Manchester United vs Liverpool: Tactical Analysis

Two sides that made a number of big money signings during the summer and both of which are looking to finish in the top four. Manchester United bought spent a lot on Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, and Anthony Martial, while also bringing in Darmian and Schweinsteiger. Liverpool, too, spent big to bring in Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino, but with all the money spent between the two sides, they have already faced question marks over their season.

Louis van Gaal set his side out in a 4-2-3-1 with Marouane Fellaini starting as the lone striker with Wayne Rooney out due to a hamstring injury. David De Gea was also restored to the side after sitting out the first matches of the season as a move to Real Madrid looked certain to happen, but failed to be completed before the transfer deadline.

Brendan Rodgers was without Coutinho, arguably the brightest part of Liverpool’s young season, because of suspension while Jordan Henderson was also unavailable through injury. In Coutinho’s absence, Rodgers started Danny Ings, leading many to believe the Liverpool boss was going to set his side out in a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. Instead, Liverpool looked very much like a 4-1-4-1.

Uninspired First Half

The fixtures between Manchester United and Liverpool have been some of the most exciting of the year in seasons past, regardless of where either side has finished at the end of the season. This match, however, was quite tame and uninspiring, especially in the first half. During the opening 45 minutes of play, Manchester United dominated possession of the ball, while Liverpool sat off in a 4-1-4-1, mid-to-low block. Defensively, Liverpool looked solid in their shape and were relatively disciplined. Emre Can would break out of the midfield four to apply pressure to Carrick or Schweinsteiger when they went deep to receive the ball, but overall, the away side maintained their block. It was a setup that Louis Van Gaal should have expected from Rodgers, based on how the Northern Irishman had Liverpool play against Arsenal away from home. Below is a good example of Liverpool in a 4-1-4-1, midblock, with the midfield four narrow enough to cut off the passing lanes to the likes of Fellaini and Herrera, while balls into Mata and Depay remained risky.


As the ball got to the likes of Schweinsteiger and Carrick, which was easy enough, it pushed Liverpool back and the Manchester United duo were allowed more time on the ball. Much of the the home side’s play came down the left during the first half through Luke Shaw, who was always an outlet thanks to Liverpool’s narrow midfield. The left back linked up well with Depay, Young, and Fellaini throughout. Another important aspect to Manchester United’s build up play into the final third was Ander Herrera’s movement. The Spaniard’s movement was fairly good between the lines, evading Lucas, and at the very least he was able to create a 2v1 for Depay on the left, allowing Shaw to find the Dutchman. Below is a good example of Schweinsteiger and Carrick in deep positions. Herrera’s common movement is shown, but what this screen capture really shows is how comfortable Liverpool were able to defend during a stagnant first half.


Once Manchester United got the ball into the attacking third, however, their play was far too slow and Liverpool were able to keep their shape. Fellaini was never an option in behind the back four, nor were Depay, Herrera, or Mata. In fact, all four had to check back into the midfield area to get on the ball. With no one stretching Liverpool’s back line, it made Manchester United easy to defend, with most of their play being in front of Liverpool’s two defensive banks. Efficiency aside (and I know you only need one chance to win a match), Manchester United recorded just three shots on goal despite having much more of the ball.


Liverpool Lack Outlet

Defensively, Liverpool were relatively sound. Manchester United’s opening goal was a well worked free kick (though Liverpool were defending a bit too deep which allowed Blind to get an open shot). The home side’s second goal was via a penalty and the third was good individual skill. The huge issue with Liverpool, however, has been what they do when they have the ball. After the match, Rodgers criticised his players for looking to Benteke with direct, aerial balls and stated that it was hard for the Belgian as he had no support, but Rodgers set his side up this way. Liverpool defended deep, left Benteke isolated, and then tried to play it to him. There was no real outlet in the side other than Benteke. Firmino and Ings were played out wide, but neither had the pace to trouble Manchester United with such deep starting positions.


Perhaps most interesting about Rodgers’ decisions on the day was how he used his personnel. Liverpool have found success when playing with a midfield diamond and had the right personnel to do it with against Manchester United. The biggest sell for Rodgers to play a midfield diamond should have been Manchester United’s last match when Garry Monk switched his Swansea side from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, overcoming a 1-0 deficit, winning 2-1. This would have solved a host of issues for Liverpool; Benteke would have not been as isolated, so those direct balls into him would resulted in Liverpool keeping possession more often with the likes of Ings and Firmino playing off of him. Blind, Carrick, and Schweinsteiger would not have had as much time on the ball as the two midfields would have been matched up in terms of shape, with Liverpool having an extra man. Ings and Firmino would have been able to play in their preferred positions, striker and a number 10, respectively, rather than on either wing, where neither really excelled.

Theoretically, the arguments against the diamond are that Manchester United would have been able to enjoy more space in the wide areas. However, Shaw already saw huge amounts of the ball as Liverpool’s flat midfield was narrow enough to allow him to be a constant outlet and while he was available, he wasn’t necessarily effective or dangerous when he had the ball. Credit given to Firmino for his tracking back and tackling as well in regards to keeping Shaw from having an influence as the Brazilian won eight of his nine tackles. However, even if Shaw and Darmian had all the space to move up the field, it would have allowed Liverpool to exploit the spaces they left, just as Swansea did when they turned around their 1-0 deficit.


Ashley Young was introduced at halftime, with Louis van Gaal bringing him on for Memphis. The English winger put more pressure on Clyne than Memphis had and Young’s directness won Manchester United the free kick that led to the opening goal. Of the Manchester United wide players, Young was the only one that put the Liverpool full backs under much pressure. The biggest impact on the match was Martial, who was able to skip by Skrtel before scoring on his debut.

Rodgers eventually brought on natural width with Jordon Ibe and the young winger did relatively well. He was positive with his dribbling, had a good shot saved by De Gea, and crossed the ball in that led to Benteke’s overhead kick. It was surprising that Rodgers did not look to bring on Ibe earlier in the match considering Liverpool were lacking any creativity or spark going forward, not to mention the lack of width in the side, which Ibe was able to supply.


Louis van Gaal will feel some vindication for the criticisms he has been receiving lately. Manchester United were still slow in possession and did not really create many chances, but a win over Liverpool usually silences critics. The Dutchman said after the match how ‘fantastic’ Liverpool are as a club, because he beats them every time.

While things are cheery in Manchester, Rodgers is once again under extreme and deserved pressure. His tactics so far this season have been incredibly questionable and the performances have been lacked imagination and style. Apart from Liverpool’s first half against Arsenal, the Merseyside club have struggled. This performance further indicates issues in Rodgers’ selection process and tactical approach to games, big or small.

Peter Motzenbecker

Peter Motzenbecker

Liverpool FC supporter. Michels, Cruyff, Guardiola admirer. Coach at secondary school & university. Sunday league player. I write match analyses.
Peter Motzenbecker

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