Tactics Talk: Liverpool pay the price against Manchester United for putting square pegs in round holes

Jonny Boyle

From Sir Alex Ferguson’s mind-games with Rafa Benitez to the Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra racism storm, tensions have always been heightened beyond the norm when Manchester United play Liverpool. There was none of that on Sunday though as Liverpool began the game 21 points behind their rivals who topped the league. For once the focus was on the field rather than off it.


For all Ferguson’s success, his approach to big games had become largely predictable in recent years. Flood the midfield, counter-attack when possible and take advantage of any mistakes. Aspects of that were evident in his starting line-up, but the personnel selected in his 4-4-2 pointed to a team which would try to dominate. David De Gea began behind a defence of Rafael, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra who started together for the second time this term. Shinji Kagawa and Ashley Young made up the flanks, with the latter switching from left to right and Michael Carrick joined Tom Cleverley in a central pairing which has never lost together this season. Wayne Rooney is still recovering from injury so Danny Welbeck joined Robin van Persie up top.

When Liverpool went to Chelsea in November, Brendan Rodgers went with a 3-5-2 formation and although they drew the game 1-1 after being a goal down, it was down to a second-half change of shape. Rodgers went to this formation again, you would imagine, with the hope of stifling United in the final third and breaking with speedy attackers. Pepe Reina started in goals with a back three of Andre Wisdom, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger. Downing began on the right with Johnson on the left and Gerrard joined Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen in midfield. Sterling had the task of supporting Luis Suarez who began up-front alone.

Stewart Downing 300x225 Tactics Talk: Liverpool pay the price against Manchester United for putting square pegs in round holes

Left-footed Stewart Downing was deployed on the right

First Half United get it right, Liverpool get it wrong

The first half began with United coming out on top tactically and on the scoreboard. With Downing on the left and Johnson on the right, it’s hard to imagine what Rodgers was thinking when picking his team. The former is a left-footed out-and-out winger while the latter is effectively an adventurous right full-back; unless the approach was to control the forward runs of Evra and Rafael, both wide men should have been switched to their orthodox position to give Liverpool the width they craved early on.

United had no such problems as the Cleverley-Carrick connection dominated play in midfield. They made 16 more passes than the three-man midfield they were up against with Cleverley particularly effective as he made every one of his attempted passes in the final third. The tempo was set in the midfield, but the game would be won in the box and in Robin van Persie, United have a forward programmed to come alive in the area.

When Evra found space on the left, he had the time to accurately pick out van Persie whose sharp movement left Agger flat-footed and the outcome was no surprise as the Dutchman notched his 17th league goal since signing from Arsenal.

The main problem for Liverpool came in shape and personnel, which points more to tactical naivety from Rodgers than anything else. First, Downing and Johnson were on the wrong sides of the pitch. If they were picked to stop the United full-backs then they weren’t doing it. If they were picked to play inverted then United’s domination in the middle of the park proves that was a failure.

Added to that, certain players failed to pull their weight and against Manchester United that can’t be good enough for the fans? Gerrard aside, Liverpool’s midfield had little to no positive effect on the first half. Lucas and Allen contributed just 46 passes, seven of which were in their attacking third and had no shots on goal. Some will counter that by saying this isn’t their job, but surely in a five man midfield more than one Liverpool central midfielder should be looking to join the attack?

Second Half Second half Sturridge show not enough to peg United back

Unsurprisingly, Rodgers changed things around at half-time, introducing Daniel Sturridge for the ineffectual Lucas and switching to a balanced 4-4-2. Now, with almost every player playing in their proper position, would Liverpool pose more of a threat?

Before Liverpool could get settled though, the busy Welbeck lost Skrtel with a superb short and spin run which forced the defender to pull him down just outside the box. The away side may have felt fortunate once Howard Webb flashed the yellow card to Skrtel, but the foul proved just as costly.

Van Persie’s free-kick found Vidic at the back post and his header beat a helpless Reina. Liverpool only had themselves to blame. To quote your Sunday League defender, they failed to ‘get goalside!’ and paid the price.

Tasked with getting two goals to achieve anything from this game, Liverpool reacted well. Where Suarez was largely anonymous in the first-half, he now had Sturridge alongside him to help occupy the United defence. It took just four minutes for a response.

A Sturridge tap-in from a Gerrard shot made it 2-1 and game on. It was poor United defending and Ferguson will be unhappy at the drop in tempo after the second goal, but would Liverpool then have enough to get another?

Ultimately, no. Sturridge huffed and puffed in the only real positive of the afternoon for Rodgers and the Liverpool support. United held on for a wholly deserved win.

Conclusion – Square pegs in round holes for Rodgers gives United the win

Rodgers’ tactics must come in to question. Although it is right to praise his change at half-time, surely the fact things weren’t going right, like in their visit to Chelsea in November, points to the manager not yet knowing which system best suits his players? It could have been so different for Liverpool had they got the approach right in the first-half.

The losing manager summed up the game with: “The last 35 minutes, we probably deserved something from the game.” He may be right, but games aren’t won in the last 35 minutes and that’s why Liverpool now trail United by 24 points in the league.

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  • Charles Geddes

    This guy is clueless ! Jonny Boyle obviously knows as much about football as I do about astro physics … nada !! Rodgers started with a 4-3-3 into a 4-5-1 in the first half. At no point in the game did he have a 3 man defence. Can’t believe this chump is being paid a salary to report on something to which he is so inept. UTD won the 1st half because LFC were poor in and out of possession and in RVP, they have a wonderful scorer of goals.
    Rodgers stuck with a 4-3-3 in the second half, but with Sturridge & Suarez given license to roam and Lucas, decent player that he is, removed from proceedings, there was instantly more players further up the field. Rodgers clearly learned from 1st half mistakes and was extremely unlucky not to at least retrieve a point with the chances created in the last 20 mins. Utd clung on in the end and can count themselves fortunate to take all three points.
    So, Jonny, Now that I’ve done your job for you, I expect I’ll be receiving my share of your pay ???? Hopefully you’re better with numbers than words.

  • A. T

    Sorry pal. You’re way off. No 3 man defence was deployed and Liverpool did not change formation in the 2nd, Suarez just played the number 10 role. Article is also riddled with mistakes; ‘Gerrard joined Lucas and Steven Gerrard’….

  • brad.walker

    thats a funny formation seeing as wisdom played from the start as right back

  • redsinexile

    “With Downing on the left and Johnson on the right, it’s hard to imagine what Rodgers was thinking when picking his team. The former is a left-footed out-and-out winger while the latter is effectively an adventurous right full-back.”
    Er, on that analysis, Rodgers got it exactly right. This journalist is seriously mixed up.

  • martin keenan

    ‘That’s why games aren’t won in the last 35 minutes’ …… Er, I think most games are won during this time. Utd away to City, Utd equaliser at West Ham etc. Most people agree that Utd bossed 1st half and L’pool bossed last 20 – 25 mins but overall Utd deserved it.

  • Navin Seeterram

    “… Downing and Johnson were on the wrong sides of the pitch. If they were picked to stop the United full-backs then they weren’t doing it.” Only a journalist asked to report on a Liverpool game without having seen many Liverpool games this season would write this. When Jose Enrique has been injured, Liverpool have been stronger defensively with Johnson playing left back and Wisdom playing right back than having Johnson right back and Downing at left back. Considering Liverpool were playing away at Old Trafford how defensive solidity is not an understandable proposition is beyond me. Also this cliched nonsense about so called balanced 4-4-2’s reeks of an unevolved footballing brian. When Sturridge came on, BR played Suarez in the hole behind the top striker, more so in a 4-2-3-1 that a 4-4-2 with Suarez squeezing the space on Carrick as a pivot to Man U’s attack – which was the main reason Liverpool prevented Man U from passing the ball around as much and Liverpool began to get in the game more.

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