These three were all influences at Anfield -- both good and bad.
Manchester United opening lineup and shape
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson opted for an extra man in the center of the park by deploying his side in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape -- more specifically, it was a 4-1-2-3. Recently demoted David de Gea was given a game between the posts while Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling were the center-back duo -- Rio Ferdinand was deemed only fit enough for the bench after returning to training just a day or two prior to Saturday's match. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back while Rafael was selected at right-back. Paul Scholes sat right in front of the center-backs and the maesto operated as a deep-lying playmaker. Michael Carrick was generally positioned just right of center ahead of Scholes while Ryan Giggs started just left of center and even higher up the pitch. Park Ji-sung was narrowly positioned as the wide attacker on the left while Antonio Valencia hugged the right touchline as a winger. Danny Welbeck was the lone striker up front.
Liverpool opening lineup and shape
Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish is one of few managers in top-flight football that tinkers with his personnel and formations more than Fergie. When Dalglish revealed his starting XI prior to the match -- which included three natural center-backs -- many wondered if the home side would play with three in the back. It was only a week ago when Dalglish used this tactic against Stoke City. However, Liverpool played in a shape that mirrored United's.
No. 1 Pepe Reina was in goal at Anfield while it was Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel that formed a center-back pairing. Jamie Carragher -- who is a natural center-back -- sat right in front of them as a holding-midfielder. Martin Kelly was chosen over Glen Johnson at right-back while Jose Enrique was selected at left-back. Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard were in the center of the park while Stewart Downing was the wide right player in attack. Maxi Rodriguez played narrowly as the left-sided attacker and the Argentine continually drifted inward. Andy Carroll was the lone striker as he played the role of a true center-forward.
Here were the opening lineups and general shapes of both sides for roughly the opening half-hour of the match:
United control the 1st half with superior midfield play
Opta statistics aren't as readily available for FA Cup matches are they are for Premier League or Champions League ones. However, one of the heads of Opta -- Duncan Alexander (Twitter: @oilysailor) -- tweeted these passing statistics during the match at half-time:
"Most passes for Man Utd in the 1st half: Scholes 75, Carrick 60, Giggs 39. For Liverpool it was Gerrard 28, Carragher 23, Downing/Maxi 22."
These numbers do well to sum up the opening half.
Passing statistics tend to be overused at the moment in football analysis and at times, they are misused when trying to prove a point -- or often, they make no point at all. However, when used properly, they can provide insight into tactics or they can help highlight a pattern in a match.
It was plain to see for any observer of this match that United dictated and dominated the match in the 1st half. Of those 75 passes by Scholes, he impressively completed 73 of them (97% success rate) -- it was he who was pulling the strings in this match. The midfield maestro sat just in front of United's center-back and from here, he operated as a deep-lying playaker -- he successfully sprayed passes short, long, diagonally, and wide while quickening the tempo when needed or slowing things down when calm needed to prevail. In addition, the movement from United's midfield trio was good as each kept finding clever pockets of space to receive in. All three were seen at times making late-arriving runs into the box as well -- signifying interchangeability and a good understanding with one another.
Last season during the run-in, Giggs was often the central-midfielder who was deployed left-of-center while Park was the narrowly positioned wide midfielder on the left. The two exhibited a good understanding and fluidity interchanged. When Park drifted inside to provide link-up play with his intelligent movement and tidy short distribution, Giggs would drift towards the touchline and into an area on the pitch where very few footballers have ever exhibited the same match-winning ability as the legendary Welsh winger. This interchangeability can often cause confusion for defenders and/or drag them out of position. Liverpool's right-back -- Kelly -- was continuously dragged inside and this created space for Evra to get forward into for overlaps. The Frenchman was a convenient outlet on the flank for Scholes and this also resulted in Downing being pinned back. With United controlling possession, the Liverpool winger had no choice but to stay goalside of Evra.
Liverpool were positioned deep for much of the 1st half. This was likely a somewhat conscious decision as both Gerrard and Henderson stayed deep and rarely came out high in order to close down Scholes and Carrick. The tactical focus for Liverpool seemed to be keeping things tight in the back and thus, this contributed to both United midfielders having so much of the ball. Carragher's deep-positioning was similar to Scholes -- albeit deep enough to where it seemed at times that Liverpool had 3 center-backs -- and he too was given time on the ball due to United's midfielders not closing him down. However, the natural center-back isn't anywhere near the class of Scholes when it comes to distribution and Liverpool often found it easiest to simply hoof the ball long for their big target-man up front. Because of the relative deep-positioning of Gerrard and Henderson -- and also because Downing was pinned back -- Carroll was isolated and received little support. United would win the ball back and simply build up their attack again through the deep-lying Scholes.
While United did control the match, they failed to create enough chances and this is because they lacked a creative force through the center from the space between the lines. For the opening half-hour of the match, they badly missed injured talisman Wayne Rooney. In the most general sense, United's creativity in attack comes via two routes: (1) on the flanks from their class wingers or (2) from a central player that operates between the lines in order to provide incisiveness (e.g. Rooney). The role of their deep-lying and box-to-box midfielders is to swing the ball out wide to the flanks or to distribute to this central creator. Scholes and Carrick did their part by providing steady distribution but United lacked incisiveness because Giggs was positioned too deep as United's most attacking central-midfielder.
United's right-sided width
The most incisive route in attack for United came from their right flank. Valencia -- who has been in incredible form during January -- helped stretch play by hugging the right touchline as he waited to receive. This was especially important because of the narrowness in attack on the left side. From here, Valencia continuously looked to take on defenders with slightly diagonal runs towards goal -- a good example of this is when Enrique, Maxi, and Henderson all failed to stop the Ecuadorian when he fired a shot off the far-post in the 1st half. In addition, the energetic Rafael did well to motor up the touchline in support of his winger. In the attacking third of the pitch, United also looked most dangerous through this route and it makes perfect tactical sense that their lone goal came from Valencia laying a ball off for a surging Rafael run up the touchline -- the result of which was the Brazilian's cross finding Park for a superb finish in the box.
Liverpool's tactics on corners
Too much has been made of de Gea's struggles since his arrival at United. However, not many argue against the assessment that the 21-year-old fails to command his box at times. Thus, it was no surprise that during each of Liverpool's 3 corners, the home side simply decided to crowd the Spanish goalkeeper with towering aerial threats.
On two of those corners, de Gea looked uncomfortable and during the other, he made the goalkeeping sin of not being decisive on whether to come off his line or not. The result was him getting caught in between and not being able to do anything about Agger's powerful header -- one that actually brushed de Gea slightly on own his head on it's way into the back of the goal. Had the Spaniard stayed on his line, it's debatable whether he would have made the save. However, the concern is with his decision-making during the cross -- he needs to be more instantly decisive. This is a must for a goalkeeper at any level in football.
Liverpool's first corner in the 2nd half didn't come until the 57th minute and it was puzzling that they didn't use the same crowding tactics on de Gea. It was clearly an effective one but for the remainder of the match, Liverpool simply lined up their players near the penalty spot rather than together as an imposing forest near de Gea. This will be a tactic that United and de Gea will need to be concerned about going forward.
Park and Giggs make a switch
At about the half-hour mark during a Liverpool free-kick, Giggs and Park could be seen discussing something and right after this, the former made the switch to the left flank while the latter moved centrally. This proved to be an astute tactical tweak by Fergie and one that resulted in a dominant stretch of play for United.
As mentioned earlier, United were lacking a between the lines player and it was Park who provided for this need. The Korean positioned himself much higher up the pitch than Giggs did in a central role while Carrick dropped a bit deeper. What resulted was a shape that resembled a 4-2-3-1 shape -- Park roamed between the lines as a central-attacking-midfielder while both Scholes and Carrick operated as 'double-pivots'. For the remainder of the half, Liverpool barely saw the ball while the United double-pivots absolutely bossed the match. Park's higher positioning -- one that resembles that of a 'number ten' -- and his clever movement -- which allowed him to continuously slip Carragher, his natural foil -- allowed him to link the midfield with the attack. This was missing for the first half-hour of the match.
While both Park and Rooney are able to find space in this attacking role due to their intelligent off-the-ball movement, the former doesn't possess the same range of passing as the latter. Thus, Park is not able to provide a final killer ball nor long diagonal balls out to the flanks at the same rate as Wazza. What Park can do effectively though is link play and bring others into the attack. Welbeck got more involved in the match when the Korean played just behind him. The other important benefit the industrious Park provided was his continual harassing of the deep-lying Gerrard, Henderson, and Carragher. This helped free up Scholes and Carrick to distribute.
As mentioned earlier when describing United's right-side in attack, the equaliser was logical from a tactical perspective. The other part of it that made sense was Park. His new central position -- which is higher than where Giggs was playing -- allowed him to expose the gap between Liverpool's defensive and midfield lines. United finally had a between the lines player and Park was free in this space for his brilliant finish.
Here are the shapes of both sides during the latter stages of the 1st half:
Liverpool apply more pressure in the 2nd half
Scholes was able to complete 73 passes at a 97% success rate in the 1st half (1.59 passes completed/minute) while Carrick attempted 60 (1.30 pass attempts/minute). During Scholes' final 31 minutes on the pitch, he completed 21 more passes at a 84% success rate (0.68 passes/minute) while Carrick attempted 43 more passes in the 2nd half (0.90 pass attempts/minute). Why did the passing rates drop for both players in the 2nd half?
Both Gerrard and Henderson began the 2nd half playing higher up the pitch in an attempt to close down their counterparts. Thus, both Scholes and Carrick had less space to receive in and also less time on the ball when they did receive. Liverpool didn't control the match at this stage of it but this pressure helped loosen United's firm grip on the match.
The one benefit for United from this tactical change by Liverpool was that there was now more space between Gerrard/Henderson and their back four. This meant Park had more free space to roam in and Carragher lacked the mobility to track his counterpart in this increased area of space. Park continued to pop up in dangerous positions and also to still link the midfield and attack. However, his supply from midfield was decreasing in quantity and when he did receive, two other problems occurred explaining United's lack of incisiveness in attack: (1) Enrique improved as the match wore on and he did a better job in containing Valencia. In addition, Kelly was doing a job on Giggs while Welbeck rarely troubled Skrtel and Agger. Furthermore, (2) Park wasn't able to find a final killer ball -- perhaps something Rooney could possibly have provided in the same role.
Late changes lead to 4-4-2 vs. 4-4-2
In the 63rd minute, Dalglish brought on Charlie Adam and Dirk Kuyt for Carragher and Maxi. The switch was essentially like-for-like as Adam eventually settled into a deep-lying role while Kuyt was deployed on the right flank -- moving Downing over to the left. 9 minutes later, Gerrard came off for Craig Bellamy and the home side switched to a 4-4-2 shape for the final 21 minutes of the match. Fergie took off Scholes (was he tiring?) in the 76th minute for Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) and this also resulted in a 4-4-2 shape.
Here is what each side's shapes resembled for most of the final 17 minutes of the match:
The match opened up -- due to both fatigue and because of less players congesting the center of the pitch -- and it was Liverpool that outplayed United for the remainder of the match. Without being privy to the fitness of either Scholes or Giggs, it can't be said for sure if the latter should have been the one to come off instead. However, it's a shame that Fergie only had the option of inexperienced youngster Paul Pogba on the bench rather than the industry and bite of Anderson. United likely would've been better off keeping a third central-midfielder on the pitch.
Despite Liverpool outplaying United at this latter stage of the match, the tie appeared destined for a replay because of the home side's inability to create enough quality goalscoring chances in open play. However, it was a ball punted long by Reina that Carroll outdueled Evans for on a flick-on -- from here, Evra was caught out too wide while Kuyt made an anticipating run into the open channel for Carroll's flick-on and he hammered home past de Gea. The introduction of Dimitar Berbatov in stoppage time was a logical decision as he provided finishing ability and height in the box for any desperate balls that may be hoofed into it during the final minutes of the match. A second equaliser never came.
This tactical analysis is bit of a long read so I'll try to keep this concise. United dominated the run of play in the 1st half -- more so after the astute decision to move Park into a central role -- but their vulnerability on set-pieces with de Gea in goal prevented them having a deserved lead. Dalglish made an effective adjustment by pressuring United's deep-lying players more -- the result being Liverpool growing more into the match. Both managers switched to a 4-4-2 for the final stages of the match and it was Liverpool that outclassed their rival during this time -- a goal during this span was arguably deserved. United played well and likely deserved a replay at Old Trafford. However, Liverpool deserve credit for exploiting United's vulnerabilities.