamond instead, and he switched his full-backs – Glen Johnson returned to the right, Jon Flanagan moved to the left.

Liverpool were in control of possession throughout the game, and gradually forced United mistakes.


Despite the positive result at Southampton with this shape, it was a slight surprise Rodgers continued with his diamond midfield, because the formation seemed to cause as many problems as it created opportunities at St Mary’s – the SAS benefited from it, but the defence looked more exposed. From the teamsheet, 4-3-3 seemed more likely.

But it was indeed the diamond, with Sterling at the top – having outshone Coutinho in that role when he replaced the Brazilian at St Mary’s. This decision shaped the game – with United playing two drifters coming inside from the flanks, it meant the contest was, on paper, extremely narrow.

Ordinarily, Rodgers using such an unusual system (at least in Premier League terms) should have caused both sides positional difficulties – while the diamond has a clear advantage, in that it dominates the centre of the pitch, every formation has  a weakness too. There are areas where United should have been testing Liverpool: the away full-backs had no protection from ahead, for example, while it’s easy for the holding midfielder, Steven Gerrard, to be overloaded in central positions at quick turnovers, when the shuttlers are high up the pitch.

None of these things were a problem for Liverpool, though, because Manchester United saw so little of the ball, and in particular because they carried no counter-attacking threat. This was partly because of Liverpool’s high pressure up the pitch, which prevented any good United passes out of defence.


Peculiarly, the pattern of the game (ie Liverpool dominance) didn’t actually suit the attacking players on either side.

United were using attackers who like possession football, and having lots of touches of the ball in advanced positions – Wayne Rooney isn’t the counter-attacker he was in his younger years, Robin van Persie has increasingly become a pure penalty box striker, and Juan Mata is a playmaker that doesn’t thrive on the counter-attack (ask Jose Mourinho). Adnan Januzaj is a different case, with his skillset more suited to breaking quickly. Nevertheless, from his short career so far, he still prefers receiving the ball in the final 25 yards of the pitch, rather than on the run in a deeper position.

It’s pretty obvious that most attacking players don’t want their side to be dominated, so United’s attackers’ problem isn’t particularly surprising. But stranger thing, however, is that the pattern of the game didn’t necessarily suit Liverpool’s attackers either. The key thing about Rodgers’ Liverpool this season, amongst various changes in shape, is the way they’ve become increasingly counter-attacking, taking advantage of the pace of their front trio.

The 5-1 thrashing of Arsenal was the best example – Liverpool were at their best, and almost all of their dangerous attacks started from deep inside their own half, before hitting Arsenal’s defence at speed. Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Sterling were unstoppable.

When dominating possession here, however, they created fewer clear-cut chances in open play – at least while United were playing with eleven men. They were on top, and clearly causing United problems, but their actual goalscoring chances were from penalties caused by their pressure forcing United mistakes, rather than because of repeated midfield penetration. Had United dominated possession, and Liverpool been allowed to break sporadically into space, it’s difficult to believe Vidic and Phil Jones would have coped with Sturridge and Suarez’s pace.

Allen and Henderson

Liverpool built up so much pressure because they took advantage of the space afforded to the shuttlers, Joe Allen and (in particular) Jordan Henderson on the sides of the diamond. United couldn’t get to grips with this, and there were probably multiple factors: (a) the fact Mata and Januzaj aren’t naturally defensive-minded players who protect their defence solidly, (b) the fact Sterling played an intelligent role, occupying United’s midfielders and preventing them from moving out towards the touchlines and (c) the fact United’s full-backs were reluctant to come up the pitch, for fear of exposing their centre-backs to the movement of Liverpool’s front two.

It would be interesting to know how much Moyes said to United about playing against a diamond, considering Liverpool had played this shape in their previous game. It’s an unusual task in English football. There’s a big difference between (a) the players carrying out positional instructions poorly and (b) the players simply being unaware of their positional tasks against such a shape.

Either way, the end result was the same – Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson constantly found space. They provided easy passes for their teammates, and constantly received possession in dangerous zones, increasingly turning up the pressure on United.

United mistakes

In terms of goalscoring opportunities, the key feature was United’s clumsiness in defence. Never before have they conceded three penalties in a game at Old Trafford, and there could have been more.

This was a result of constant pressure, but pressure that involved finding pockets of space and providing the front two with service into feet – rather than simply pressure by chucking crosses into the box. After the game, Rodgers talked about how many penalties his Swansea side won by putting pressure upon the defence with constant pressure through possession, and Liverpool have also experienced this throughout 2013/14 (albeit with a more reactive strategy).

The penalties essentially won the game. They put Liverpool 2-0 up, and while Gerrard failed to score the Premier League’s first-ever hattrick of spot-kicks, the third penalty incident resulted in Nemanja Vidic being sent off, which basically ended the contest.

Vidic, while excellent against Olympiakos in a United defeat, has been extremely poor in recent weeks, underperforming against Chelsea, Fulham, Arsenal and now Liverpool.

There were more Liverpool chances later on, especially as United threw more men into attack and left space at the back – and inevitably, after Vidic departed and Michael Carrick dropped back into defence. Liverpool could have won by more.

United attacks

None of this takes account of Manchester United’s attacks, but this was such a minimal part of the game, it’s almost not worth discussing. It’s difficult to say what United’s gameplan was – they were unable to dominate possession, but they were equally incapable of working the ball forward on the counter-attack, and therefore Liverpool had little to worry about.

Johnson and Flanagan stuck tight to Mata and Januzaj when they came inside in the early stages, and only once was Gerrard overloaded, when he was drawn to Rooney and Mata darted in behind him, winning a free-kick. Van Persie was barely involved.

Moyes waits

The most peculiar thing was Moyes’ lack of action to fix United’s issues. He swapped Mata and Januzaj at one point, but this was the smallest tactical change possible, and did little to solve the problems. United had so many issues here – their defensive shape was poor, they weren’t competing in the centre of midfield, they didn’t have anyone to carry the ball forward on the counter-attack, the front two were contributing enough, and their movement was poor.

There were options on the bench, but Moyes waited until the 76th minute to make two (roughly) like-for-like changes, Danny Welbeck for Januzaj on the left, Tom Cleverley for Marouane Fellaini in the middle. Vidic was dismissed a minute later, and it was game over.


Rodgers’ decision to use a diamond was the key tactical feature. It meant Liverpool dominated possession in the centre of the pitch and the shuttlers constantly found pockets of space, increasing the pressure upon the United defence – and this prompted a succession of clumsy challenges, allowing Liverpool to win the game from the spot. Suarez and Sturridge were quieter than usual, at least until the final 20 minutes, and this game shows Liverpool can win without those two providing a flash of brilliance.

This was a sorry Manchester United performance, where it was difficult to work out their gameplan: their possession play was poor, their counter-attacking was non-existent. It’s excusable to be outmanoeuvred by an in-form side playing a slightly surprise system, but failing to make changes doesn’t make sense.

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