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Tactical Analysis: More than a bad day at the office

New tactics piece...

Liverpool FC v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

It would be wrong to say when the final whistle blew Manchester United fans were left in shock. At that point, United fans had had over 20 minutes to process what was happening at Anfield.

By the time the final whistle blew we were onto the explanation phase. How did this happen? What went wrong? The usual narratives were thrown out, the players don’t care, they weren’t making an effort, or that they quit.

But this time some other answers came out. Liverpool were ruthlessly efficient, the amount of matches they’ve played is catching up to them, they had “a bad day at the office.” It happens.

There is truth to that. United are in the midst of a brutal schedule playing just about every three days since the World Cup. No team in Europe has played more matches than Manchester United this season. Just in the past two weeks United have played two excellent matches against Barcelona and also won a trophy. They’re firmly one of the four best teams in the Premier League and one loss - whether it’s 7-0 or 15-0 - does not change that.

Make no mistake though. This was a beatdown. The score line flattered Liverpool, this match was probably closer to 4-0 or 5-0, but then again the match at the Emirates was probably closer to 4-1 or 5-2 than a 3-2. The Merseyside club scored on seven of the eight shots they put on target. You can argue that’s a freak thing that doesn’t typically happen, and unlucky for United, but on the other side they also failed to hit the target on seven shots from inside the box. The 0.16 xG per shot is the highest United have conceded in a match this season.

It wasn’t United’s day. Casemiro was uncharacteristically poor. Lisandro Martinez and Bruno Fernandes right behind him. There were poor displays everywhere and that includes from the dugout.

Erik Ten Hag has been pushing all the right buttons lately but on Sunday he pushed all the wrong ones. It’s the manager’s job to put his players in positions where they can succeed. That didn’t happen Sunday.

On the other side, a manager wants to create matchups that will expose your opponent’s weaknesses. Jurgen Klopp had a plan for how he would do exactly that. He used clever rotations to isolate players and create favorable matchups for Liverpool. Those patterns were prevalent throughout the match with Ten Hag never seeming to adjust to them. As the match wore on United’s players kept ending up in poor situations and kept failing.

Following the match against Leicester City, Talkin Tactics put out an informative thread on how United press. As United typically use their winger to press the opposition center back, it typically leads to a man being left free.

Leicester utilized the free man by focusing their attacks down the right side throughout the first half of the match. They were able to generate a few decent chances. At halftime United adjusted.

On Monday, Sky Sports contributor, Dharnish Iqbal, showed this isn’t anything new. United have been pressing like this as far back as the Arsenal match back in September.

Jurgen Klopp had done his homework and he was ready for this.

Very early on we see Antony marking center back Virgil Van Dijk. United’s fullbacks were responsible for man-marking their respective wingers, going wherever they go. That leaves left back Andy Robertson wide open on a goal kick.

Liverpool try to exploit this by going directly to Robertson from the goal kick. In this particular case Robertson mis touches the ball and it goes into touch.

A few minutes later, again we see Antony marking Virgil Van Dijk and no one on Robertson.

Again Liverpool go right to him only this time Fred reads the danger and is quick to close him down.

Four minutes later, it’s a bit different. This time the ball isn’t with the goalkeeper but center back Ibrahima Konate. United are in their base defense 4-2-3-1 formation, though due to man-marking Wout Weghorst is in the pivot next to Casemiro.

Right back Trent Alexander-Arnold has tucked inside, leaving Bruno Fernandes to pick him up. With Alexander-Arnold coming inside, midfielder Harvey Elliot moves out wider towards the touchline. Just off the picture right winger Mohammad Salah is also on the touchline, keeping Luke Shaw occupied. This puts Casemiro in a position where he needs to either vacate the middle to cover Elliot, or leave him free.

While all that’s going on, notice who is at the bottom of the picture, with United hardly giving a care in the world about? Andy Robertson.

Konate passes directly out wide to Elliot. Bruno follows the ball out wide leaving Alexander-Arnold to be picked up by either Weghorst or Casemiro.

Once Bruno runs out wide, Alexander-Arnold makes a simple forward run, running right by Weghorst and Casemiro.

A quick one two gets Alexander-Arnold the ball in space, he’s able to run right United’s centerbacks who both have to be wary of the threat. Right back Diogo Dalot has to drif inwards to cover the middle, leaving Robertson free.

This nearly resulted in Liverpool’s first goal of the match if not for a great save from Lisandro Martinez.

It is no surprise that when Liverpool did finally get their breakthrough it came from the same pattern.

Left winger Cody Gakpo has moved inside taking Diogo Dalot with him. Antony is high up the pitch leaving Robertson WIDE open. Allison opts to go directly to Robertson.

As soon as the ball is played Dalot leaves Gakpo and comes running over to cut down Robertson, opening up the channel for Gakpo to run into.

Robertson immediately cuts inside taking Dalot with him. This gives Gakpo space to pull out wide, and with Fred coming back to cover Dalot, Liverpool have now turned Fred into a right back and isolated him 1v1 with Gakpo.

That’s a match up in Liverpool’s favor and they know if that’s the look that they’re getting Fred is unlikely to be successful. Fred’s unable to track the run of Gakpo allowing him to get in behind. Raphael Varane has to come over to help and he just doesn’t have enough time to get there.

Cody Gakpo gave Diogo Dalot a torrid time all game dragging him in every direction possible. On the right side Mohammad Salah did the same to Luke Shaw, allowing Harvey Elliot to find himself in space throughout the match. Liverpool continued to attack via this pattern all this game and late in the second half it lead to another goal.

With Salah and Gakpo tucked inside we see United’s back four playing extremely narrow. United’s forwards are marking man for man and all the while no one is picking up Harvey Elliot.

While it looks like United’s midfield pivot of Marcel Sabitzer and Scott McTominay could shift over and have Sabitzer cover Elliot, McTominay is actually moving towards the middle of the pitch. Sabitzer is moving to get close to James Milner and if we look at the frame just two steps later, it’ll already looks drastically different.

Bruno doesn’t follow Milner over, giving him an incredibly easy pass to Elliot who has no one within a country mile of him. Elliot begins moving towards the box forcing Tyrell Malacia to choose between leaving Mo Salah or giving Elliot a free path into the box.

Malacia does neither. He doesn’t commit to closing down Elliot nor does he stay with Salah. Ultimately neither Malacia nor McTominay bother picking up Salah leaving him free to tap in his second of the match.

Ten Hag never had an answer for what Klopp was doing. He never adjusted. It’s a managers job to put your players in positions where they’ll be successful and get them out of positions where they’ll struggle and he never did that.

United collapsed in the second half but the first half saw Jurgen Klopp’s tactics work nearly to perfection. It was only Liverpool’s lack of execution that made the match appear closer than it was.

Liverpool blew the game open just after halftime on a goal where just about everything went wrong. Luke Shaw gave the ball away, both Casemiro and Raphael Varane seemingly won the ball back but somehow neither actually won the ball back. Down 2-0 United got more aggressive in throwing men forward and were immediately picked off on the counter. From there old problems started to reel their old heads. United conceded from a set piece, they conceded from their own set piece (just how Brentford scored their third and fourth goals). With 15 minutes to go Ten Hag took two of United’s best players on the season - Casemiro and Lisandro Martinez - off, which essentially waived the white flag. That’s a strategic move to save their legs but it’s not surprising that the players on the pitch opted to do the same.

Losing 7-0 is never fun but in the grand scheme of things it’s one game. It’s highly likely this will have the same affect in the table as a 1-0 loss - if United miss out on the Champions League because of goal difference that would mean a lot of other things have gone wrong.

It was one of those nights where when it rains it pours, though it’s certainly concerning that this is the third time United have been vastly outplayed in four away matches against top six sides this season. There’s valid concern that the number of matches United have played are catching up to United. If that’s the case Ten Hag’s decision not to rotate the squad in January will certainly come under closer scrutiny.

Ten Hag may have been outclassed on the day but no one deserves any more blame than anyone else.

Ten Hag is a coach with very little (public) ego. After the Brentford match Ten Hag had United ran 14 kilometers in training the next day. Ten Hag did the running with the team as he (correctly) assessed that he was part of the blame that day as well. Ten Hag knows he was beaten on the day but we can be sure he’s working to fix it.