This weekend’s marquee Premier League match saw Manchester United travel to Anfield to take on Liverpool, with a sizeable gap between the two sides in the league table. Indeed, the Red Devils trailed their Merseyside rivals by 16 points before their clash, having scored six goals fewer and conceded a whopping 20 more. They had only kept two clean sheets in the league, while Liverpool had not conceded a goal in ten of their league fixtures. Statistics are often used to paint a convenient picture, but in this case, they did not lie; Liverpool had leapfrogged United as City’s closest challengers, and even a win for United in this game would only hurt Liverpool’s title bid, not bolster United’s own credentials. Nevertheless, Jose Mourinho is still touted as a master of winning one-off games, so there was still a lot of interest in this game; not that a game between these two sides ever needs sub-plots.

Lineups

Liverpool had a couple of injury problems in their defence; Joe Gomez is a long-term absentee, while Joel Matip also picked up an injury in their Champions League tie against Napoli, which meant that Dejan Lovren partnered Virgil van Dijk at centre-back, while Trent Alexander-Arnold’s knock allowed Nathaniel Clyne to make his first appearance in the league this season. Jurgen Klopp picked Fabinho, Naby Keita and Gini Wijnaldum in midfield, with the regular front three ahead of them.

Jose Mourinho once again surprised with his team selection; he selected a back three of Matteo Darmian, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly. The Ivorian was only selected because Chris Smalling pulled up during the warm-up with an injury, while Jesse Lingard played in midfield and Marcus Rashford partnered Romelu Lukaku. Paul Pogba was once again on the bench.

Liverpool’s midfield runs rings around United

There has been a lack of mobility in United’s midfield this season, as the likes of Matic and Fellaini have played regularly, and Liverpool took full advantage of this at Anfield. Mourinho’s team selection made it obvious that he was looking to match Liverpool’s front three man-for-man, but this left an obvious weakness in midfield. Nemanja Matic has been ineffective for months now, and even at his best he was never renowned for his nimbleness; despite pairing him with the terrier-like Ander Herrera, Liverpool found it simple to work the ball around United’s midfielders. Fabinho had a storming game at the base of midfield, passing, tackling and generally running the game, while Roberto Firmino performed his usual role of dropping deep to outnumber United in central areas. Both of these players were individual cogs in a very finely tuned machine, while United were a lumbering mess, forever attempting to put out fires and not preventing them in the first place.

Liverpool Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Even though he is in his own half, the amount of space Fabinho has is astounding
Liverpool Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
In the same move, Firmino drops deep, away from United’s centre-halves, but Matic is not tight enough to him, which allows the Brazilian to move into space

Mourinho turned to his comfort blanket of Marouane Fellaini in the second half, further exacerbating this problem, while Pogba remained on the bench for the entire game. United were in desperate need of creativity and athleticism in midfield, which are Pogba’s trademark qualities, but Mourinho chose to embarrass him rather than use him, further illustrating United’s slide this season.

United sit off and damn their chances

This has been said so many times, especially on this site, that it feels like a broken record, but it bears repeating once again: Manchester United’s passivity makes it too easy to play around them. Almost all the top sides in Europe employ some form of pressing or the other, but the Red Devils have been timid this season; opposition sides are routinely able to walk the ball into United’s half before there is any sort of urgency shown. All three of Liverpool’s goals were a result of this baffling lack of intensity –

Liverpool Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
For the first goal, Fabinho is once again in acres of space, with no United player in a position to close him down. Mane darts inside Young from the right to meet Fabinho’s chipped pass, and opens the scoring with a volleyed finish
Liverpool Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
The build-up to Liverpool’s third goal – Victor Lindelof has had to come storming up the pitch to try and close down Shaqiri, while there are five United players ahead of the ball
Liverpool Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Seconds after Shaqiri lays the ball off to Wijnaldum, the Dutchman has total freedom to come into United’s half and pick a pass, while four United players are not even attempting to close him down, although one of them is the now out-of-position Lindelof

As the images above show, there was also a complete lack of discipline from the United players – failing to track back, not picking up runners, and just a general sense of apathy. More than the lack of any grand tactical scheme, it is this attitude that has been engendered by Mourinho which is the biggest reason for where United are at the moment.

Liverpool Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
The build-up to the second Liverpool goal – Lingard has not tracked Andy Robertson, who is in a lot of space to receive Wijnaldum’s cross-field pass. Notice how Fabinho and Shaqiri are in space too, while the United defence is extremely narrow, looking to cover Liverpool’s front three. Firmino is also dropping deep once again, unnoticed by Matic, while Herrera should ideally have been covering Robertson in Lingard’s absence
Liverpool Manchester United Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
As the move develops, Herrera is too far from Mane to pressure him, while the United defence has stayed resolutely narrow. Firmino is moving deeper, while Matic has his back to him, oblivious to his movements

Conclusion

Liverpool were fairly comfortable winners at Anfield, and while it was not as one-sided as their scarcely-believable shot count shows – the Reds took 36 shots on United’s goal, but most of these were hopeless hits from distance – they were still barely troubled by United. The visitors had very few attacking moves of note, and their lack of pressure on the ball invited Liverpool onto them, forcing the two late Xherdan Shaqiri goals which settled the game. This abject display proved to be the final nail in Mourinho’s coffin, as he was sacked early on Tuesday morning; on this evidence, it was undoubtedly the right decision, and it will now be interesting to see if these same players are transformed under a new, albeit interim manager on Saturday against Cardiff City.


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