Manchester United and Liverpool played out their second draw in the Premier League this season. However, this game was a contest of far greater intensity, drama and tactical interest than the last fixture in October.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp switched his shape to a 4-4-2 diamond.
This allowed Adam Lallana, who played at the tip of the diamond to apply pressure to United’s deep lying playmaker Michael Carrick.
The two strikers enabled Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi to challenge United central defenders Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones. (Example in the image below).
However, Liverpool’s best chances came from set-pieces and defensive errors, such as the penalty that James Milner to converted to make it 1-0.
Jose Mourinho stuck with his usual 4-3-3 formation, but United had the better chances in the first half.
Liverpool took a one goal lead into half-time and in the second half they started to defend deeper. United found it harder to break down Liverpool.
Mourinho brought on substitute Marouane Fellaini as United started playing more direct to try and use Fellaini’s aerial strengths.
Playing in this style of play is not something you associate with ‘the beautiful game’. However, Mourinho’s tactics worked. Zlatan Ibrahimovic headed a late equaliser to earn United a point.
Liverpool’s Diamond Formation
Liverpool have usually stuck to their 4-3-3 formation for the majority of the season. Their key player Phillipe Coutinho was on the bench after coming back from injury. This may have been a reason to why Klopp introduce a change in shape at Old Trafford, it may have been another tactic to stop United from playing and breaking quickly on the counter attack.
The main defensive aspect centred on Lallana neutralising Carrick, who is such a crucial part of United’s build-up play. Lallana would also drop deeper into midfield to make the shape similar to a flat 4-4-2, with either him or one of the other midfielders shuffling out wide to track the full-backs.
Going forward, Lallana was running off Carrick to help support Firmino and Origi with his high energy and attacking quality.
Klopp seemed to a have identified United’s defender Jones as a potential weak link in the team. Origi played notably close to the right-sided centre-back, receiving long balls and using his pace to work the channels. However, Jones defended well during the game and handled the threat that Origi possesses.
Liverpool relied on set-pieces and defensive errors. Jordan Henderson tackled Pogba to start a threatening counter attack, which eventually came to nothing. Moments after Firmino dispossessed Jones near the goal, only for Rojo to block his shot for a corner.
The subsequent corner was handballed by Pogba, who misjudged the flight of the ball, leaving Milner to open the scoring with Liverpool’s only shot on target before the break.
United Go Direct with Fellaini
Before United brought Fellaini on in the second half, Mourinho had changed things at half-time, bringing on Wayne Rooney for Carrick and changing the shape from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. Until the 76th minute, United’s only real chance with this formation had come when Antony Martial had dispossessed Trent Alexander-Arnold and started a move which saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan zip a low cross which failed to reach a United player.
By that stage United had already increased the pressure on Liverpool and started playing a more direct style towards striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Fellaini came on for left full-back Matteo Darmian, making United more attacking and physical. The Belgian played as a second striker next to Ibrahimovic, with other substitutes Juan Mata and Rooney playing off second balls and knock downs.
Such tactics would make Klopp comment in his post-match interview “the last 20-25 minutes, United were only long balls”.
Mourinho argued his tweaks were a response to Liverpool being defensive. “I was looking to the pitch and only saw yellow shirts in the box,” the Portuguese said. “I thought it’s difficult to penetrate, so I thought we should go direct.”
That United were direct was not in doubt, but it eventually worked. Credit has to go to United and Mourinho who switched their ‘Plan A’ style to ‘Plan B’ which was to go more direct. Of course, every team wants to win games and score by playing football that is attractive on the eye. United struggled to break down Liverpool’s defence and they tried every possible option to try and score. In the end, they finally broke down Liverpool’s stubborn defence and if United had an extra ten minutes to play there was only one team looking like scoring.
Klopp will have thought his team deserved the three points after they took the lead and frustrated United for long periods of the game. However, Mourinho will have felt United deserved reward for their late pressure and ability to adapt.
Indeed, on the balance of play, a draw seemed a fair result for both teams.