When Manchester United travel to Anfield, it’s usually a big affair. It was even bigger an occasion than usual because on Sunday they travelled not just to Anfield, but to Anfield, the home of the Premier League Champions, for the first time in thirty years. Their players were spared the taunts that would likely have filled their eardrums from the first minute to the very last. In both that regard and the scoreline, they can consider themselves fortunate.
Jürgen Klopp selected a surprising XI, comprised of three wingers, four midfielders and no centrebacks. In Xherdan Shaqiri’s recent games we’ve seen him redeployed as a no.8, so it was no surprise to see him fit into the typical 4-3-3 system. His inclusion in recent games brought extra technical skill and more importantly, verticality to the midfield three.
Olé Gunnar Solskjaer selected a Manchester United side that were structured in a 4-2-3-1 when in possession, and a 4-5-1 when out of possession.
Across the first half Manchester United were ill afforded the opportunity to move into their in-possession structure, due to the effectiveness of Liverpool’s pressing, but also their over-exuberance to break. On the occasions where United won possession, Pogba was often too deep, due to Robertson’s high position necessitating he support Wan-Bissaka, and when he received the ball, he tried extremely challenging first time switches, in an attempt to play in behind the home side’s two centrebacks. Similarly, Bruno Fernandes, when he moved out wide also attempted big switches to expose in transition, but the Reds largely coped with those challenges. Hence United’s 4-5-1 often resembled a 6-3-1, with Rashford deployed as the lone striker, looking to break in behind the defensive line.
The opening thirty minutes was an extraordinary display of tactical superiority by Liverpool. A number of early long passes from deep looked to break in behind before the United defence was able to settle into a deep compact shape.
Liverpool also pressed intensely across the front when given the opportunity. Manchester United were seemingly instructed to avoid potential pressing situations where possible, and either cleared from deep positions or looked to pass before being pressured and then losing possession. On the occasion the visitors did look to pass into their double pivot, through their 2-4 deep structure, the Reds’ midfielders would join in the press. The Champions’ press was effective and allowed the Reds to maintain ball possession in the final third, with the forwards able to break into space on a number of occasions.
Despite Fred and Shaw doubling up on Salah on the right, and Pogba and Wan-Bissaka doing likewise to Robertson, Firmino was able to have a number of opportunities but was wasteful with those that fell his way.
Key to Liverpool’s play in the middle and final third was the work of the midfielders. Thiago, Wijnaldum and Shaqiri played sharp, fast and intelligent football, passing and moving the ball with speed and verticality, opening up the spaces between Manchester United’s midfielders. Similarly, the impeccably kept high line also allowed the home side to compact space and play Marcus Rashford offside.
Despite this though, Liverpool’s right side continued to struggle in generating some attacking fluidity, a theme of recent games this year. Furthermore, for all of their dominance in the first half, it was a familiar story in step with recent matches, as they were able to create opportunities, but never quite turned them into chances, and those few genuine chances that were created often were wasted.
Liverpool, thankfully, eased off on their crossing volume a little relative to recent games. The side made 14 crosses according to StatsBomb data, which is below the 20 cross threshold which usually indicates some sort of frustration with playing against a low block.
The one criticism I would level at the Liverpool midfield was that they did not break forward with dribbles as often as they should have. With the abilities of Shaqiri, Thiago and Wijnaldum, one of them being able to run forward, into the box, commit an opposition player, and link up in tight spaces with Mané, Salah or Firmino, which likely could have freed one of them up, would have definitely helped to disrupt United’s shape, and create cutback or close-range shooting opportunities.
The second half was less structured for Liverpool, and the team was not able to set up in the final third in the same manner as they did in the first half. Their passes in the second half were largely played around the left and right side of the box, with not that much in the middle area, making creating genuine shooting positions harder. In these situations, they really could have used Firmino dropping into the no.10 pocket, and Mané and Salah moving inside. At the same time Klopp’s side would have needed both Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to advance to maintain width and really stretch the United defensive line. As we’ve seen in recent games though, Alexander-Arnold is often too deep to provide support to Salah and draw pressure off him, and as a result, Salah is often isolated.
The second half also saw United fashion a number of opportunities for themselves. A scuffed cross by Wan-Bissaka found Pogba who controlled well, before Alisson saved his strike at the near post, whilst Bruno Fernandes also was denied by the Brazilian colossus. Alisson’s saves may appear simple, but his saves almost always look simple because of his brilliant positioning. Alisson has proved to be Liverpool’s most consistent player this season, and seems to be one of the only players who presently retains the unbeatable aura of last year.
Liverpool’s inability to score for the third game in a row is now a particularly annoying statistic. The side appears to be doing a lot fairly well. Unlike the Reds’ goalless draw against Fulham, they are progressing the ball up the field well, getting it into the box with good frequency, and are even creating some shooting opportunities, albeit not superb chances. The 2.6 non-shot xG from this game is testament to this, as is the 3.6, 2.0 and 2.9 from the last three games. The Fulham game, in comparison, only had 1.2 non-shot xG recorded by Liverpool. This data indicates the side are getting into promising areas, but are lacking the decision making in key moments, or are not executing the final pass correctly, and on the occasions they do, the side are fluffing their lines, which is evident in the combined xG of 3.89 over the last three games.
To remedy this, Liverpool could look to try and force their two best goalscorers to break out of this rut through making them occupy more central positions, hopefully getting them more involved in shooting situations, rather than being stuck on the flanks. Salah and Mané’s switch in the 30th minute of this game evidenced how both players were not getting particular success in attacking, but it is important that the midfielders and fullbacks play their role in fixing this issue too. Currently, Alexander-Arnold is too deep and is not passing to Salah in high enough volume, nor is he passing to Salah in dangerous areas. And whilst the midfield is seemingly doing the right things at the moment, creating a central overload by running into the box may just help alleviate the pressure on the front three. The vertical presence of Naby Keïta would no doubt come in useful too.
Liverpool’s problems at the moment are being amplified by a really bad run of finishing, and that only emphasises the importance of players like Van Dijk who can score from set pieces and contribute to build up with penetrative vertical passes from deep. The hope here for Klopp is that the Reds can just keep in touching distance of Manchester City by the time his forwards find their finishing boots once more, and Diogo Jota is fit again. In an extraordinary season like this, it’s normal to see fatigue affecting players and inconsistency creeping in, but the on-ball activity in the first half, alongside the great counterpressing and positioning in the first half indicates a turnaround is not as far away as “no goals in three games” headlines would suggest.