Manchester United were worthy winners over a Liverpool side that never got going. Kenny Dalglish’s men lacked any real urgency and were incredibly unwilling to press high up the pitch even when they pulled it back to 2-1, here are Sam Thompson’s observations…
Scholes starts in the centre
Jonny Evans was chosen to partner Rio Ferdinand at centre back and Rafael da Silva again started at right back. With Paul Scholes being brought in to the centre of midfield alongside Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, having recently signed a new one-year contract, started on the left. Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck continued their partnership upfront and it was nice to see Tom Cleverly back on the bench after injury.
Suarez replaces Carroll upfront
Liverpool lined up in a 4-5-1 formation with Luis Suarez starting for the first time since his ban. Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger continue to partner each other at centre back. Jay Spearing played as the deepest central midfielder with Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard either side and out wide was Stewart Downing on the left and Dirk Kuyt on the right.
Liverpool sit off
When in possession it was clear that both Henderson and Gerrard were licensed to go forward for Liverpool, leaving Spearing to sit, knowing that the two full backs either side of him would be staying back as well and not going forward, and ensuring the away side had a solid defensive base. For United, Valencia had a very lively start, twice beating Jose Enrique. When the home team did have the ball Liverpool were very reluctant to press and were happy for United to knock the ball from side to side near the half-way line. Scholes and Carrick both like to sit deep and recycle possession so it was interesting to see who would play the deeper role this afternoon, and the answer was Scholes.
United dominate the middle
With Liverpool sitting deep and compact in a tight 4-5-1 formation, United were forced to have a patient slow build up and this was reflected in the passing statistics after the game. Scholes and Carrick were given too much time to dictate the tempo of the game, contributing to nearly a third of United’s 620 passes between them, with both averaging 91% and 94% accuracy respectively. Scholes’ role was simply to recycle possession allowing Carrick to take on the responsibility of being more penetrative and spreading the play. When Liverpool did get on the ball their attacks were often short lived with Rooney dropping deep to pressure Spearing (who only contributed 36 passes today). It should be noted that in general play however, Rooney was a lot more advanced than usual when playing with Welbeck.
Both sides favoured the right hand side
United and Liverpool both average an attack down the right 36% of the time in the league but as the diagram below shows, both sides had nearly half of their attacks down their respective right hand sides today. Antonio Valencia and Rafael both impressed today by attacking Jose Enrique and Stewart Downing (who was constantly on the periphery). Likewise Liverpool had a lot of success down the right, with Glen Johnson ending the game with three shots, two of which were on target, but despite having a 3v2 advantage in the middle of midfield, Liverpool only had 21% of attacks from central areas, showing how much Carrick and Scholes dictates the play.
United end half on top
Just after the half hour, Scholes had a good headed chance palmed away by Pepe Reina. The midfielder had been able to exploit a gap in the Liverpool midfield and make an unmarked run into the box – this was the first time Scholes had gotten ahead of Carrick and the closest United came to a goal. As the half came to an end it was noticeable that Scholes started to play further forward than he had been and was more direct with his passing.
Giggs moves centrally
Despite most of their attacks coming down the right, United still wanted Patrice Evra to get forward from left back, but this created more problems than benefits. With Giggs tucking in, to try and match up with Liverpool’s three man midfield, and Evra pushing forward there was a significant amount of space available to be exploited by Dirk Kuyt from the right hand side, as shown in the diagram on the left. To summarise, United were the better side but not quite fluid enough to break down the Liverpool defence and so the first half ended 0-0.
Two quick goals
Within five minutes of the second half United were 2-0 up after Wayne Rooney clinched his 16th and 17th league goals of the season. The first came after a deep Giggs corner was accidentally flicked on by a Liverpool player at the near post, allowing Rooney to volley in from close range in similar fashion to Juan Mata last week. It was 2-0 after Rooney coolly finished through the legs of Reina after being played in by Valencia, after the winger intercepted a Jay Spearing pass. As soon as they got the second, United slowed the play and kept the ball, prompting Gerrard to go deeper to get the ball (his 101 touches were significantly more than any other Liverpool player) but this meant he posed less of a goal threat now.
Liverpool change to 4-4-2
On the hour mark the quiet Downing and unimpressive Spearing were replaced by Craig Bellamy and Andy Carroll, meaning Liverpool changed to a 4-4-2. After this, Carrick and Scholes both sat deep, allowing their full backs to push forward when attacking. Later Charlie Adam replaced Kuyt, pushing Henderson to the right of midfield. Despite getting back into the game after a Luis Suarez goal, Liverpool remained unwilling to press and lacked any urgency to chase the game. United just comfortably moved the ball around (they completed 620 passes in total, and significantly more short passes than usual – perhaps the result of having two central midfielders who both typically play the ‘passer/creator’ role for United in the ‘creator’ and ‘destroyer’ combination Ferguson favours – Zonal Marking covers this in more detail here).
Both right backs impressed
Andy Carroll really struggled during the 30 minutes he played today. His passing accuracy was 57%, he failed to win a single aerial duel and only had 10 touches – surprising given how well he played on Monday against Tottenham. United were so successful today because they managed to dominate Liverpool’s three man midfield by playing two ‘passers’ ensuring they weren’t wasteful with the ball and had the patience and creativity to break down a typically well organised Liverpool side, who lacked any urgency to stop United from dictating the game. The two right backs today for both sides were very impressive, especially when in attack, as shown below by comparing their average positions to their respective left backs.