As expected, Liverpool completely changed their starting XI from their game at Young Boys and returned to their line up against Sunderland. This saw Jonjo Shelvey back in the starting line-up after a brilliant cameo off the bench midweek, being partnered in midfield by Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard
Manchester United made three changes from their 1-0 win over Galatasaray in the Champions League, with David De Gea, Nemanja Vidic and Paul Scholes dropping out of the first XI. In their place came Anders Lindegaard, Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs.
Liverpool’s Early Dominance
The opening five minutes was disjointed, with both sides showing nerves and giving away possession. Liverpool was the first side to get a real string of passes together and early signs of their tactics were evident.
Early on, Liverpool directed their attacks down Manchester United’s left hand side, seemingly targeting Evra. Both Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard played diagonals to Raheem Sterling to try and isolate him 1v1 against Evra.
As the half progressed, Luis Suarez became more influential, dropping in off the central defenders and finding space to turn and run at United.
In the 13th minute, Liverpool’s best move occurred. Raheem Sterling pressed and won the ball off Evra. The ball fell to Allen, who fizzed in a pass to Suarez who had dropped in between the lines of defence and midfield. He then picked out the run of Borini, who perhaps if his first touch was slightly better would have scored.
I have spoken previously about how effective off the ball movement can be to unlocking defences and this was a brilliantly worked move from Liverpool. The three initial runners in advance of Suarez each played an important role in opening up United’s back line.
After winning back possession, Raheem Sterling sprinted into the gap left by Patrice Evra. By doing this, Evans was required to move over to cover his run as Evra recovered. If you watch it again, this allows Suarez time to turn, as Evans was initially moving towards Suarez but dropped off to cover Sterling’s movement.
Shelvey’s run beyond Suarez was again one which made defenders reassess their positioning. This time, it resulted in a change from Carrick and Ferdinand. As Suarez receives the ball and Evans drops off, Carrick is required to close Suarez down in some form; this however meant he had to leave Shelvey.
By Shelvey making an intelligent run beyond Suarez (and therefore Carrick), you can see Carrick turn his head and readjust his angle of closing to prevent Suarez passing to Shelvey. This also affects Ferdinand’s positioning, as he moves two steps to his right to track Shelvey’s run. What this does is it leaves a gap between the two central defenders for a runner to exploit, as Evans is moving to his left, and Ferdinand to his right.
Borini’s run is the one which gets him on the end of Suarez’s pass. His movement from the right to the centre is an extremely clever run. It allows him to get on the inside of Rafael and on the blindside of Ferdinand, where he can receive the pass from Suarez which splits the two central defenders.
Whilst Suarez plays the pass and Borini makes the most obvious run, it is not due to them alone which results in the chance. By having three players (Sterling, Shelvey and Borini) move beyond the man in possession (Suarez), Liverpool is able to fashion a good goal scoring chance.
Liverpool fashioned a few more good chances in the first half and were rarely threatened from a defensive point of view. When Manchester United had the ball, Liverpool were able to pressure them in midfield and frequently won the ball back. Luis Suarez dropped back occasionally to help Shelvey pick up Carrick or Giggs and Allen and Gerrard looked comfortable containing Kagawa, who along with Robin Van Persie barely got a touch early on.
Game Changing Decision
In the 38th minute, the referee’s decision to send off Jonjo Shelvey changed the game. Without going into whether or not it should have been a red card, or whether the referee should have taken action with Evans, what can be clear is that it was an uphill battle for Liverpool.
I will, however, mention what occurred directly before the send-off, and perhaps might upset Brendan Rodgers. Daniel Agger had stepped forward from the back and won a foul in a central position about 35 metres out from goal. Shelvey attempted a difficult early free kick which went out for a goal kick. A matter of seconds later, Shelvey was sent off. Perhaps next time that free kick might be played short, and Shelvey won’t give the referee an option to send him off. He is still young and has much to learn, and apart from these two mistakes it was a very impressive display from Jonjo Shelvey.
As a result of going down to ten men, Liverpool reacted by moving to a 4-4-1 formation.
The difficulty with playing a 4-4-1 formation against a team, such as United, who have three in central midfield (i.e. Carrick and Giggs slightly deeper and Kagawa floating in front), is that it lacks depth to press. What this allows is someone of Kagawa’s quality to find space in between the lines.
This was almost immediately evident just moments after Liverpool moved to a 4-4-1, with Kagawa finding space.
To start the second half, Liverpool and Manchester made one substitution each. Fabio Borini succumbed to an ankle knock and was replaced by Suso and Paul Scholes came on in place of Nani. Liverpool continued to play with a 4-4-1, with Suso on the left.
Suso had a hand in the first two goals of the match. The first, Gerrard’s wonderful left footed volley, came as a result of Suso making an overlapping run past Johnson, beating Scholes with a dummy and putting in a cross. The cross was cut out but fell to Johnson, who later played it to an advanced Gerrard to score.
The second goal was on the opposite scale for Suso, who perhaps showed his inexperience by not tracking the run of Rafael.
After Suso over committed to covering the line, Rafael cut inside and Glen Johnson clearly told Suso to ‘stay with him’. As the move progressed, Suso switched off and did not track the run of Rafael into the box, who eventually got on the end of a beautiful chest down from Kagawa and curled the ball into the net. It was, like Shelvey a moment of inexperience from a young, yet incredibly talented player, and whilst it cost Liverpool a goal, you cannot help but think these young players will grow as a result of the experience.
Rodgers’ Makes a Bold Change
With around half an hour to go, Brendan Rodgers made an adventurous tactical substitution which allowed Liverpool to gain some solidity in the centre of the pitch.
By removing Sterling for Jordan Henderson, it allowed Liverpool to move to a midfield diamond. Jordan Henderson moved to the left of the diamond, Gerrard to the right, Joe Allen was the deepest midfielder and Suso was more advanced. Immediately the midfield structure was visible.
This change facilitated midfield depth, which allows more effective pressing. With more depth in midfield, Allen was able to occupy the space Kagawa likes to work in and Suso was able to press one of the two deeper midfielders, with Suarez dropping in and assisting.
Effectively, Rodgers was willing to concede the width of the pitch, but allow Liverpool to defend the centre of the pitch more effectively.
A late miss touch by Daniel Agger allowed in Antonio Valencia who evaded a challenge on half way before winning a contentious penalty in the box. Manchester United went ahead 2-1, and to rub salt into the wound Liverpool lost both Daniel Agger and Martin Kelly to knee injuries.
Another loss for Liverpool, but it was a solid performance. Early dominance came to nothing when Jonjo Shelvey was sent off and Liverpool went down to 10 men. A goal early in the second half from Steven Gerrard was quickly cancelled out by Rafael and Manchester United eventually took all three points.
Whilst again the result wasn’t forthcoming, Brendan Rodgers and the fans can be extremely pleased with the overall performance and work rate of the team. Even when down to ten men, Liverpool controlled the match and were rarely threatened.
A bold tactical decision, whilst not paying dividends, showed flexibility from the manager and the players, and on another occasion, Liverpool might have won this match.
Despite making errors due to inexperience, Suso and Shelvey impressed. If there is patience and persistence, the results will come in the near future.