Mourinho turns to long-ball tactics for Man United to claim Liverpool draw
Liverpool and Manchester United played out their second draw in the Premier League this season, but this was a contest of far greater intensity, drama and tactical interest than the drab 0-0 at Anfield in October.
Jurgen Klopp switched to a 4-4-2 diamond in which Adam Lallana marked Michael Carrick and Divock Origi challenged Phil Jones, but their best chances came via set-pieces and defensive errors, such as when Paul Pogba's handball allowed James Milner to convert from the spot.
There were fewer surprises from Jose Mourinho, who stuck to his 4-3-3, but United had the better chances in the first half via incisive passes through the backline.
With Liverpool defending deeper after the break, Mourinho threw on Marouane Fellaini as United started lofting passes upfield, while Klopp introduced Philippe Coutinho and returned to 4-3-3. While not easy on the eye, Mourinho's tactics worked, Zlatan Ibrahimovic heading in a late equaliser that left Klopp bemoaning United's direct style.
Klopp uses 4-4-2 diamond
Liverpool have been relatively consistent with their formations this season, sticking to 4-3-3 even without the injured Coutinho who started on the bench, so it was a surprise to see Klopp introduce a diamond system at Old Trafford in which Lallana played behind Origi and Roberto Firmino.
Its main defensive aspect centred on Lallana neutralising Carrick, who is such a crucial piece in 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, Klopp seemed to a have identified Jones as a potential weak link. Origi played notably close to the right-sided centre-back, receiving long balls and working the channel. But Jones did well and Origi's best involvement until coming off on 61 minutes arrived when he chased a long ball over Marcos Rojo, which led to Lallana having a shot blocked.
With Firmino quiet early on, Liverpool relied on set-pieces and defensive errors. On 17 minutes, Jordan Henderson tackled the woeful Pogba to start a threatening move, which eventually came to nothing; nine minutes later Firmino dispossessed Jones near goal, only for Rojo to intervene. The subsequent corner was inexplicably handballed by Pogba, leaving Milner to open the scoring with Liverpool's only shot on target before the break.
United pierce defensive line
That will have been hard to take for Mourinho, who had seen United miss two clear chances. Initially their best bet seemed to be Anthony Martial taking on Trent Alexander-Arnold, the 18-year-old who had replaced the injured Nathaniel Clyne, but apart from a Dejan Lovren backpass that led to Simon Mignolet firing a dangerous clearance into Ibrahimovic which deflected over the bar, United created their best moves via midfielders running through the defence.
This might have been harder had Liverpool not dropped into deeper positions. The visitors had their periods of high pressing as usual, but would also sit back in spells, keeping a compact shape that tried to reduce space between the lines for Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who drifted inside as Antonio Valencia overlapped.
They often succeeded, but the positioning of their defensive line was not always ideal. On 19 minutes, Mkhitaryan played a sumptuous pass to Pogba, who dragged his finish wide. Four minutes from half-time, Mkhitaryan strolled through to collect an Ander Herrera pass, but he couldn't beat Mignolet either.
By half-time, Liverpool had committed several tackles in advanced positions - but it was notable that only two of their 24 ball recoveries had taken place in the opposition half.
Coutinho improves Firmino
After Liverpool had offered little else in the first hour, Coutinho replaced Origi. The switch prompted a return to 4-3-3, with Coutinho on the left, Lallana right and Firmino up front; about 30 seconds later, Coutinho had already played in Firmino who missed a decent chance.
The Brazilian substitute remained a threat, despite Liverpool dropping deeper and relying on counters. He soon took down a long and fired a deflected shot at David De Gea, before his run infield saw the ball drop to Lallana, who tested the Spaniard once more.
Liverpool had further opportunities, but Georginio Wijnaldum could neither convert Emre Can's cross nor a dangerous stoppage-time finish. By then Coutinho had made his mark, and Firmino had also been notably more involved in his favoured role; he received 22 passes in those final 30 minutes, having received only 16 in the hour before. It was also Firmino who drew a late booking from Herrera, and who set up Wijnaldum towards the end.
Mourinho goes route one
Before that, Mourinho had changed things at half-time, bringing on Wayne Rooney for Carrick and moving his captain into the playmaker role. Yet until the 76th minute, United's only real chance with this formula had come when Martial had dispossessed Alexander-Arnold and started a move culminating in Mkhitaryan's low cross zipping past everyone.
By that stage United had already increased the pressure and started lofting it towards Ibrahimovic. Juan Mata had also replaced Martial, and now Fellaini came on for Matteo Darmian, making United even more physical. The Belgian played as a second striker next to Ibrahimovic, with Mata and Rooney hunting second balls, Valencia swinging in crosses from the right and Mkhitaryan playing as a makeshift left-back.
Such tactics would make Klopp comment that in "the last 20-25 minutes, United were only long balls", but 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, and while Valencia was offside prior to the equaliser, Mourinho will have felt United deserved reward for their late pressure. Indeed, on the balance of play, a draw seemed a fair result.
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