Manchester United have finally won Liverpool in the league. The last win over Liverpool in an official game came in the FA Cup in 2021 and the last time in the league was in 2018. It has been awhile..
What changed from the Brentford game a week ago and yesterday’s game?
United finally played to their strengths and hid their weaknesses. We have highlighted many times the mismatches in profiles in United’s squad and we have also highlighted that the strengths of the forward line is in either running in behind or running directly in 1v1 or 2v2 situations.
ETH realized the necessity of hiding the lack of quality in deep midfield and the mismatch between the keeper and the CBs.
One, he canceled the idea of playing out from the back. David de Gea was instructed not to play out from the back at all. He went long 30 out of 31 times. He was successful only 7 out of 31 times.
Buildup was canceled so DDG won’t be pressured, panic and give the ball away or pass it to his teammates under pressure — still gave it away 24 times. Two, the CBs were changed to cover for his lack of coming out of his 6 yard box. How? Martinez and Varane is how. Since playing out from the back was not required, Varane’s weakness on the ball was not exploited — yes Varane is not that great on the ball — and Maguire’s ball playing ability was not required.
“We want mobility and agility in the back four.”
Obviously ETH won’t come out and say out right: “we are hiding our weaknesses.” but that was the aim. If ETH can play the football he actually wants, he‘ll need 2 ball playing CBs and the agility won’t be a big problem since his keeper will be a sweeper keeper — yeah that one sweep that DDG made only confirmed how fragile and uncomfortable he is at doing this.
Harry Maguire is not agile and he can be spun easy against fast runners and if there’s no one to cover behind him, whether from a CB partner or a sweeper keeper, he becomes a liability. As such, DDG and Harry Maguire can not play together and especially…especially if United want to play expansive football.
Unfortunately, ETH can’t change the goal keeper but the CB is a different story — also he has to be lucky to catch Varane and Bailly fit. An advantage for Varane over Bailly is Varane has had to fill in as the senior CB at both Real Madrid and France. He definitely communicated well with Martinez who is new to the league, the team and new to Varane as a partner.
Another thing to highlight about the CBs partnership and the GK, the agility and recovery pace of Varane and Martinez meant United can squeeze their press and the CBs can be aggressive despite the GK not being a sweeper keeper. Martinez and Varane were extremely aggressive and they disrupted Liverpool’s forwards on so many occasions when they were trying to progress from the middle third to the final third.
Liverpool tried to dink the ball over the last line many times, and this is where it was again obvious why these two were chosen. The keeper won’t come out, you need to be agile to turn and recover while your partner need to be fast at filling the spot you vacated.
As you can see in the picture above, this scenario happened multiple times. The goalkeeper won’t move from his line so Martinez has to track then guide away from the center and Varane and/or Eriksen have to the fill the gap — Varane is closer. This prevent Malacia ending up in 2v1 situation. This is what used to happen to United regularly:
In addition, Martinez — specifically — was instructed to skip the midfield at all if possible. He would distribute the ball the wide players (Malacia or Elanga), his CB partner, or go back to DDG so he can launch it instead of trying to break the line into midfield and risk the midfielders losing it.
A total of 5 passes were completed from our backline to our midfield pivot — even 1 of the 2 from Diogo were after a tackle, where McTominay stood next to him and Diogo passed while on the ground. It was obvious our backline was avoiding McTominay and Eriksen. The reason should be known after the Brentford game. Neither McTominay nor Eriksen are deep midfielders and against a high pressing team, the risk is too high.
Fun Fact: Martinez made zero passes to Eriksen and McTominay.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that ETH abandoned his style completely and elected to have a mid block that is very aggressive then fell into low block at times and relied on the pace of Rashford, Elanga and Sancho supplied by Fernandes, Eriksen and McTominay to counter attack Liverpool. Sounds familiar? Yes, It was the same template Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used in the big games, refer to image 1. The strength of this squad is on the transition and counter attacking. Solskjaer knew that and now ten Hag does. Until United adds more technical quality to the squad, the transition based football will be when United always look best.
This style of football suits the strengths of the forwards and the technical level of the midfield specially the duo McTominay and Fred. It suits McTominay — and Fred — as there are bigger spaces and easier passes to make from midfield. We have mentioned this before Fred and Scott struggle when United are the team with possession but when you are defending small spaces and all you need is to be aggressive and hit passes in large space, McTominay will look great.
As ETH strengthens his squad bit by bit the style will change but for now United will have to play to their strengths and hide their weaknesses. Though, ETH summed up the performance with one word for me:
“We can talk about all the tactical points of the game but It’s all about the attitude.”
Manchester United’s players fought and played as if it was their last ever match, and they fully deserved the win. The question now will be, can they be consistent with this attitude?