Two for the Talisman
OPENING LINEUPS AND FORMATIONS
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson deployed his side in a 4-4-1-1ish shape. David de Gea was the goalkeeper while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were the center-back duo. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back and Rafael was selected at right-back. In central-midfield, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick formed a partnership. Antonio Valencia was the right-winger while Ryan Giggs played narrowly on the left as a 'interiore'. Danny Welbeck was the lead striker while Wayne Rooney played withdrawn from him.
Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish started his side in a 4-1-4-1 shape. Pepe Reina is his side's No. 1 and their first-choice center-back tandem -- Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger -- were once again selected. Glen Johnson was chosen over Martin Kelly at right-back while Jose Enrique returned from injury and started at left-back. Jay Spearing shielded the defense as the holding-midfielder while captain Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson played more advanced in central-midfield. Dirk Kuyt played narrowly as the wide right player in attack and Stewart Downing was selected as a left-winger. Luis Suarez was the lone striker.
United's left-side vs. Liverpool's right-side
Giggs doesn't start many matches anymore on the left-flank as he's redefined himself in recent seasons as a central-midfielder. In this match though, the Welshman was deployed as United's wide attacker on the left but this came with a twist -- he played the role of a an 'interiore', similar to the roles that David Silva and James Milner were deployed in during the infamous 1-6 derby defeat by Manchester City. Giggs continually came inside in behind Gerrard and Henderson -- in the space between the lines. From here, he looked to combine with Rooney and Welbeck when they dropped deep or with Scholes and Carrick when one of them advanced. It was quite clear that Fergie's tactical plan was possession-based and Giggs roamed freely across the pitch so that he could link play. His movement -- which even included taking up positions near the right touchline at times -- enabled United to create overloads and it was difficult for Liverpool to win the ball back. However, Giggs was a bit loose with his passing and gave the ball away too easily at times.
The drawback to using an 'interiore' is that the player's natural counterpart -- in this case, Johnson as Liverpool's right-back -- can be a threat on the counterattack when possession is lost. This problem was obvious early as it was Johnson that nearly opened the scoring in the 10th minute when his left-footed attempt barely missed curling past de Gea at the far-post. On the build-up to the attempt, Giggs was tucked inside again as he was near Gerrard. The narrowly positioned Kuyt had dragged Evra inside and Johnson was free to surge forward into acres of space down the right touchline. This is what freed him up for his dangerous left-footed strike.
Because of Giggs' narrow positioning, and because of Kuyt's natural inclination to take up narrow positions when his side attacks, Johnson provided an obvious out-ball when Liverpool won the ball back from United. The marauding right-back was a key man for Liverpool and this is exemplified by his 78 touches on the ball -- 2nd only to Gerrard for Liverpool. Johnson nearly equalised for Liverpool in stoppage-time when he forced de Gea into making a superb save after another left-footed attempt. Johnson would likely have been involved had Liverpool scored a goal from open-play in this match.
Scholes and Carrick dictate the action -- again
Once again, Scholes and Carrick dictated a match with their composure, calm, and class. Once again, they did it against a Liverpool midfield that included Gerrard and Henderson -- just as they did a fortnight during the FA Cup clash at Anfield.
Even though both Scholes and Carrick attempted over a pass per minute and at very accurate passing rates (96 attempts for Scholes at 91% success rate | 98 attempts for Carrick at a 94% success rate), both were slightly loose with their distribution early in the match. When combined with Giggs' inconsistent passing as well, this helps partially explains why it took United awhile to gain control of this match. While United enjoyed an overall 55% to 45% possession advantage, they only had 49% of the possession at the 15-minute mark. However, Scholes and Carrick eventually settled and for the remainder of the match, their crisp passing allowed them to dictate the match.
Scholes sat in front of United's center-backs and operated as a deep-lying playmaker. He picked up the ball often from defenders and from here, he astutely chose when a long diagonal-ball was needed to be played to the flanks (8/10 long balls), when quick one-touch passing was needed with Carrick/Rooney/Giggs/Welbeck, or when a ball simply needed to swung out wide as he brought the full-backs into attack. Liverpool defended somewhat deep throughout the match so neither Henderson or Gerrard came out high to consistently close down the United maestro -- thus, he had time and space to pull the strings.
Just as they did versus Stoke City during a recent match, the movement between Scholes and Carrick was intelligent and fluid. Neither was positionally stationed left-of-center or right-of-center -- rather their understanding with each other and of the situation allowed them to continually take up clever and interchangeable positions. In the 31st minute, Scholes nearly opened the scoring in this match when his header from a Giggs cross forced a reaction save from Reina. This chance -- which makes tactical sense -- occurred when Scholes quickly combined with both Welbeck and Rooney in the space between the lines before the maestro chipped the ball out wide to the left for Giggs. Scholes surged forward for a late-arriving run -- with Carrick covering by staying deep -- and Giggs picked him out for the header. By this point of the match, and for the remainder of it, Scholes and Carrick bossed the action.
Rooney provides the missing link
As previously mentioned, Scholes and Carrick controlled the FA Cup clash at Anfield over a fortnight ago. However, what United lacked in that match was an influential central player that could link the midfield with attack -- Park Ji-sung provided this when he switched to a central role but he failed to provide the incisiveness that Rooney likely would have had the talisman not been injured for that match. At Old Trafford though on Saturday, Rooney provided this missing link for a full 90 minutes while also using his powerful drive and precision passing to penetrate the Liverpool defense.
As it always is when Rooney plays in a withdrawn role, his movement was intelligent and he had no trouble slipping his natural foil -- Spearing. Combine this with tremendous work-rate -- which allows him to cover so much ground both vertically and horizontally -- Wazza can be unplayable at times. Because of all of this, United are incredibly reliant on him tactically as this allows them to compete well in their currently preferred 4-4-1-1 shape -- even against sides that deploy three-man central midfields. Typically, a three-man midfield dominates a side with a two-man midfield -- assuming the talent level is roughly equal between two sides -- due to their numerical advantage allowing them to pass around their opponents.
Rooney did well to drop deep into the space between the lines so that he could receive passes. From here, he combined well with Scholes/Carrick/Welbeck/Giggs as he linked the midfield with the attack. This forced Spearing to track Rooney and when Rooney's constant movement would drag Spearing out of position, the likes of Giggs/Scholes/Carrick would move forward into that dangerous, and now unchallenged space. With the ball, Rooney was creating chances for himself and others. Without the ball, he was dragging defenders out of position with his intelligent movement and thus, he was still creating attacking moves for United. It would have been intriguing to see how Lucas Leiva -- who is out with a season-ending ACL injury -- would have competed with Rooney. The holding-midfielder is very good with both his man-marking skills and with his ability to provide cover by zonally defending space. On Saturday though, United's talisman provided his side with another stellar performance.
Valencia helps to stretch the United attack
Valencia provided a nice balance in attack for United by stretching play as a true winger near the right touchline. This was especially important with Giggs' narrow positioning on the opposite side. Valencia has been the most impressive United attacker for the past month or so and once again, he got the best of his counterpart Enrique -- the Liverpool defender who has arguably been the standout left-back in the Premier League this season. Enrique's focus was clearly on his defensive duties as he rarely ventured forward in support of the attack -- something he typically does as he's a good crosser of the ball. Thus, Valencia provided another benefit by pinning back Enrique.
Statistics in this match for Valencia support the assessment that he had another strong performance: his 4 key passes (defense-slipping) led were twice as many as any other player on the pitch while his 2 successful dribbles and 2 fouls won details the difficulty Liverpool had in defending him. The Ecuadorian winger was the perfect direct compliment to United's possession-based tactics on Saturday.
Liverpool lack a link between their midfield and attack
Much noise had been made of Suarez's involvement but the striker was relatively quiet in this match -- despite his poached goal that resulted from a United defending miscue. The biggest reason for this was that Liverpool simply had no one that was able to get Suarez involved in the match. The Uruguayan was starved of service for most of this match.
What Liverpool lacked was a player to link the midfield with the attack -- similar to what Rooney and to a lesser extent, what Giggs were providing for United. Henderson and Gerrard were the most advanced central-midfielders for Liverpool but neither was advanced enough to consistently get into the space between the lines. Quite often, both players were 15-20 yards away from Suarez and thus, the striker was isolated. Downing's inability to create chances in this match and Kuyt's functionality hindered alternative routes of service for Suarez.
Had Liverpool chosen to play in an alternative shape like 4-2-3-1, they still would have retained a three-man midfield while also providing a player -- a true central-attacking-midfielder -- that could have been positioned closer to Suarez. This is a role that Gerrard has often thrived in throughout his career. In addition, having two holding-players -- as opposed to just one in Spearing -- may have allowed Liverpool to compete better with Rooney and Giggs.
In the 61st minute, Downing and Spearing were taken off while Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy came on. Suarez now had a partner up front in Carroll, Bellamy became the new wide attacker on the left, and Gerrard and Henderson were now a midfield duo in a 4-4-2 shape. The change accomplished nothing for Liverpool and the same problem existed for them when they had possession -- they lacked a player to link the midfield and attack. Gerrard and Henderson dropped slightly deeper because they no longer had a holding-player in behind them. This resulted in Gerrard/Henderson being even farther away from attack.
Charlie Adam came on in the 75th for Kuyt and Henderson moved out wide to the right. Dalglish likely realized that he wouldn't be able to work the ball from the back to the attack in a build-up manner. Thus, he brought on a player that could spray balls long for his target-man Carroll. From here, the attackers could look to run onto flick-ons or collect knock-downs. This became Liverpool's approach for the last the 20 minutes or so in this match.
MUFC play 'keep-ball' and slow the matches tempo
United were quite comfortable in the 2nd half and this was further exhibited by Fergie not making a single substitution in this match. The United boss was clearly satisfied with his side's approach. After the home side scored their second goal, they simply resorted to 'keep-ball'. Scholes was very active in finding spaces to receive in and when he did have possession of the ball, he was incredibly calm with it. He continued to exert his control as he looked to slow down the tempo of the match with composed distribution. Dalglish taking off a central-midfielder for another striker only made it easier for United to retain possession. As mentioned, Adam's inclusion may have been a possession concession to United as a direct approach became Liverpool's 'Plan B'.
Even after Liverpool pulled one back from a set-piece goal that resulted from a United defending error -- which is shame when considering the terrific performances that defenders Ferdinand, Evans, and Rafael had -- United remained calm and did well to close out the match with further possession. You can't score the equaliser if you don't ever have the ball.
Once United tidied up their early loose distribution, they grew into the match and eventually began to control it. Never again did they lose this control. The first-half was mostly uneventful but the two moments of significance in it -- Johnson's missed left-footed strike in the 10th minute and Scholes' header in the 31st minute -- fit the tactical pattern of this match. After Rooney bagged his brace early in the 2nd half, United tightened their grip on the match by playing 'keep-ball.' United's control of possession in this match, along Rooney providing a link that was missing a fortnight ago at Anfield -- something Liverpool themselves didn't have in this match -- were the main reasons that United captured victory. If anything, a 2-1 scoreline flatters the away side as the home side were likely deserving of a more convincing result. Fergie's side was far from being in top form in this match but nonetheless, they easily controlled the match against a Liverpool side that was very poor on Saturday.