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The Tactics Board- MUFC 2-1 Liverpool: Poor Performance, Good Outcome

After a tight 1-0 victory over Turkish club Galatasaray mid-week in the Champion’s League, Manchester United travelled to Anfield for one of the most looked forward to fixtures of the season in club football. While United were coming off an ugly 1-0 victory, Liverpool came into the game with only 2 points out of an available 12, so both teams were looking for points from a tense encounter.

The game was fairly open in the first 10 minutes, as neither team could take control. After the initial 10 minutes, however, the game settled down and Liverpool started to control possession with their 3v2 advantage in the central midfield. Liverpool was able to dominate possession and force United deep into their own zone, through their advantage in midfield and their high defensive line. Unfortunately, Liverpool couldn’t get on the score sheet before Jonjo Shelvey was given a red card late in the first half. The second half started with a goal by Steven Gerrard, but the lead lasted only 5 minutes until Rafael brought the visitors back. Down to 10 men, Liverpool was now the team struggling for possession after Paul Scholes was brought into the game to help United control the midfield. The Reds played well, and the game looked like it was going to end in a 1-1 draw until a controversial penalty decision in the 81st minute. Van Persie converted the penalty, and that ended up being the winning goal.

Manchester United vs. Liverpool

Anfield – September 23rd, 2012

Game Setup-

Manchester United (4-2-3-1)
The Red Devils came out in a similar formation, with similar personnel, that they used mid-week to record a 1-0 victory in the first Champion’s League game. Sir Alex Ferguson opted for a more attacking 4-2-3-1 than he has used in the past when visiting Anfield. Fergie normally selects a fairly defensive 4-5-1, but his squad selection this time definitely made a statement that he was prepared to go on the attack.

After David De Gea got the start mid-week against Galatasaray, Anders Lindegaard got the start at goalkeeper. Perhaps worrying about De Gea’s ability to deal with a large physical Liverpool squad during set pieces, the manager decided to play the Danish goalkeeper who has shown better presence against crosses and set pieces. There was one surprising change at center-back, with club captain Nemanja Vidic on the 18-man match roster and Jonny Evans starting in his place alongside Rio Ferdinand. Patrice Evra got the start at left-back, while Alexander Buttner started the game on the bench. Rafael Da Silva started his 5th consecutive game at right-back for the Red Devils.

In the 4-2-3-1, the 2 deep sitting central midfielders that Fergie decided to start was Michael Carrick alongside Ryan Giggs. Paul Scholes normally plays better in the deep midfield role, but after playing against Galatasaray he started the game on the bench. Shinji Kagawa started as the central attacking midfielder, with Nani starting on the left wing and Antonio Valencia started at right wing, after sitting on the bench for the game against Wigan. While there were rumors that Wayne Rooney might be fit for this game, these were proven to be false and Robin Van Persie got the start in his first Manchester United versus Liverpool game.

Sir Alex Ferguson decided to play a 4-2-3-1, setting the team up to attack Liverpool on the counter attack. Shinji Kagawa plays further up the pitch than a typical central attacking midfielder in this formation, working with Van Persie to press Liverpool’s backline on defense while remaining up the pitch to enable a quick counter-attack. Antonio Valencia and Nani are assigned to mark Liverpool’s fullbacks on defense, and try to get behind them into space on the attack. The central midfielders are expected to shield United’s backline, and on a turnover they need to play the ball forward quickly out wide.

Starting Formation

Liverpool (4-3-3)
Brendan Rodgers has struggled so far in his tenure with Liverpool. His team came out in a 4-3-3, with the strategy built on controlling possession and applying pressure on the opponent until they make a mistake. Unfortunately, his squad isn’t really built to play his style of football and he’s struggled in his first 4 league games.

Club captain Pepe Reina started in goal after sitting out the Thursday night Europa League game against BSC Young Boys. Liverpool’s best central defending pair also sat out the midweek fixture, meaning that Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel were well rested for such an important fixture. After being used primarily as a right-back last year under Kenny Daglish, Brendan Rodgers has played Glen Johnson at left-back, while Martin Kelly started his 4th game at right-back for the team.

In the three central midfielders, Joe Allen started as the deepest central midfielder. In a transition to how he’s been used his entire career, Steven Gerrard now plays alongside Joe Allen as a deep sitting central midfielder. The most advanced of the midfield three was Jonjo Shelvey, who scored 2 goals in the midweek game after coming on as a sub.

Up front, Luis Suarez started as the central striker. At right-wing, 17-year old Raheem Sterling got the start which means that he would be playing against Patrice Evra in what was sure to be a key battle. On the other side, at left-wing, newly acquired Fabio Borini started his 5th league game.

Rodgers 4-3-3 is setup to control possession, using possession as their first line of defense. Without the ball, the opponent can’t score. His entire strategy is dependent on every player being comfortable on the ball and capable of playing smart passes and minimizing turnovers. Joe Allen sits as the deepest midfielder, helping to control possession and move the ball from side to side. He’s also important defensively. He’s not a big physical ball winner, but he uses his vision and positioning to break up the opposition’s play in midfield. Gerrard is used in a more box to box role, sitting deep to assist Allen while moving forward to help on the attack, while Shelvey stays forward to assist the 3 forwards.

Key Points-

  • Liverpool is able to control possession, using 3v2 to dominate the central midfield
  • Liverpool also plays a high defensive line, pressing United in the midfield
  • The Red Devils struggle all game with sloppy possession, and poor passing. Struggling with Liverpool’s pressing, United Is often reduced to playing low percentage long balls
  • Shelvey’s red card evens the scales for United, removing Liverpool’s advantage in the midfield
  • Bringing on Scholes and replacing Nani in the second half was the key to the Red Devils taking control of the game


An open game early

The teams came into game after very different mid-week fixtures. Liverpool played BSC Young Boys on Thursday for the Europa League, and they played mostly backups with only Jonjo Shelvey and Fabio Borini seeing any action in that game, and they both came on as substitutes in the second half. On the other hand, Manchester United played their best squad against Galatasaray on Wednesday for the Champion’s League. Only Anders Lindegaard, Rio Ferdinand, and Ryan Giggs were absent from the game on Wednesday, but the biggest loss for United was Paul Scholes starting on the bench after playing 80 minutes midweek.

The game started very open, with neither side able to take control of the game. The play went from end to end as both sides tried to settle into the game. A good example of this came in the 7th minute, as Nani brought the ball up the pitch and passed it near the left touchline to Shinji Kagawa. Marked by Joe Allen, he brought the ball towards the top of the 18-yard box where Giggs had gotten behind his marker, Steven Gerrard. Kagawa passed it to Giggs, and he turned and took a shot that went just wide of the right post.

After the wide shot, Pepe Reina booted the goal kick long, and Evra was able to head it back towards Liverpool’s end. Shelvey recovered the header, and passed it by Giggs to Steven Gerrard. Patrice Evra stepped up to challenge Gerrard, but Liverpool’s captain was able to head the ball over the Frenchman to an unmarked Sterling down the right wing. He slid a through ball towards the byline, which Suarez was able to beat both United center-backs to. He took a shot from a poor angle that Lindegaard was able to deflect. Rafael headed the ball away from a lurking Borini, and then Evans was able to clear the lines just ahead of Gerrard.

Liverpool start to take control

Liverpool started to take control of the ball after the first 10 minutes. They played a 4-3-3 with the intention of playing the same type of football that Brendan Rodgers used so effectively at Swansea. They intended to control possession, to deny the opponent the ball as a means of defense. The strategy was to control the ball, and force United deeper while the Reds look for gaps to make runs into or mistakes to take advantage of.

Liverpool had two deep sitting central midfielders. The first is Joe Allen, who is key to Liverpool’s control as the deepest central midfielder. He’s always available as a safe pass, allowing Liverpool to control possession while he also moves the ball laterally from touchline to touchline. He’s used to recycle possession, to play short safe passes. His brief is to control possession, and not to play deep probing balls.

Steven Gerrard’s used deep in the midfield alongside Allen. He has more freedom to get forward, but also to play longer passes. In this game, he played 10 long balls, 8 of them were successful. This sounds similar to the role that Paul Scholes fills for United, but there are differences. Scholes is used to play long diagonal passes out to the wing, to stretch the defense and change the point of attack. Gerrard, on the other hand, plays most of his long balls forward and not diagonally. He’s used to get the ball forward quickly.

The most advanced midfielder is Jonjo Shelvey, and his main job is to support the 3 forwards. He’s used to link up with Suarez, and get forward into the box on the attack.

Midfield overload

The advantage that allowed Liverpool to control most of the first half came in the central midfield. Liverpool had a 3v2 advantage in this area for much of the first half, and Sir Alex Ferguson made the choice to give Liverpool this advantage.

Manchester United’s strategy consisted of sitting deep, allowing Liverpool to have possession and then quickly hit them on the counter attack. By playing a 4-2-3-1, the Red Devils could have matched up 3v3 in the midfield against Liverpool, but Fergie opted to for a more aggressive strategy.

Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs sat as the deepest midfielders on defense for United, with Carrick responsible for marking Liverpool’s most advanced midfielder, Jonjo Shelvey, and Ryan Giggs marked Steven Gerrard. Now, Sir Alex Ferguson could have had Shinji Kagawa drop back to mark Joe Allen, but Fergie instead opted to keep Kagawa up field of the former Swansea midfielder. Manchester United’s strategy was to keep Kagawa further up field than Joe Allen, helping Van Persie to press Liverpool’s backline so he was available for the counter attack.

Setup to attack quickly on the counter attack, Shinji Kagawa stayed very high up the pitch and never retreated goal side of Joe Allen, allowing Liverpool to have a 3v2 advantage in the midfield. By staying high up the pitch, pressuring Liverpool’s back line with Robin Van Persie United looked like a 4-4-2 on defense. Kagawa would pressure Liverpool, and frequently shield Allen as Liverpool tried to play the ball out of the back, ensuring that Allen wasn’t a viable passing option. Unfortunately for United, Gerrard and Shelvey would drop deeper to receive the ball from Liverpool’s back line.

Liverpool’s attack

A key part to Liverpool’s attack was their defense. They pressed high up the pitch, and they were quick to close down United in the midfield. Shinji Kagawa was on the goal side of Joe Allen, finding space, but United weren’t able to get the ball forward. Liverpool pressed aggressively, and this caused United’s midfield to have serious problems. As soon as United got the ball, Liverpool would immediately press them. Liverpool’s pressure made it difficult for United to bring the ball up the pitch. The constant pressure left United to resort to frequent long balls that had very low success rates. Additionally, United wasn’t helped by some sloppy passing in the first half. Giggs and Nani were among the more conspicuous culprits of poor passes that gave the ball right back to the Reds.

With Shinji Kagawa staying up field of Joe Allen, pressuring Liverpool’s backline and waiting to get forward on a counter attack, this left Joe Allen unmarked. The time and space that Joe Allen had in the first half should have allowed him to play incisive passes forward to open up United’s defense, but instead, Joe Allen just kept playing his short passing game.

Luis Suarez had an impressive game, as he played as more of a false 9 for Liverpool. United struggled to deal with the 3v2 advantage Liverpool had in the midfield, but Luis Suarez made it worse. Instead of staying up front, attacking at the goal, he would drop into the midfield as a false 9, which helped overload the midfield 4v2. He would drop deep to receive the ball, and he could then turn and run at the defense. Not only was he running at the defense, he had passing options.

Sterling stayed near the right touchline, but Borini was frequently making runs from the left to try and get behind United’s defense. A good example came in the 14th minute, when Luis Suarez received the ball about 40 yards from the goal. He had the space to turn with the ball, and run at Carrick before he threaded a through ball in the right channel to Borini, who cut between the United’s center backs. Unfortunately for Liverpool, the ball was slightly heavy and Borini was nearly at the byline when he trapped it. He turned to center the ball and a sliding tackle by Jonny Evans deflected the ball so Ferdinand could clear it out of play.

United’s defense plays strong

Liverpool was able to control possession during the first half due to their advantage in the midfield, but they weren’t able to convert this advantage into goals. Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans played extremely well for United, causing problems for Liverpool as they tried to play through the middle. Ferdinand completed 5 tackles, while the center-backs were able to win 10 ground duels between them.

The middle of United’s backline was strong, defending the middle of the penalty area very well but the fullbacks struggled at times. Raheem Sterling caused problems for Patrice Evra, as he struggled to deal with his pace. The 17-year old operated along the touchline, as he was able to beat Evra 4 out of 5 times when he took him on. Sterling was able to repeatedly drive past Evra, and get near the touchline where he would try to play in crosses, but he didn’t have much success as Evans and Ferdinand did well to cover the area.

The problems playing through the middle eventually lead Liverpool to play the ball out wide, and try to play crosses into the box. This type of play is counter to Brendan Rodger’s strategy, as it has a low success rate and ends up giving possession to the opposition. Raheem Sterling on the right side and Glen Johnson on the left side were the main providers of crosses into the box, but they were only successful on 4 of their 26 attempts.

Sitting deep

As the first half went along, United altered their strategy as they had little success getting forward on the counter attack. Liverpool’s fullbacks were able to get forward on the attack, and this pressed Nani and Valencia deep into their own zone. This made United unable to launch any type of successful counter-attack. Once Nani and Valencia were forced to drop deep to defend, Shinji Kagawa started dropping into the midfield to mark Joe Allen. This weakened Liverpool’s control of the midfield, but Liverpool were still able to control possession.

After the first 10 minutes, Liverpool had 62% possession for the rest of the first half. In the 39th minute, Liverpool’s dominance of the game came to a close. Jonjo Shelvey picked up a straight red card for a reckless two footed tackle on Jonny Evans, and this left Liverpool with 10 men.

Second half changes

A man down, Liverpool replaced an injured Fabio Borini with Suso.  They came out and were able to score within a minute. Suso tried to play a cross in from the left wing, but it was headed away by Ferdinand, but it fell right to Glen Johnson. Johnson flicked the ball over Rafael at the edge of the 18 yard box and continued his run forward. Paul Scholes poked the ball away from Johnson, but it came to Gerrard near the penalty spot. Gerrard controlled the ball with his chest, and then turned the ball into the net on the half volley.

Sir Alex Ferguson took off the ineffective Nani and replaced him with Paul Scholes. This change meant that Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes would now sit deep in the midfield, while Ryan Giggs moved out to the left wing. This alignment put United in a much better position to control possession, and get back into the game.

Paul Scholes sat much deeper than Giggs did, allowing United to control possession better. In addition, United was better defensively in the midfield with both Carrick and Scholes sitting deep, instead of just Carrick. In addition, with Shelvey gone, Liverpool weren’t able to apply the same type of pressure on United’s deep midfielders that they had during the first half.

On the left side, Ryan Giggs played narrow by cutting inside to attack Liverpool’s midfield. This movement would frequently drag Liverpool’s right back, Martin Kelly, inside to mark him and this would result in open space on the left side. Robin Van Persie took advantage of this space, frequently drifting into the area to play passes into the penalty area.

Gerrard and Allen struggled in the midfield, as they tried to step forward and apply some pressure on Scholes and Carrick, but this left them vulnerable to Shinji Kagawa, who was now able to find space between Liverpool’s lines. Giggs and Kagawa’s movement created United’s goal to tie up the game.

United’s equalizer came with prolonged possession, enabled by Scholes steady passing in the midfield. Scholes passed out to Rafael on the right side, and he ran forward into the right channel between Suso and Joe Allen. Glen Johnson had to come in to help stop the run, leaving Valencia open. Rafael slid the ball out to Valencia, who put in a low cross to Kagawa in space in front of Daniel Agger. Kagawa chested the ball to Rafael, who curled the ball into the upper left corner with his weak foot.

Second Half Formation

Changes and Penalties

Tied at 1 to 1, Brendan Rodgers changed his formation in the hopes of getting possession back and holding on for 1 point. He took Raheem Sterling out, and brought in Jordan Henderson as Liverpool switched from a 4-4-1 to a 4-3-1-1. This meant that Suso was able to apply pressure on United’s deep midfielders.

Liverpool struggled to get any possession, but their defense in the middle of the park improved. Joe Allen continued to sit deep in the middle of the midfield, while Jordan Henderson patrolled to the left of him and Steven Gerrard operated to the right of him. This slowed United’s attack through the middle, but it opened up United’s attack down the wings. Rafael and Evra started to get forward more aggressively, and Antonio Valencia finally started getting into the game on the right wing.

It was eventually Antonio Valencia who gave United the win, when he fell on a soft challenge in the 81st minute to win United a penalty. The Red Devils had missed the previous 3 penalties, but Robin Van Persie was able to put this one away and clinch the three points for the Red Devils.


This was a poor display on Manchester United’s part. They struggled through the first half, with several players seeming to disappear. Ryan Giggs was a poor choice to start in the central midfield, as he is always looking to get forward on the attack and this leaves Michael Carrick alone to defend. Nani on the left wing was also guilty of a poor performance. Without the red card for Jonjo Shelvey, it seems very unlucky that Manchester United would have come out of Anfield with any points.

By RangeRooney