Man United overcome Liverpool's high pressing as Roberto Firmino links play
Liverpool may not have deserved to lose 1-0 to Manchester United on Sunday, but the nature of their downfall was too familiar to be written off as bad luck. Like in the 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford in September, United converted every shot on target. For a fourth time in four league games at Anfield, Liverpool conceded from a corner.
The result belied a game in which United did not play well by any standard and, particularly in the first half, you could see why their last win on the road had come at Watford in November. They struggled to bypass Liverpool's high pressing, and it hardly helped that Morgan Schneiderlin and Marouane Fellaini took up such deep positions, leaving Ander Herrera and Wayne Rooney largely isolated further up the pitch.
At the other end, Roberto Firmino justified his selection ahead of Christian Benteke by proving neat and lively link-up player. The downside was that chances often fell to midfielders rather than a natural goalscorer; both Jordan Henderson and Emre Can would storm into advanced positions and fire away, but neither managed to beat an excellent David De Gea.
United adjusted their passing game in the second half, a tweak particularly evident in the distribution of Daley Blind, who launched a series of long passes towards Rooney. It did little to make their play more fluent, but neither did it have to, as Rooney hammered home from a 78th-minute corner to seal a seventh win over Liverpool in nine league games.
United quelled by high pressing
There was always going to be an interesting clash of styles in this fixture. Under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool's pressing had lowered the pass-completion rate of every league opponent so far and, in that context, Louis van Gaal's emphasis on patient build-up play appeared to make United a favourable opponent. Klopp duly selected the workmanlike duo of James Milner and Adam Lallana out wide, with Lucas anchoring midfield behind Can and Henderson in a 4-5-1 system.
United did offer pace on the flanks through Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, but their central trio of Schneiderlin, Fellaini and Herrera were less mobile and combative than their opponents. Most moves from the back started with Blind, the left-sided centre-back, but Klopp was happy to send Can, Henderson and even Lucas into advanced positions to close down his options, knowing United would be unlikely to circumvent such pressure and find Herrera and Rooney. Even if that did happen, his midfielders were quick enough to recover.
With Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Toure marshalling Rooney, United struggled to achieve any kind of fluency and cohesion. Chief playmaker Herrera came deeper in search of action, leaving even fewer options for Blind. At one stage, Blind walked the ball out from the back, with Schneiderlin behind him and Herrera just next to him. That left just Fellaini, Rooney and the two wingers as forward options and, with neither Martial nor Lingard beating their markers with any regularity, the conditions were hardly favourable.
By half-time United had mustered two efforts, Rooney had received nine passes, and the top passer in the final third had been right-back Ashley Young, who had completed six. The Stats Zone video above shows how rarely Fellaini and Herrera took up auspicious positions, and Van Gaal would later note that his first-half tactics did not work.
Firmino links up play
The dynamic was in some ways the opposite for Liverpool. Rather than having Rooney losing duels up front, they had Firmino dropping deep to exchange passes. This was crucial, because United also stood high and sought to mark all options available to the ball-playing centre-back, which was Sakho. When they managed to do this, Firmino often offered an extra outlet and received six short passes from Sakho to help Liverpool maintain their rhythm.
The Brazilian also posed a danger closer to goal, drilling a rebound just wide on 10 minutes after De Gea had saved Lallana's effort. Two minutes later he swept a sumptuous ball to Milner, who directed it off target. He also extended a pass inside the area to Henderson, whose low finish went so close that Klopp was nearly thrown off balance on the touchline. By full-time, Firmino had set up five shots; two more than anyone on the pitch.
Can and Henderson test De Gea
Firmino also triggered reverse movements. When he dropped deep, Can and Henderson would sometimes burst into or near the vacated zones up front, meaning the tasks of creating and scoring were switched. Neither of the two midfielders created a single opportunity, but had seven attempts and some of the biggest chances, one being Henderson's aforementioned shot.
Five minutes into the second period, Can was played in after a move involving Firmino and fired straight at De Gea. Another 13 minutes later, Firmino squared to Henderson whose 20-yard drive was stopped. Then Can unleashed another stinging shot at the Spanish goalkeeper, who saved before also beating away Firmino's rebound effort. The very last chance originated from a surging Can run down the right, but Firmino failed to control Milner's miskick.
Van Gaal goes more direct
The smash-and-grab nature of United's victory might have made it tempting to laud Van Gaal's tactics, but in reality there was limited evidence of improvement. The Dutchman felt his side kept the ball better after the break, though that was not reflected by the statistics: United completed 168 out of 230 passes in the first period, and 147 out of 202 in the second. That meant the number of completed passed decreased by 21, while the accuracy fell from 73 percent to 72.7 percent.
What Van Gaal did do was to introduce a more direct build-up style to evade the high pressing. The most conspicuous evidence was found in the distribution of Blind, and while few of his long passes reached their intended target, United did at the very least get the ball forward. Indeed, the move in which the decisive corner was created came from an early pass to Martial, who had gone close earlier in the half. Rooney then pounced, leaving Liverpool to contemplate familiar failings.