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TACTICAL REVIEW: Liverpool FC 1-1 Manchester United | Ferguson's surprise selections lead to functional stalemate

The lineup and formation selections by managers Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson led to a functional stalemate.
The lineup and formation selections by managers Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson led to a functional stalemate.


Manchester United played in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape. No 1 David De Gea was in goal and Rio Ferdinand partnered Jonny Evans at center-back. They were flanked in defense by Patrice Evra at left-back and Chris Smalling at right-back. Darren Fletcher was the deepest-lying central midfielder while Phil Jones was slightly more advanced. Ashley Young was on the left flank while Ji-Sung Park was on the right flank. Danny Welbeck was the lone striker up front and Ryan Giggs played withdrawn from him as the central-attacking-midfielder. Wayne Rooney was a shocking omission from the starting XI.

Liverpool played in a similar shape as United. Pepe Reina was between the posts at Anfield and Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel were the center-back pairing. Jose Enrique was deployed at left-back while Martin Kelly was the right-back. Lucas was the holding-midfielder and he was joined in the center by Charlie Adam. On the flanks, it was Dirk Kuyt on the right and Steward Downing on the left. Luis Suarez was the lone frontman and captain Steven Gerrard made his first start of the season in a withdrawn role.

A functional stalemate

For the most part, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish deployed an expected starting XI -- £35 million striker Andy Carroll was anticipated to start on the bench. Gerrard played in behind Suarez -- similar to the role that he has successfully played in the past with Fernando Torres -- and had two central midfielders in behind him. Lucas shielded the defense as a strict holding-midfielder while Adam was tasked as a deep-lying playmaker. Kuyt was predictably tucked in as the wide right player while Downing provided more width from the left flank.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson likely anticipated Dalglish's starting XI correctly and in response, he used a very surprising starting XI -- which included the likes of Rooney, Nani, Chicharito, and Anderson on the bench. Many of Fergie's selections appeared to be made with individual match-ups in mind. Park was likely selected with the sole task of tracking Enrique's marauding runs. Jones' selection in the midfield was a surprise . It was further shocking that he was not deployed as a holding midfielder -- but instead higher up the pitch with the sole intent of harassing the deep-lying playmaking ability of Adam. United's recent deficiencies at right-back -- in terms of defending -- likely led to the selection of Chris Smalling. The youngster is assured defensively but he doesn't offer the same threat going forward as Fabio or Antonio Valencia. Defense is clearly what Fergie desired.

What resulted was a functional stalemate -- with the two sides often being mirror images of each other. Each of the creative attacking players from both sides were mostly nullified by their match-ups. As mentioned, Park's job for the day was to track Enrique -- and it was Young that was to provide creativity from the flanks. However, Liverpool's Kelly played extremely conservative at right-back and he was well positioned to deal with his counterpart. It was nearly the same situation with Smalling and his tracking of Downing. Giggs failed to influence the match from his free role as an attacking midfielder. He had difficulty creating through the middle -- Lucas' presence here deserves credit -- so he often drifted to the left where he looked to combine with Young. Welbeck's movement was decent as was his link-up play -- however -- the youngster lacked any support in attack from the midfielders. Jones offered little in attack since he was essentially tasked with man-marking Adam. These functional roles made creativity difficult for the attacking players -- space was tight and there was few genuine goal-scoring opportunities for either side.

Hoofing the ball forward

Fergie is a manager that stresses to his defenders to play the ball out of the back whenever possible. Having defenders tidy with their distribution -- such as Ferdinand and Smalling -- allow United to ignite attacks from the back. Therefore, it was quite surprising to see both Ferdinand and Smalling -- along with goalkeeper de Gea -- hoof the ball forward so often. This chalkboard exhibits the distribution in this match by Ferdinand and de Gea:

by Guardian Chalkboards

Both Ferdinand's number of passes completed and success rate were low for him. de Gea is generally regarded as being quite strong with his distribution as well. Furthermore, even right-back Smalling was often sending the ball long.

Why was this? There are a number of answers: (1) Liverpool spent portions of this match pressing United and this pressure often resulted in the defense punting the ball long. In particular, Liverpool's attackers did well to close down outlet options for de Gea when he was in possession of the ball -- therefore, he was forced to punt long. (2) Despite spending the majority of last season as a holding-midfielder for Blackburn Rovers, Jones was not able to provide much link-up play for United on Saturday. As previously mentioned, he was positioned higher than a holding-midfielder -- similar positioning to that of a box-to-box midfielder -- so that he could stay tight on Adam. However, when United were in possession, he lacked the experience (and perhaps ability) to dictate play in the central-midfield by linking the defense with the midfield. (3) Perhaps some of this was by design as well. I mention this possibility because of how quick and content both Ferdinand and Smalling often were to send the ball long.

This generally happened more on United's right-side. Almost shockingly, Park only attempted 10 passes during the 69 minutes that he spent on the pitch. This is not an indictment -- but an indicator of how strict his role of containing Enrique was. Park often drifted inward when United were in possession, thus, Enrique often tracked him into this space. Both Ferdinand and Smalling often looked to play the ball into the space behind Enrique for Welbeck to run onto. Perhaps this is where someone like Carrick or Anderson were missed -- two players capable of receiving the ball in tight spaces from the defenders so that they could switch the ball to the left side. The creative outlet in attack was meant to be Giggs and Young -- down the left-side -- but this mostly failed to materialize.

Gerrard & Kuyt interchanging

Gerrard appeared to mostly have a free role in attack with the support of two central players in behind of him. This freedom often took him to the right side of the pitch. Whenever Kuyt is deployed on the flank, he tends to tuck in towards the middle. In this match, Gerrard would start from a central position and when he advanced up the pitch, he would drift to the right. As Kuyt advanced further forward, he would drift from his wide right position towards the center. This chalkboard displays Gerrard's center-to-right tendency and Kuyt's right-to-center tendency.

by Guardian Chalkboards

This interchanging was probably the most fluid and unpredictable aspect of either side's attack throughout the match. By no means was this combination a well of attacking prowess but it did provide a few opportunities in attack. United's Evra, Fletcher, and Evans did well to not be dragged out of position with their movement and they passed each attacker off as they changed zones.

Suarez effective as the lone man up top

Many will point to Gerrard's return and goal as the Liverpool bright spot in this match. However, it could be argued that Suarez was the best Liverpool attacker in this match. Because this game became a stalemate through conservative tactics, neither side's lone player up front -- Suarez or Welbeck -- had support nor much of a chance to influence this match. While Welbeck was admirable with his movement and link-up play, he never quite influenced the match. Suarez did however.

The Uruguayan did well to hold the ball up and allow the midfield to join the attack. When he failed to get support, he was also able to use his individual brilliance to have a go at defenders. Both Ferdinand and Evans did decently well in containing the dangerous Suarez but the striker was able to earn 5 fouls deep in United's territory. In total, 11 fouls were won by Liverpool and the majority of them were in their attack (see chalkboard below). Thus, it was not a surprise that Liverpool's lone goal resulted from a foul won deep just outside of United's box. Although it was Adam that won the foul leading to Gerrard's goal, it was Suarez that was the consistent threat up front and he did well with the thankless task of being the lone striker up front.

by Guardian Chalkboards

2nd half tactical adjustments by each manager

This match was a stalemate until the Gerrard goal. Even as he was lining up for the free-kick in the 68th minute, Fergie was set to bring on both Rooney and Nani. It is likely that the match had actually gone according to plan for the legendary United manager -- functional tactics to keep the match scoreless and then try to nick it at the end of the match by bringing on world-class attackers like Rooney and Nani. Gerrard's goal didn't change the intent at all for United at this point.

The introduction of Rooney and Nani moved Giggs out wide to the left. Rooney moved into the center of the park in a number ten role while Nani was deployed on the right flank. When Chicharito came on in the 76th minute -- when United were still chasing the equaliser -- four forwards was essentially the resulting shape with Rooney in behind them still in a number ten role. Five minutes later, with United having the run of play, Chicharito equalised on a header from a corner.

Liverpool's lone change was Jordan Henderson on for Lucas in the 57th minute. The move was an astute one by Dalglish because Lucas had been sitting on a yellow since the 28th minute -- a holding-midfielder can fail to be effective if they are forced to be hesitant after a booking. Gerrard dropped deeper into the midfield alongside Adam while Henderson was the most-advanced central midfielder. After United equalised in the 76th minute, it was Liverpool that was arguably the better side and most likely to nick the winner. Henderson had two chances late to win the match -- one was superbly denied by de Gea and the other was a wasted header after a terrific cross from Downing.


Dalglish used a predictable starting XI and Ferguson sprung a surprise by selecting his lineup to match-up with Dalglish's predicted side. The result being a functional stalemate. Each side defended well but neither showed the requisite intent nor creativity to create enough goal-scoring chances. Gerrard's opening goal opened the match up but Chicharito's equaliser probably preserved the most deserving result. It could be argued that Liverpool were marginally the better side as a few superb saves by de Gea certainly were vital in preserving a point for United. Conservative tactics led to a dull derby.