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Deconstructing United's 2-1 win over Liverpool

Just how did United manage to beat Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday?

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Never let it be said that TBB isn't a democracy. Back by popular demand for this week (or perhaps because it has given us another excuse to watch United win at Anfield) is real life tactical analysis, or at least something masquerading as such. We've come up with five of the most important factors behind Sunday's 2-1 win, in which a brace from Juan Mata ensured Daniel Sturridge's late goal was nothing more than a consolation. So, without further ado, let's head over to the chalkboard.

1. Pressing and more pressing

Manchester United have been pretty good at winning the ball back throughout the season -- the problem has been trying to use it effectively once it's at their feet. However, the first half at Anfield was quite possibly their most impressive defensive performance yet, and their pressing is the key to explaining how they were able to dominate possession in the manner they did.

The big problem with playing a back three -- as Brendan Rodgers will certainly now have realised -- is that when faced with an attacking trident it's pretty easy for defenders to be pressed into either giving the ball away, or playing it safe with long, aimless passes. It was no different at Anfield, where Wayne Rooney stuck to Martin Skrtel; Ashley Young pressed Emre Can; and Juan Mata hassled Mamadou Sakho.

That allowed United's full-backs to chase their direct opponents high up the field, boxing Liverpool into some rather tight situations. When Liverpool did hit it long, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones did an admirable job of sweeping up. For perhaps the best example of the efficacy of United's pressing game, take a look at how much higher they won the ball than their opponents:


Annoyingly, United seemed to lose their urgency in the press in the second half, meaning they were unable to truly capitalise on Steven Gerrard's red card. After the game, Louis van Gaal commented:

"In the second half, despite having an extra player, we lost our pressure and lost our shape. We forgot to press the ball and because of that Liverpool could play more easily than the first half and that's not good."

2. Defensive distribution

One of the most impressive aspects of Liverpool's game is their own pressing, led by their energetic front three. In the opening exchanges of this match, they attempted to assert their usual high-pressure strategy, with United's back four given very little time on the ball. However, van Gaal's outfit coped admirably, and were tremendous at distributing from defence -- even more remarkable considering their best ball-playing defender, Marcos Rojo, was only fit enough to make the bench.

They often managed to work the ball across the field long enough for Liverpool's first press to drop off, and allow United to pass into midfield. It was from there that they could use their creative spark to try and find gaps in a rather dodgy Liverpool back line.

3. The midfield advantage

Liverpool's attempts to build from the back were further scuppered by United's superior numbers in the centre of the field. Whereas Carrick sat deep and generally didn't press high up the pitch (probably for the best), Ander Herrera pushed up alongside Marouane Fellaini, never affording Jordan Henderson or Joe Allen the time or space to dictate the play:


But United's midfield superiority was equally apparent when they were on the ball, and none more so than in the build-up for the first goal. With Philippe Coutinho staying high up the field and failing to offer Liverpool's deepest duo protection, the magnificent Ander Herrera was able to find all the space he needed to pull off a glorious through-ball for Juan Mata:


4. Juan Mata

That brings us nicely onto the main man himself. It was unquestionably Mata's best performance in a United shirt yet, with his performance marked by two brilliant goals.

As against Spurs, he started out on the right of United's with the freedom to drift inside. Liverpool's defence struggled to deal with his threat throughout, whether he was making simple diagonal runs, as for the first goal, or wandering into the middle of the pitch to further overload the hosts' midfield. It wasn't a groundbreaking strategy, but a very simple one that worked very effectively.

Unfortunately for Ángel Di María, Mata is looking increasingly undroppable; his brace in this match means he's scored seven league goals this season, with only Wayne Rooney (11) and van Persie (10) having scored more. Considering he's only started two games since January, that's no mean feat.

5. Marouane Fellaini

TBB will be the first to admit that we have, on occasion, let out a groan when seeing Fellaini's name on the teamsheet at the expense of a more creative forward. Though we never really agreed with Sam Allardyce that we were a long-ball team -- quite the opposite in fact, we were a painfully short-ball, slow team -- Fellaini's inclusion meant that we weren't likely to see much pretty football.

But if this Liverpool game -- and van Gaal's comments in the run up to it -- have taught us anything, it's that Fellaini isn't there for pretty football. And though he scored a wonderful goal against Spurs, and had a hand in United's first here, he isn't necessarily in the team for his technical attributes at all. An interesting quote from the manager was published on the United website a couple of days ago, in which he said:

"He has qualities that now, at this moment, he can contribute a lot. That is why he is playing. He also allows me to give balance to the team and that is important for a manager who is looking for balance. I think he has to play higher and higher up and Michael Carrick has to play deeper. I have said a lot of times at press conferences, for example [Fellaini] is a player that gives a solution for beating the pressing of the opponents. That's also a contribution, he has more contributions but that is one of his contributions."

Exactly what van Gaal meant by "beating the pressing of the opponents," we can't be sure, though when things got a little hot under Liverpool pressure in this match, Fellaini always offered an excellent out-ball. What's more, he was very useful in the defensive phase, constantly harrying Liverpool's deep midfielders. The rise of the defensive No. 10 has been one of the game's recent developments -- see Mousa Dembélé at Spurs -- and Fellaini seems to fill this role very well.