With 27 points between them going into the game, Liverpool and Manchester United can’t realistically be seen as rivals on the pitch this season, but history ensures this is the biggest tie in the English football calendar regardless of current events. As United are the only team to get a point off Liverpool this season, the Reds had unfinished business with the visiting side, while being the only team to go undefeated against the otherwise invincible Liverpool would surely win some respite from a restless fanbase for United.
Jurgen Klopp set out his team in their usual 4-3-3 formation, making no changes from the side that beat Tottenham Hotspur. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ditched his usual 4-2-3-1, returning to the 3-4-1-2 shape that got them a point at Old Trafford.
Several changes were made to that side from October. Marcus Rashford was out injured, replaced by Anthony Martial; Scott McTominay was ruled out too, slowing the midfield with the less mobile Nemanja Matic; Ashley Young was sold this week to Internazionale, replaced by Brandon Williams; Marcos Rojo’s place at centre-back was taken by natural left-back Luke Shaw. With the exception of Martial and possibly Williams, these all seemed like downgrades in personnel.
The 3-4-1-2 shape allowed United to match up against Liverpool’s 4-3-3 man-for-man. The back three had Liverpool’s attacking trio, the wing-backs had Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, the midfielders had the midfielders and the forwards had Liverpool’s centre-backs.
There were several problems with this set-up though. Firstly, lining up initially in the backline to give cover to their centre-backs, Williams and Aaron Wan-Bissaka had a lot of ground to cover to get out and close down Liverpool’s full-backs. A number of times in the opening minutes, Liverpool would pass out to Robertson, getting Wan-Bissaka to sprint forward from his half, only for Robertson to roll it back to Alisson Becker in goal. Even when the full-backs kept hold of the ball themselves, they often had the time to leisurely pick out a pass without United’s wing-backs getting close to them. This level of running wasn’t sustainable for Williams and Wan-Bissaka and it wasn’t even effective from the start.
Secondly, Liverpool found it easy to manipulate United’s shape. Jordan Henderson regularly drops into the backline now, forming a makeshift back three, and doing this dragged Andreas Pereira up in line with the forwards. This left space in midfield for Georginio Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, mostly the former, to drop into, leaving Matic and Fred unsure of whether they should follow them. Sit back and Liverpool could easily play out, but push forward and they would leave the space in front of their defence exposed.
Liverpool regularly played short to bait United into pressing, then, when they had dragged them up the pitch, hit a long ball forward. One of the attackers would make a run in behind or to challenge for the ball while the other two dropped off into the space in front of the defence ready to win the second ball. This meant that even when United won the initial header they were still having to deal with another attack immediately after.
Liverpool also managed to frequently catch United’s backline four-against-four with these long balls by baiting one of United’s wing-backs up the pitch and having Wijnaldum or Oxlade-Chamberlain push forward to join the attackers.
If they didn’t want to hit a long ball forward, there was also the option of passing into Firmino along the ground, who was as keen as ever to drop off and ask questions of the United defence – did they want to leave him to pick up and turn with the ball, or did they want to follow him, leaving a gap through the middle for Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah to exploit?
Despite Liverpool obviously having the greater grip on the game, they hadn’t really began to carve out chances early on, yet they still ended up taking the lead before they had even gotten out of first gear thanks to a corner.
Fred was marking Virgil van Dijk, so the Dutchman wandered in the direction of Roberto Firmino. Following him but without enough space to keep tight to Van Dijk, Fred ended up with Firmino between him and the Liverpool centre-back. With Firmino blocking off Fred, Van Dijk made a run towards the near post, causing Williams to go in that direction, before he switched directions to have a free run towards the six-yard box. While Van Dijk was busy ensuring he got a free run at the header, Joe Gomez ensured there was no one capable of challenging for it, holding on to Harry Maguire so he couldn’t cleanly jump for the ball.
With a primarily defensive set-up, conceding so early was disastrous for United, requiring a major overhaul if they were going to have any chance of getting back into the game. The players seemed to react really badly to going a goal down. After giving away another corner, Wan-Bissaka retreated into position staring at the ground and playing with his socks, and his day only got worse in the second half, Fred wasn’t even looking at play when Robertson took a throw-in and, worst of all, only Victor Lindelof and Maguire reacted when Firmino went free to score.
It was a foul (only in English football could this even be debatable), yet that doesn’t excuse the reactions of United. Surprise immediately after is understandable, but after six seconds it should be clear that the referee is playing on. “Play to the whistle” is something drilled into children; grown men on hundreds of thousands a week playing in one of the biggest games of their season shouldn’t be relying on video replays.
Liverpool’s pressing was perfect for aggravating United’s struggles. The front three would block the passes out to the wing-backs, while Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain were stuck tight to Matic and Fred in midfield. With no passes on, United’s centre-back were taking forever on the ball and usually just passing amongst themselves, encouraging Liverpool’s forwards to move up and trap them. United’s set-up meant that they matched up with Liverpool, but that also meant that Liverpool matched up with them, and Liverpool’s were quite comfortably winning their individual battles.
United’s tendency to get stuck playing the ball on one side of the pitch was on show again here, hardly helping their build-up.
The away side’s main attacking strategy was trying to quickly play balls in behind Liverpool’s high line, however once the goal went in Liverpool were happier to drop off and deny them that space to attack, encouraging United to push their wing-backs forward then countering into the space behind them.
Solskjaer changed nothing at half-time and so Liverpool continued to dominate. United managed to work themselves back into the game a little, partially by pressing with more intensity and partially due to Liverpool sitting back on their lead.
The Norwegian finally made some attacking substitutions in the 74th minute, bringing on Juan Mata and Mason Greenwood for Pereira and Williams, switching Daniel James to left wing-back. He still didn’t change the system though, whereas Klopp bolstered his defence by switching to a 4-4-2.
Liverpool sat back and defended their lead, leaving only Salah up the pitch. When United had their final throw of the dice with a corner in the final minute, Alisson made an easy save and pumped the ball long for the Egyptian to finally get his goal against Manchester United.
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