On Sunday afternoon at Anfield, Liverpool FC defeated rival Manchester United 3-1 with Dirk Kuyt netting all three Liverpool goals. I haven't been able to watch the match until now, but for those of you still interested, here's a tactical review of the match. The Scousers played well, but United got their tactics wrong.
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS:
Liverpool deviated from their recent usage of a three-man defense and the home side went with four defenders in the back. Most saw Liverpool play in a '4-4-2' shape, and it could be loosely described as such, but with Luis Suarez playing so deep in between the United midfield and defense, it also could be described as a '4-2-3-1.' Pepe Reina was in goal with Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel in front of him as his center-back pairing. Glen Johnson was deployed as the right-back and Fabio Aurelio as the left-back. Lucas played as a holding midfielder in the central midfield and he was paired with Steven Gerrard, who played deeper than usual but he still had more license to get forward than his central midfield partner. Neither Maxi Rodriguez or Raul Meireles are naturally wide players, but both were asked to play out on the flanks. Meireles continually made diagonal runs in towards the center of the pitch from his wide position while Rodriguez just positioned himself in the left-center of the midfield. Kuyt played as a "false-nine" and continually came deep and wide for the ball. Suarez played deeper than and more as a central attacking midfielder.
United played in a very simple '4-4-2' shape. Edwin van der Sar was in goal and Wes Brown and Chris Smalling deputized as the center-back pairing while filling in for Rio Ferdinand (calf injury) and Nemanja Vidic (suspension). Patrice Evra played at left-back while Rafael got the nod over John O'Shea at right-back. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes were the central-midfield pairing, with the former playing slightly deeper than the latter. Both played more of a box-to-box role rather than the deep-lying playmaker role each has been tasked to throughout the current season. Ryan Giggs was the wide player out left and Nani on the right. Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov were the striker tandem. It all looked something like this:
* The single most influential factor in this match was the fluidity of Liverpool's movement in their attack and the interchanging between Kuyt, Suarez, and Meireles. Kuyt, in his "false-nine" role, would move towards the flanks and draw United's defenders out of position, most notably Brown on United's left-side of defense. This Guardian chalkboard shows Kuyt's touches from flanks throughout the game. Suarez was very active in his movements as well from a deeper position and he did well to link play with Rodriguez, Meireles, and Gerrard. Suarez would often get the ball and have time and space to turn and come towards goal because he was operating in the space in between United's center-backs and central midfielders; there were no United players in a natural position to pick him up. Furthermore, when Kuyt and/or Suarez would drag defenders out wide, wide channels were opened up for Meireles to make diagonal runs into the center of the defense and directly towards goal. Brown and Smalling were very poor in their communication and both were easily confused at times as to which attackers to pick up. This was the single biggest problem United had throughout most of the match.
* In contrast, United had very little movement up front and maybe more importantly, no link player to unite the midfielders and attackers. The only real organic link-up play this half came from Evra's runs forward up the left flank in support of Giggs. Rooney has been that link player typically when he's paired with Berbatov and he's done well throughout the season to receive the ball from the midfield and get the Bulgarian striker involved. This wasn't the case today as the two strikers were a rigid tandem up front.
* One consequence of Evra's forward runs this half was that there was space for Kuyt and Suarez to move into when the Frenchman was too high up the pitch and couldn't get goalside of Liverpool's attackers. This also resulted in Meireles not always being accounted for when Suarez/Kuyt dragged a central defender (mostly Brown) out wide to the left, Meireles darted into the unoccupied space in the center of the defense. Because neither Scholes nor Carrick were playing as deep as they typically have this season, neither midfielder were in natural positions to provide defensive cover as they too were often too high up the pitch to help out. These diagonal midfield runs, less so from Rodriguez and more so from Meireles, absolutely destroyed United. Brown picking up Kuyt in wide positions and Smalling tracking Suarez deep invited Meireles into that space (in the diagram below) and he, or even Rodriguez to a lesser extent on the opposite side, were able to receive the ball from Kuyt/Suarez/Gerrard. Similar situations occurred throughout Liverpool's attacking third; the basis being movement and United being extremely poor in dealing with it.
* Scholes and Carrick have clearly grown more comfortable in recent years when deployed deeper. When both started to come deeper to both help out in defense and to have more time on the ball, Gerrard was able to have all the time on the ball that he needed. When this happened, this Guardian chalkboard reveals how both Gerrard and Lucas looked to exploit that same space. The experienced Brown was causing all sorts of problems with his positioning; van der Sar could be seen at the end of half giving him instructions, perhaps in regards to this.
* How could have United dealt with all of this better??? There are obviously no definite answers but I'll offer some suggestions at the end of this review. However, Liverpool were playing very well and would have been difficult to stop no matter what tactics were used.
* After Nani was forced to come off after Carragher's horrific challenge, United brought on Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez. This moved Rooney to the left flank, Giggs to the right, and the Mexican striker paired with Berbatov up front. Liverpool was forced to change up their back four defenders when Aurelio came off with a hamstring injury in the 1st half. Carragher switched to right-back, Kyrgiakos came on as a center-back, and Johnson moved to the left. Liverpool's back-four were very flat.
* Rooney and Giggs were both essentially inverted wingers and were cutting in onto their stronger foot. Carragher was struggling from preventing Rooney from cutting inside in the attacking third and required cover from Kyrgiakos and Lucas. Giggs linked up well with Rafael, who was really bombing up the right-side in support of Giggs with overlapping runs. United seemed to be coming into the match and looking a threat to pull one back when Kuyt scored his 3rd goal in the 65th minute, against the run of play. By this point, the game was essentially over.
* I was a bit surprised that Sir Alex Ferguson unveiled a '4-4-2', especially when you consider that Liverpool was more likely than not to come out in a three-man defense. However, the problems United had with that shape weren't anticipated ones that you might have versus a three-man defense, but it was mainly that the simple three bands of a '4-4-2' often leave too much space for their opponents if their bands aren't staggered a bit. Suarez roaming between United's midfield and defensive bands allowed the Uruguayan to wreak havoc. Had Sir Alex gone with a three-man central midfield and in an overall '4-3-3/4-5-1', one that he often uses anyway in big matches away from Old Trafford, then he would have covered himself tactically versus either a three-man defense or someone deployed deep like Suarez was on Sunday afternoon. The three central midfielders would have been staggered, with one playing deep, one in a box-to-box role, and the third in an attacking role. This would have allowed United to occupy the space that they allowed Liverpool to have. It would also would have better linked United's attack with the midfield.
* The other solution might have been to use secret-healing voodoo to get Ferdinand healthy and a time-travel machine that would let Vidic to go back in time and not get a 2nd booking in stoppage time at Stamford Bridge. Smalling has been terrific deputizing for Ferdinand while the England captain has been injured, but much of the credit likely also goes to Vidic who likely communicates and tells the youngster Smalling where to position himself. Also, the Serbian, who is arguably the best center-back in the world, is able to cover for more mistakes than Brown is. If communication would have been better and United tried to zonal mark a bit more, they would have had more success in dealing with Liverpool's movement.
* A third solution would have been to drop deeper as a unit, stay compact, and strike on the counter with Nani's and Rooney's speed.
* As for the other shenanigans, enough has already been said. I'll comment more as more news gets revealed in regards to Nani's injury. Since this is a few days late, I wanted to mainly stick to the tactics of this match.