Liverpool delivered another crushing blow to the wilting reputation of their fierce north-west rivals, making an emphatic statement of intent along the way in an incredibly closely run title race. A tactical contest comfortably won by Brendan Rodgers saw his side awarded three penalties, in a game which could have seen five or six in total.
David Moyes went with a 4-2-3-1 and arguably his strongest line-up, a dangerous front four of Mata, Januzaj, Rooney and Van Persie on paper looked powerful, interchangeable and creative. Despite Mata starting on the right, he and Adnan Januzaj did a lot of switching flanks, and Januzaj’s average position was eventually far more right sided than the very central Mata.
Gary Neville picked up very early in his commentary that United had a problem to solve with Liverpool’s diamond, and it lay in the shaded circle areas just to the left and right of Carrick and Fellaini. These are the areas where Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson repeatedly went to get the ball ’round the back’ of the United midfield.
Mata was usually central providing poor defensive coverage in these zones, while Januzaj even if in a wide area, would be occupied by a full-back and not in good position to affect that zone. As a result Liverpool were able to slice through these gaps into the front runners in Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge.
Following on from the diamond two weeks ago at Southampton to compact the midfield in favour of control, Rodgers went for it again at Old Trafford. He made one change from the side at St Mary’s by starting with Raheem Sterling at the top of the diamond instead of Philippe Coutinho.
Here were Rodgers reasons for using the diamond again, and swapping Sterling for Coutinho:
“I wanted to play and have superiority on the inside. I like to flood numbers around the middle of the field in order to control and dominate the game.
In this game, because of the pitch and the nature of Manchester United, being at home they have to attack, it would allow us to get round the back of their midfield. For a young player of 19 years of age, he (Sterling) is developing really well tactically.”
To focus on this factor of control and ‘compactness’ without the ball, I have tried to highlight five key areas where Liverpool pressed effectively. The way the system is set up, you can see that at any given time they can squeeze the ball from four different angles in these areas. United didn’t help themselves by not being brave enough with their movement, but Liverpool were very cohesive defensively.
Heres a quick example from the game:
You can see that Sterling has done a good job of getting back and covering the central zone where Fellaini is hoping to get space in, Henderson has covered round behind to protect Johnson, who can stay tight to Januzaj out wide. In the seconds that follow this picture, Liverpool win the ball back and counter at lightning speed, with Sterling bursting past Vidic in the penalty box 8 seconds later. Tactically, this is where Liverpool won the battle. They controlled the midfield 4 v 2 (3 if you count Mata’s central presence), and restricted United to speculative efforts, crosses, long balls and slow build up. Again, Rodgers referred to them as ‘animals without the ball’ which sums up their hunger and desire, but more important was the method and collective understanding within their pressing.
Despite some narrow margins in the statistics, this was a relatively comfortable victory for Liverpool. They shaded possession with 51.5%, a result of being submissive in harmless areas, then inviting into better areas to press. Passing accuracy wasn’t bad for United at 83%, in fact, not many of their statistics are terrible. They nearly matched Liverpool for passes (343/378) and had more shots inside the box (11/7), however this was an occasion where statistics could be misleading, and I’ll attempt to explain why.
In actuality, the potency of each of Liverpool’s attacks was evidence of a genuine threat. They moved at pace, dislodging the back line with unselfish runs and unpredictable, unrelenting movements – when one run didn’t come off, another came from nowhere. The passes were urgent, decisive and brave, purposeful with the intent of making something happen. The dribbles were terrifying for the defenders to deal with, they were direct and awkward, and they weren’t just 1 v 1’s, there were extra runners coming off to the sides – incredibly tough to deal with.
The perfect example of this was the Vidic sending off – clearly no contact, however any pro or ex-pro should be able to admit that the way he attempted win the ball was a mistake, and nothing short of desperation. Yes, he was livid with Daniel Sturridge for collapsing the leg in anticipation, however I would imagine he is equally as angry with himself for going to ground and providing him an opportunity to go down.
Contrast what Liverpool did with their numbers to Manchester United, and their similar possession and pass count/accuracy reflected something completely different. The speed and tempo of play to begin with was very slow, a couple of flashes of movement and quick passing were there, but nowhere near consistently enough. The movement (or lack of it) was polar opposite to Liverpool, with a complete lack of unselfishness off the ball. Particularly concerning the front four, the movement was always to exploit space, but never to create it.
The result was often parallel runs, identical runs, sometimes even no run at all. As mentioned earlier, this front four which looks interchangeable on paper, has been stripped of its fluidity by David Moyes. I have no right to suggest what United are up to in training, but the lack of well-rehearsed combination play through the middle, or even linking to the wide areas, was scary for a group of clearly top class attacking players.
So despite Liverpool playing this way for the last 13 months, the secret is finally out – Brendan Rodgers is building a very, very dangerous side, who regardless of this season will be set to challenge for the title in the coming years. Rumours of a new three year contract and £60m to spend from the owners would be a nice end of season present for him, and he has admitted things have progressed a lot quicker than expected since he signed.
Next weekend the Reds will look to take either a step closer to Chelsea, or a step ahead of Arsenal, as they take on a difficult away fixture at Cardiff while their title rivals go head-to-head. Exciting times as any of the top four will feel they can win it at this moment. For Liverpool, staying in the race until April will be crucial, at which point they can finally decide their fate when they welcome Chelsea and Man City to Anfield.
At Manchester United, things are going from bad to worse for David Moyes, and it is probably fair to say that even his strongest supporters will be beginning to waver. He has appeared submissive and resigned to the idea of a 6th or 7th placed finish, many of the players coming across as despondent (Wayne Rooney however denied this was the case in the week, claiming the players are still hungry, happy and motivated in training).
A salvage job for Moyes and his job, perhaps Kop hero status on the horizon for Rodgers.