Friday, 10 February 2012

A preview of Manchester United/Liverpool matched with a tactical look back

With, historically, the two most successful English clubs facing each other at the weekend, tactics is not the highest thing currently on the agenda. After the controversial incident in the earlier league game at Anfield and the subsequent frenzy that is hopefully on its last legs now, team strategies haven't been talked about too much ahead of the game. However with both Manchester United and Liverpool concentrating on big targets for the end of the season and the added rivalry of the clubs, this match is very important for both sides.

What formations both teams will start with is yet unclear. With Luis Suarez back from his suspension and only Lucas missing for Kenny Dalglish's side, they may start with a 4-4-2 with both Suarez and Carroll up front though a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 is very possible, with Dalglish using a variety of formations in his current tenure, especially with the loss of big players at various points this season (Gerrard, Suarez and currently Lucas). Man United have a slightly longer injury list with Vidic, Jones, Nani and Fletcher all currently out. Whether Ferguson will use five midfielders or go with a two man front line, he also has options.

Their extremely impressive comeback against Chelsea will have given them extra confidence to score goals however they struggled without the ball on a number of occasions with Chelsea's play between the lines and the movement of their front line to manipulate United's back four.

So are United open defensively? Well they have conceded 24 goals in 24 league games so far this season, though many top teams are conceding more goals than usual so far in 2011/12, notably in a number of 'big' games.

However one recent example of a team hurting them defensively comes from the club that will face them on Saturday.


Almost three years ago, Liverpool were at a big stage in their progression under Rafa Benitez. With one of the best, if not the best starting eleven in the Premier League at that time, albeit a squad that lacked depth compared to Ferguson's great selection of players, Liverpool were excelling with an organised and tactically sound 4-2-3-1 system with probably the best balanced midfield in Europe, with Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso in the holding positions and Steven Gerrard playing just off Fernando Torres. Early form had seen them top the league but results in late winter had seen United overtake them in the league and despite thrashing Real Madrid 5-0 over two legs in the Champions League, a loss away to United would probably have seen the end of any title race.

Liverpool were without Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa, injured in the warm up, so the away side were without two first choice players. Man United's attack consisted of Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney down the centre with Cristiano Ronaldo on the right.

United controlled possession in the early stages, with Liverpool pushed back in their own half. However Liverpool started to get into the game with the whole team working hard to get organised defensively:

"We knew they are really good at playing between the lines with penetrating passes so we needed to stop those passes and put their midfielders under pressure every time they received the ball.... when you stop the penetrating passes (in the middle), more or less you can control them" Rafa Benitez

With Lucas and Mascherano deep, making space compact between the lines and making sure that United's midfield, with the assistance of Torres and Gerrard, were being pressed so as not to make Liverpool vulnerable to be penetrated down the centre, United found it hard to create. The home side's wide men were also finding space tight with Liverpool's full backs and wide players moving back, as well as one holding midfielder always coming across to block any movement inside.

Liverpool were also clever in possession, creating width, having players coming short to receive between the lines and moving the ball quickly on the counter attack:

"We knew their defence had weaknesses. They are strong in defence but that's because they have plenty of possession elsewhere. They have a lot of quality in attack but that is the main thing that they have. When they don't have the ball and you move the ball quickly and play behind their defenders you know you can beat them." Rafa Benitez

Eleven minutes in, Liverpool created an opening that was sign of things to come. Liverpool had a period of possession in deep positions, with United's pressing lacking aggression and Mascherano and Lucas finding it easy to get on the ball. After switching the play a couple of times, Liverpool moved the ball to Fabio Aurelio on the left hand side who had pushed up from his left back position. With United lacking intensity in their pressing, Aurelio had got in behind Ronaldo and was facing right back John O'Shea. Albert Riera had moved inside from the left to attract the tracking of Rio Ferdinand, while Torres and Kuyt were being controlled by Vidic and Evra. Gerrard however had been left alone, behind Michael Carrick who had come across to stop the passing 'lane' inside instead of tracking Gerrard but ended up doing neither:

Aurelio on the ball, Riera moving Ferdinand out, Torres and Kuyt against Vidic and Evra, with Gerrard free to make a run into space

With Riera moving from inside to out to take Ferdinand away and Torres and Kuyt remaining stationary against Vidic and Evra, Gerrard was left space to move powerfully into. Aurelio was allowed to make penetrating pass through and Gerrard took the ball as Vidic came across.

The Serb just managed to get in the way of the ball and United scraped it away but it was an early warning of what was to come. It was particularly interesting that Gerrard's second touch on the ball was to change direction from left to right, testing out Vidic's mobility and agility which had clearly been a plan beforehand.

It was United who took the lead after they cleverly used their split centre backs to attract the attention of Kuyt and Riera, allowing Evra to drift into space, and with not enough ball pressure, the French left back played a vertical pass down the inside left channel where Park ran behind and was fouled by Reina. Ronaldo converted the penalty but Liverpool weren't behind for long. Skrtel under pressure played a long ball forward behind Vidic who allowed the ball to bounce and Torres took advantage by stealing the ball and providing a good finish to Van Der Sar's right hand post.

Liverpool were dominating between the lines in attack with Anderson and Carrick failing to apply good pressure on the ball, Torres was allowed to turn and nutmeg Vidic a couple of minutes later.

Just before half time, Reina knocked it forward. Lucas and Mascherano were deep and, as they did on many occasions in the game, ended up being tracked by Anderson and Carrick, leaving space between the lines for Gerrard who was playing very high up. On this occasion, Gerrard had found space and was unchallenged in the air. He knocked it down for Torres who was allowed to turn and run at the United defence.

Mascherano/Carrick, Lucas/Anderson. Gerrard, free between the lines with Kuyt and Torres, high up between defenders.

Liverpool again moved the ball very quickly to get behind United. Kuyt ran across inside moving Vidic with him and creating space for Torres to pass behind Evra for the overlapping run from Gerrard.

The captain won the penalty and with composure stood up and converted it.

In the second half, United were having the same problems, with Liverpool very well organised with good intensity in pressing though struggling to keep hold of the ball. They still created a couple of good situations by moving the ball forward quickly and Gerrard and Torres manipulating space behind Vidic and Ferdinand with quick movement.

Rooney got a good chance from a purposeful cross from Ronaldo while Tevez also had a chance behind the defence. However, minutes after a triple substitution from United, Lucas switched the play from left to right towards Kuyt who brought Evra out of position and knocked it behind for Gerrard, who took hold of the ball after Vidic miscontrolled it. The centre back pulled Gerrard and was then sent off. Aurelio converted a great free kick and with United playing with virtually four forwards now after their substitutions, Liverpool dominated the midfield area when they won the ball and late on Dossena lobbed Van Der Sar after a long goal kick from Reina.


Tomorrow's game is unlikely to throw up a similar scenario to the 4-1 scoreline back then. Liverpool don't have a player like Torres who makes the movements he made in that game nor do they have the intensity in midfield, with Adam and Henderson without the defensive qualities of Lucas and Mascherano. However United's midfield and defence is still relatively similar to back then and similar problems have been shown this season. Their pace in attack is still a big asset and United have done excellently to be in the position they are currently in in the league despite injuries. However they can still be open in their defence and midfield and that is something Liverpool will look to exploit. Whether they do so is another matter and with both games played between the sides this season ending fairly close it will be an interesting battle.

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