A game of transitions (and set-pieces). Despite Liverpool’s press, United were creators of their own downfall.

United players after Firmino puts Liverpool 3–1 up. Maguire in the stands injured.

English football’s biggest rivalry took stage at Old Trafford last Thursday night. A game where both sets of fans deem as a must win, no matter what the occasion is. I am not a or a so I don’t feel the same “football hatred” those fans feel towards each other but I definitely don’t like losing to Liverpool. Unfortunately, this is what happened last Thursday.

Both teams had different motives coming into this game. For Liverpool, they must get into the Top 4 and Man United stand the biggest obstacle. For Man United, nothing really was at stake except for putting the final nail into the coffin for Liverpool’s Top 4 hopes.

There’s a caveat for United, It was United’s 4th game in 8 days from Thursday to Thursday. Liverpool has only played one game between April 25th until May 13th, which was vs Southampton on May 8th. Manchester United were going into this game at a huge disadvantage despite resting 10 of their first XI vs. Leicester 48 hours earlier.

There’s an entire science behind the routines that players follow in the 72–96 hours between games and why it is paramount for their physical and mental fitness but that’s a topic for another day.

We are here to talk tactics and what happened in that game. Let’s see what tactics Solskjær and Klopp deployed.

In possession, United looked to play out in their most common buildup shape, 2413. The 2 CBs spread wide of GK, the 2 FBs pushed up and the 2 wide midfielders/wingers pushed up. As usual, United looked to play out from the back vs. 433 Liverpool.

Figure 1: Man United buildup vs Liverpool 433 press.
Figure 2: 3D of the buildup for better visualization.

Initially, Liverpool pressed with their front 2 coming narrow and closing down United’ CBs. Additionally, Liverpool’s midfield also pushed up to support the press. Firmino remained withdrawn a little between United’s double pivots to deter United from trying to buildup centrally. This lead to Liverpool’s first 2 lines being 2 narrow. The midfield was a narrow 3 and the front 3 were narrow. This, in turn, opened the flanks for United to progress the ball from their 1st phase to the 2nd phase.

As United progressed through the flanks, Salah and Jota got caught out constantly and they were slow to track back. This helped United to create a 2v1 vs Liverpool’s FBs.

Figure 3: United created an overload on the flanks as Liverpool’s press fails.
Figure 4: 3D of United’s overloads.

When Shaw progressed with the ball upfield, Pogba would tuck in and drag TAA with him and if TAA tracked Shaw instead Pogba had space to receive and turn. Same thing on the right flank, Rashford would tuck in and make Liverpool’s last line narrow for AWB to progress thus giving Robertson a choice to make on which one of them to mark.

The slow tracking back from Liverpool’s front line helped United on the transition a lot in the first 30 minutes but they failed to capitalize on couple of their chances.

Another way United tried to gain advantage from the transitions is overloads on one side and a quick switch. A method used by Liverpool themselves.

Figure 5: Overload and Switch from United
Figure 6: 3D — Overload and Switch from United.

The switch was particularly effective from left to right as all United players that are quite good at passing are on their left side (i.e. Pogba, Shaw, Lindelöf). Rashford moved narrow and dragged Robertson infield and Fred attempted the switch — yes, Fred attempted a couple of successful switches. It was mainly Pogba or Lindelöf though.

Once the switch happens, Rashford and AWB combine in the 2v1 they formed vs Robertson. We see this tactic in United’s opening goal. 1–2 between Rashford and AWB after a switch from Pogba then a cut back to Bruno who finished it with a goal.

As mentioned before, United were good and causing Liverpool “some” problems up until ~25 minutes. Then the game started to become a back on forth on the transition, however, Liverpool were more accurate with their passing. Right before the equalizing goal for Liverpool the xG for both teams were 0.40 (H) to 0.43 (A), even the possession was about 44% to 66%. It was an even game.

The ghosts from Christmas past came back to haunt United again — set-pieces. United conceded two goals from set-pieces within 12 minutes before the 1st half ended. Between the 1st goal and 2nd goal, United were on the back foot but didn’t completely lose the plot. It was what happened after.

2nd half started, and Liverpool changed their pressing scheme. Immediately, Fred was targeted and he gave away the ball when United were building up — not that United were excellent at building up before but Liverpool’s change made it worse. Let’s see.

Figure 7: Liverpool changed their pressing scheme. from 433->4231
Figure 8: 3D — Liverpool changed their pressing scheme. from 433->4231

Liverpool changed their press shape slightly after half time, and the aim was to cut off Shaw or lure United into playing to Fred, then use him as press trigger. Salah and Jota still came narrow on the CBs but this time trying to deny passing lanes to the FBs with their cover shadow and also not committing too much to the CBs. Firmino instead of staying between the double pivots marked one of them (Scott usually). Additionally, Liverpool abandoned the narrow midfield 3 by pushing one of the midfielders up — initially Alcantara then Wijnaldum. The midfielder that pushed up was tasked with pressing Fred if he received it or Shaw if a chipped ball was delivered to him. This changed their shape from a 4–3–3 out of possession to 4–2–3–1 (sort of) out of possession.

Alternatively, Liverpool pressed using TAA pushing up while the backline shift to cover. The aim was to leave the initial pass to Shaw open and using TAA to close him down quickly. If Shaw is closed down by TAA and Alcantara is closing Fred, then Shaw can’t progress the ball and has to go backwards where Salah will be coving Lindelöf.

Figure 9: Fred a press trigger and Shaw is closed down.
Figure 10: 3D — Fred a press trigger and Shaw is closed down.

This change cut off all the high territorial passes that United can make, specially to or form their main progressor — Shaw. Not only that but it led to many turnovers in very dangerous positions.

This tactic gave Liverpool their 3rd goal while the tactic was impressive United’s lack of progressive pivots and lack of quality footballers on the ball hit them hard.

After conceding the 3rd United completely fell apart defensively, and Liverpool created a further 2–3 great chances just from turnovers by United’s bad passing. The next ~17 minutes were probably United’s worst display since Spurs at Home earlier in the season. Henderson stopped playing it short after some time due to turnovers and started going long to Pogba. Henderson attempted 3x times more long balls in the 2nd half than the 1st half.

OGS made a change in the ~62 minute. Took off Fred for Greenwood. He adapted the shape and withdrew Paul Pogba to the pivot with Scott McTominay. This added a progressor to United’s pivot and a genuinely good passer to get out Liverpool’s press. Switching Mason and Rashford’s positions meant TAA was weary from getting too high and getting caught and Bruno started drifting to United’s left so Liverpool can’t close off Shaw with their press.

This reflected in the statistics between 62min till 89minute. The possession shifted from 65% to 45% to Liverpool -> 71% to 29% to United with 10 attempts to 2 for United with 2 clear cut chances which United got 1 goal back from. However, at the 89minute, United’s sloppiness in possession while pushing too high up cost them dearly with a break away goal from the half way line by Salah. The game ended 4–2.

Liverpool’s press was impressive and it highlighted all the weaknesses of United. The set-pieces, buildup and lack of progressors on the ball. The ‘McFred’ while impressive when United have 30% possession and only playing on the counter, they are definitely a weakness when United want to control the ball. It is not their fault, however, United don’t have many progressors other than Shaw, Pogba, and injured Maguire. Lindelöf is good as well but not at the level of the other 3 in progression. This is catastrophic for a “top” club. Every club has multiple progressors and a number 6 who is also quality on the ball. United neither have a number 6 nor multiple progressors — specifically through the middle.

Additionally, United need to fix their set-piece issues as they are becoming a real pain and costing them games.

Yes, United have been dealt a bad hand in the scheduling and the performances and losing their head going 3–1 down might have played into it but what cost United are still recurring issues that are happening over and over due to lack of quality or lack of certain player archetypes.

If United don’t act like a serious club and strengthen their squad and fill their gaps in midfield and right wing, they will get left behind again. Top 4 will be the objective not a title challenge.

PS: I apologize for not adding pictures from the game itself and highlighted the shapes and tactics but I had some technical difficulties. I hope the visualizations/drawings give you the on-field picture though.

Image 2: Fernandes captain’s United in their defeat to Liverpool

I hope you liked my analysis and if you did, follow me on Twitter @AbdelBeheri

Just a guy interested in football.