Tactical Analysis: Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool


By George Lomax.

Like probably 99% of the people who attended the game on Sunday, I came away from Old Trafford thinking we were lucky to get away with a 3-0 defeat. The fact is we were thoroughly outclassed by a better side on Sunday, and I don’t think even 1% of United fans could disagree with this.

Whilst it was easy to spot certain reasons for this embarrassing defeat (poor ball retention, lack of pace in the final 3rd etc), I wanted to look into the specifics of how and why we looked so inferior to our rivals down the M62.

My findings certainly aren’t rocket science, but they reflect extremely poorly on not only our preparation for the game, but our sheer inability to adjust when the game just isn’t going our way. The two things that stood out to me were the shape of both teams, and the platform in possession.


Before the match, SKY listed United as playing a 4-2-3-1 and Liverpool as playing a 4-3-3. Whilst United played something similar to a 4-2-3-1, Liverpool certainly didn’t play a 4-3-3.

Manchester United Team vs. Liverpool - 16 March 2014The flow of the game dictated that Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj played much deeper than a 4-2-3-1 would insinuate, and whilst Wayne Rooney (attempted to) play in pockets behind Robin Van Persie, he played no different than how you would expect a 2nd Striker to play.  I would actually say United’s shape was closer to a 4-4-2 than it was to a 4-2-3-1.

Liverpool Team vs. Manchester United - 16 March 2014Liverpool’s formation would be defined as a 4-4-2, but it certainly wasn’t the conventional Ferguson 4-4-2. As will be explained later, Brendan Rodgers saw no reason to play with conventional wingers, so he played a 4-1-2-1-2 with 4 central midfield players making up this diamond.

Rodgers’ choice of formation tells us two things about how he felt about the current United side. Firstly, it shows he has no respect for our ability to shift the ball from one side of the pitch to the other with any speed. Secondly, it shows that Rodgers has no respect for our full backs as an attacking threat.

The picture below shows Michael Carrick in controlled possession of the ball on the left hand side of the pitch, and look how close the Liverpool midfield 4 is.

Michael Carrick vs. Liverpool's Midfield 4 - Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool, 16 March 2014

Now this may look like Joe Allen is marking Juan Mata, but if you were to roll the clip on 5 seconds, Allen allows Mata to drift upfield. The real reason Allen is tucked infield is to close off gaps in the middle of pitch. In the modern game, teams don’t play 4-1-2-1-2 is because it leaves gaping holes out wide, like the one in the bottom left hand corner of the picture above. Rafael doesn’t have a man within 20 yards of him and has nothing but 20 yards of grass in front of him where John Flanagan is.

The picture below shows the same circumstance, but with Patrice Evra being afforded 15-20 yards of space by Jordan Henderson (and Glen Johnson behind him out of picture).

Patrice Evra afforded 15-20 yards of space by Jordan Henderson - Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool, 16 March 2016

In the first picture, a good side with quick tempo passing would fire the ball into space for Rafael to run on to.  That way you force the midfield four to slide over, and that creates gaps to exploit. In the second picture, a good side with quick tempo passing would play the ball into the space for Evra to run on to.

Whilst Rodgers took a gamble with allowing Rafael this type of space (the bits of joy we did have in the 1st half came down our right), it worked wonders. Teams are starting to catch on to the lack of technical ability Patrice Evra has as an attacking threat from open play, and Rodgers dared United to try and take advantage of the space. Not only that, but with Evra’s diminishing pace, enticing Evra into the space created opportunities on the counter attack for Liverpool.

So what adjustment(s) should Moyes have made? Clearly the instruction should have gone out to Fellaini and Carrick in particular to be looking for that outlet every time the ball is played into their feet. They are Manchester United  centre midfielders; if they aren’t capable of playing 30 yard passes into that much space, then Moyes needs to call on Joe Rothwell and Andreas Pereira who can do.

The fact is, this adjustment wasn’t made. The photo below is with 15 minutes to go, and once again it can be seen that Liverpool’s outlook hadn’t changed, and that we had given them no reason to change their shape either.

No tactical change - Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool, 16 March 2014


The other main difference I noticed between the two sides was the quality of platform to start attacks. With possession being so key in the modern game, Goalkeepers are being relied upon more and more to a) have more touches to retain possession as opposed to Defenders clearing long and b) not play long balls themselves.

As much as it pains me to say it, Steven Gerrard (to no surprise) was the player dictating everything when Liverpool was in possession. When the ball was at the feet of Skrtel or Agger, Gerrard would be close by to offer an outlet. The only two United players who would press in the scenario were Rooney and Van Persie. Simple addition – 3 minus 2 = 1 extra player.

Liverpool would simply work this 3 vs 2 every time to create a clean platform to start possession. This sounds trivial and maybe irrelevant to some, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The difference at the top level between an uncontested pass into your attacking players as opposed to an inaccurate, long, hurried pass (or just a hoof) is huge.

Liverpool 3 vs 2 to create platform - Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool, 16 March 2014

The picture above shows the scenario that happened time and time again throughout the match.  So what should Moyes have done about this?  The problem I have is that this nothing new to Liverpool’s game. Everyone knows Gerrard plays 5 yards in front of his Centre Backs, looking to get on the ball and start a clean platform for possession.

The obvious adjustment here is to work the ball towards Martin Skrtel, who is clearly the weakest passer of the three. Wayne Rooney should be running an angle to cut Skrtel off from passing the ball back to Agger, and Van Persie should be cutting the ball off to Gerrard.  Thus, we would be encouraging Skrtel to carry the ball upfield. Martin Skrtel isn’t going to split open a defence. His nose would start bleeding the second he touches the ball in the opposition half.

Far too many times Van Persie and Rooney would allow Steven Gerrard to be the spare man in the scenario. Why on earth would Moyes allow this?  Gerrard is maybe the best midfielder in the league (now the Ginger Prince has retired) at starting attacking play from a deep position.  Of all the scenarios (Skrtel being spare, Agger being spare, Gerrard being spare) which one do you think Moyes should have drilled into the team to NOT allow? Exactly.

Now you may ask, “well why doesn’t someone else push up and make it 3v3?” The only position that could do that is a central midfielder. A winger can’t leave the full back (unless you are saying they are no attacking threat) so it has to be a central midfielder. The problem is, United don’t have a central midfielder capable of pressing that high up the pitch in that much space that can make up the ground to retreat once the ball has been played upfield.

Liverpool, thanks to Rodgers’ shape, did have said central midfielder.

Rodgers’ shape central midfielder - Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool, 16 March 2014

Obviously they aren’t the same calibre of player, but in our side Carrick is the equivalent of Gerrard, in that he will come to receive the ball off the Goalkeeper and Centre Backs. Rodgers’ 4-2-1-2 with Sterling playing at the head of the diamond gave them a player capable of pressing Carrick when the ball was deep in our half, and thus forcing a long ball by De Gea. Sterling has the athleticism to fall back deep when the ball is in the air, whereas neither of our Centre midfielders have the pace to do this.

In the picture above, Sterling is telling Suarez to stay with Jones, as he is baiting De Gea into playing a pass into Carrick.  At the other end of the pitch, Mignolet has a simple pass into Gerrard’s feet in this scenario.

What should Moyes have done?  Well, as can be seen below, he tried to push Carrick further up the pitch in the 2nd half to force a 3 vs 3.

What should Moyes have done - Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool, 16 March 2014

The difference is, Liverpool then used Mignolet to create a 4 vs 3 instead. That is something United simply don’t do enough. De Gea, one of the better ball distributors in the world for his position, isn’t afforded the opportunity to work the opposition teams in this scenario.  Is it risky? Sure. Look no further than Kolo Toure’s gift against West Brom. But this risk isn’t without reward.  Rodgers know how important a clean, uncontested platform is to start possession.

Just think back to the game – how many times did you see Jones, Vidic and De Gea force passes long? There is a difference between a measured, 20-30 yard pass into space (as described before) and a hump long hoping to win 2nd balls off Fellaini. That is how Everton have played for the last 10 years; that isn’t how a Manchester United should be playing.

United need to become braver in possession in their own half and Moyes needs to start respecting his opponents enough to study their shape.  Sure, people will say, “well we should be good enough to force other teams to adjust to us”. Why be so stubborn? It doesn’t have to be as drastic as changing formation, but the best teams make subtle changes to get the best out of their own players vs any opponent.

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  1. I happened to stumble on to this article by chance, and as a Liverpool fan, I can only say spot on! Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola analyzes opponents thoroughly. It would help United to do the same before they meet next.

  2. Same as Fred, Liverpool fan, this article was on NewsNow in the Liverpool section. Very well explained, honest and United need your analysis! You guys will be back next season

  3. As with Fred above I’m another sort of ‘Red’ and I agree with him. Superb, insightful analysis. I read quite a few articles like this on our team and enjoy them.

    This analysis is up there with the best.

    If I had to make one point: it’s that it would be instructive to hear whether the Writer thinks that the Coach is actually able to work out what problems he’s presented with and can he solve them.

    I’m not looking to have a go at Moyes per se here (he’s well respected and liked in our household) but the $64 question is, ‘Can he cut it as a Coach and Tactician?’. I would really be interested in the considered opinion of the Writer (as opposed to the knee-jerk stuff in the rags).

    All the best!

  4. Brilliant analysis.

    With Liverpool playing Diamond, Moyes should have introduced Pace, Valencia or Young on the wing.

    Mata is capable of holding the ball under pressure but does not have much needed pace to beat a defender who like Flanagan who is not even the fastest.

    Valencia and Rafael would have ripped Flanagan apart on the right and that would have forced Rodgers to change tactics.

    Thats just one end, Got to give credit to Liverpool who dominated the proceedings

  5. Being a Liverpool fan, and with all due respect, I think United would’ve played much better had you been their manager for this game. 🙂

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