Disjointed Liverpool Fail to Break Down a Stubborn United Defensive Resistance

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It was always going to happen. A combination of the pause for the international break combined with a perfect storm of players being injured and others being rusty from a period on the medical table was enough to disrupt the momentum that Liverpool were beginning to build.

In all honesty there were signs before the break that the side was becoming more laboured, The win over Swansea came almost in spite of the Liverpool performance instead of because of it and the slight knocks to key players to the system were starting to slow the attacking impetus down.

So the first game after the international break had to be against United. It was almost scripted that the two teams would have the full narrative of the evening to themselves live on Monday Night Football and that we would see almost a clash of styles and philosophies between Liverpool and United, Klopp and Mourinho.

So far this season United have performed adequately under their new coach. In terms of personnel a lot has changed and indeed a lit of money has changed hands. In terms of the output on the pitch we are still seeing similarities to the the style played by United under Van Gaal last season.

Mourinho is unfairly labelled a defensive coach when he has plenty of attacking aspects to his game model. It is true however that he likes to build his teams from the back and to keep a solid spine and shape to the side. At United he seems to have lost the balance of his system with some players not properly joining in to the attacking phase making United appear disjointed.

Liverpool under Klopp on the other hand are the polar opposite. So far this season we have seen the system approach what Klopp expects from his side with the fluid attacking phases of play and players interchanging positions and combining and lightning speed.

Which philosophy then would come out on top? The answer? Neither.

Team News

The main losses for Liverpool were Wijnaldum and Lallana with the former missing out completely and the latter being fit at least for a place on the bench. They were replaced by Emre Can and Daniel Sturridge.

This would be the first chance that we would have to see the role that Can would have in the tactical system. Would he be the combination player in place of Wijnaldum or would he be the vertical attacking threat in place of Lallana.

With Sturridge coming in to his favoured number nine position there was a further shift as Roberto Firmino moved to the left side and Coutinho moved infield to the eight position.

Other than those changes Liverpool were as expected with Karius keeping his place in goal at the expense of Mignolet and Lovren continuing to play in place of Klavan.

United chose to start Ashley Young on the left side in a clear move to negate the threat of Sadio Mane and Nathaniel Clyne and continued with Wayne Rooney on the bench.

Paul Pogba was pushed up from the eight role to play as a more orthodox number ten.

First Half

The first half of the match was one of the worst 45 minutes of football that we have seen from Liverpool so far this season. If I were to sum it up in a single word it would have to be disjointed.

Emre Can played on the right of the midfield three and seemed to be performing the Wijnaldum role as a continuity player as well as offering vertical thrust. I would however stress that he is still finding his way back from injury and periods of poor decision-making in central areas or loose passing can be attributed to rust more than anything else.

In truth, none of the midfielders seemed to be on their game for the first thirty minutes and the combination play that we have come to expect seemed to be missing.

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There were too many occasions as above when Liverpool were content to sit deep and allow United to have possession of the ball just inside the Liverpool half.

United were playing with a basic 4-4-1-1 shape with Fellaini and Herrera acting as a double pivot in midfield. The former especially is notoriously erratic with his first touch and passing accuracy and should have been pressed relentlessly whenever he took possession of the ball. Instead Liverpool dropped in to a more passive shape too often.

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Here we have further issues with the defensive shape of the side. Many Liverpool fans have wanted to see Coutinho played centrally on a regular basis for some time now but in reality he would be far more effective as a number ten which is of course not needed in the system that Klopp favours.

On the left of the midfield three, Coutinho has defensive responsibilities beyond the pressing that he is used to and over the course of the first half he was out of position in the defensive phase on several occasions. Here Pogba is in space between the lines and when he takes possession of the ball neither Coutinho nor Henderson are well enough positioned to provide an active barrier. It was far too easy for Pogba to take the ball and burst through centrally.

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The issues that Liverpool faced were not simply in their defensive phase nor were they entirely of their own making.

In their attacking phase they often found themselves faced with what amounted to a five man defensive line from United. Ashley Young was positioned as a left midfielder but he found himself tucked inside again and again pushing Daley Blind inside.

This movement from Young was a reaction to the movement of Sadio Mane who would drift in to not only the half space but the central areas as he has been all season.

This would normally have started a reaction with the other forward players drifting in and out of space but too often Mane moved centrally and found Daniel Sturridge static ahead of him. Sturridge was slow to drift out of his favoured central zone and coupled with the loss of Lallana’s vertical thrusts up the left hand half space this made Liverpool appear disjointed and led to poor combination play.

Something would have to give in the second half.

Second Half

As the second half started initially it was still very much more of the same. United were content to not pour too many men forward and Liverpool were unable to combine effectively moving in to the final third.

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Throughout the first half and now in to the second half United were keen to prevent Liverpool from playing out of the back effectively.

When Liverpool had possession in their own third of the pitch the 4-4-1-1 of United switched to a static 4-4-2 with Paul Pogba joining Zlatan Ibramimovic to press and close down the Liverpool defenders and keeper.

The positioning of the United duo was such that any attempt to pass around the press to the wide defenders would quickly be engaged and pressed. This led to Karius having to wave his defenders up the field and attempt long angled passes again and again.

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With Sturridge still on the pitch Liverpool were still experiencing significant issues in their build up play.

Here you can see a passage of play where Liverpool should have been able to access the United penalty area in a strong position. As the ball is moved left the United defensive block is struggling to get across and in to position. Emre Can is positioned for a quick vertical pass.

That vertical pass would have been enough for Can to burst forward and through in to the penalty area or combine with another attacker to play through. Unfortunately though his vertical lane was also occupied by Daniel Sturridge.

I feel as though I should be open at this point on my opinion on Sturridge. He is the best out and out goalscorer in the Liverpool squad. He has a tremendous technical talent and in and around the box he is first class. He is not however a team player.

In this scenario Sturridge needs to move in to the right hand half space. If he does so then he pulls at least one United player with him and the vertical lane for Can is even wider. Instead he holds his position and the immediate chance is lost.

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Finally Klopp withdrew Sturridge and replaced him with Adam Lallana. Coutinho moved back to the left hand side and Firmino moved back to the number nine role.

Now we saw the familiar attacking fluidity come back in to the game. Again and again Coutinho would come in to the left hand half space in a more advanced area and Lallana would move outside to combine with Milner as the two attacked the space left behind by the Brazilian.

Here with the ball in a central area we see the clever movement that allows teammates to access advanced spaces. As Coutinho drops deep he takes his marker with him and allows Firmino to burst diagonally and attack the space.

This piece of clever movement then gives the man in possession three comfortable passing options to change the angle of the attack as well as an advanced platform to access with Firmino.

Conclusion

0-0 at home to United is not a terrible result but it is a disappointing one. Questions have been raised about the system with Sturridge as a number nine and about the midfield configuration should key personnel be missing.

At the same time this is the kind of match in the kind of setting that would so often have been lost in recent seasons. Liverpool were able to keep going and they had the two best chances of the match. Eventually Klopp made the changes that led to a positive ending to the match in which Liverpool were comfortably the better team.

The disappointment of this match now has to be consigned to memory. Liverpool need to go again, and quickly.

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