Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United

​Perhaps the most anticipated derby in English football, encounters between Liverpool and Manchester United, many of which are grounded within footballing folklore, typically immerse great quantities of tension, excitement and more importantly, goals. However, many were left rather disappointed by the final score; José Mourinho’s masterfully orchestrated game plan, which revolved around the aim to nullify Liverpool’s goalscoring opportunities resulted in the match ending 0-0. 

Thus, an array of tactical aspects can be analysed, and subsequently explain the pros and cons of each side’s respective performance.


Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side lined up with an expected 4-3-3 formation. The injury to Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, and Adam Lallana starting as a substitute meant Emre Can featured as a right-sided central midfielder, and Philippe Coutinho dropped from a left-wing berth into midfield. Jordan Henderson’s role as a lone pivot conveyed the possibility of dropping alongside the central defenders to instigate build up, which in itself contradicted the way in which Manchester United had set up; Mourinho deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation aiming to maintain structure in order to relinquish goal scoring chances on Liverpool’s behalf. Ashley Young replaced an unavailable Anthony Martial which was perceived as a halt towards penetration within counter attacks. 

Faults within Liverpool counter-pressing

What was perhaps Liverpool’s primary threat, the anticipated counter press ignited by intense off ball movement was much weaker in comparison to previous league encounters, most notably against Arsenal and Chelsea in which the Reds won 3-4 and 1-2 respectively. The press was nullified by the way in which Manchester United played, but was heavily apprehended by both Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum not starting in central midfield roles. The deployment of Daniel Sturridge as the leading striker, while considered not necessarily adept within Klopp’s press-orientated system, was a burden towards counter pressing manoeuvre’s. For example, the deployment of Roberto Firmino as a left winger, and Philippe Coutinho as an “8” in midfield resulted in a lack of both industry and tenacity within the press directly against the Manchester United defence and deep-lying midfielders. Firmino’s peripheral role relinquished how tightly the Brazilian could pressurise the opposition back line. Daniel Sturridge’s lack of movement without possession thus nullified Liverpool’s counter pressing. 

The pressing which has dictated Liverpool’s overall game play since Klopp’s appointment as manager is heavily influenced by Adam Lallana for two key reasons. Firstly, Lallana is adequate in terms of occupying the right positions without possession.  Lallana’s positioning assists in the closing down of passing lanes. As s well as this, Lallana possesses the ability to switch defence to attack within midfield through changing his position upon regaining possession through either making off ball runs, subsequently breaking down Defensive lines or taking part within commonly effective midfield interchanges, which were missed by Liverpool, especially during the first half. It was very clear that the differentiations within player positioning had a massive effect on how well Liverpool pressed. It was only when Daniel Sturridge was substituted for Adam Lallana that Liverpool began to test Manchester United, with Firmino breaking the defensive structure, forcing a vital challenge from right back Antonio Valencia. 

Retrospectively, Manchester United were partially halted by the counter-press regardless of its quality, in the sense that the Red Devil’s game plan, utilised to halt the press brought upon a decrease in the sides capabilities regarding creativity; less passes were made from deeper areas, therefore there was no available opportunity to evade  Liverpool’s first phase of pressure (progressively). 

Solidity within Manchester United’s midfield 
An aura of authority within midfield areas was implemented by Manchester United, particularly during the first half. Mourinho’s side deployed a high press, with the teams structure being maintained within a higher area of the pitch. The positioning of the Manchester United press forced Liverpool into deeper areas, derailing the home sides build up, especially intricate passing interchanges. The high press deployed by Manchester United cannot be credited as “parking the bus”; Manchester United’s high press shows that though there was great intent in winning possession and demolishing Liverpool’s goal scoring chances, there was no motif of desperate defending, or simply aiming to maintain a clean sheet.

Work rate and support offered by Rashford and Young creates a substantial horseshoe, enclosing Liverpool within deeper areas.

Another reason for the lack of interchanges between Liverpool midfield players was the compactness offered by Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera. The two deeper positioned midfielders of Manchester United’s central trident, Fellaini and Herrera were the spearhead of Mourinho’s game plan, fixating in deeper areas within midfield maintaining structure in the process, and closing down passing lanes between midfield and defence in order to protect the back four. In addition, the performance of Ander Herrera exerted control within midfield; showcasing the most completed passes (50 passes), 11 interceptions and 100% completion in terms of take ons, Herrera was excellent in breaking down attacks, notably closing down Coutinho when drifting into the half spaces. Herrera may not have dictated build up in a progressive sense, mainly as a result of United’s tactical foreplay, but Herrera was pivotal to United controlling the games tempo. 

Disciplined and compact are two words that could arguably describe Marouane Fellaini’s performance. Fellaini, in similarity to Herrera broke up attacks by breaking down possible interchanges. Though Fellaini was disciplined, phases of ball watching were exposed by diagonal runs made by right Winger Sadio Mane during the Second half, which could have disfigured the structure of the midfield barrier protecting the space in front of defence. Perhaps Liverpool also missed the advancing midfield runs of Wijnaldum. A key cog for interchanges, exemplified via Wijnaldum’s goal vs Arsenal (3-4),  no Liverpool midfielder was prepared to break down the well organised defensive line, without possession of the ball.

Mourinho’s plan was continued through the congestion of spaces within either flank. 2 or 3 vs 1 situations were deployed in order to restrict service from Nathaniel Clyne and Sadio Mane for example, and to allow Liverpool as little opportunity to expand as possible, perhaps aiming to leave the home sides structure rather narrow, adding convenience to the regaining of possession. The decision to start Ashley Young on the left-hand side of midfield, ahead of an unavailable Anthony Martial or Jesse Lingard connoted the aim to add extra defensive cover within both the left Half space and left wing, 1 vs 1 duels between Mane and Blind could have caused problems for Manchester United. 

Both wingers are essential to the aggressive apporach; tracking back to allow defensive solidity, either forcing Liverpool wingers inwards, directly into a defensive pressing trap, or assisting the respective full-back in the regaining of possession.

Paul Pogba halted by Manchester United game plan

Finding great difficultly to fulfill the £89million price tag, Paul Pogba was halted by the respect Manchester United showed to the opposition. Less passes were sprayed towards Pogba, who was ironically creating more movement into dangerous areas than in previous games (vs. Feyenoord and Watford). Extra movement was undertaken due to Pogba being deployed as a free roaming “10”, with less defensive responsibility than while deployed as either a “6” or an “8” (within 4-3-3/4-1-2-3 formations). Freedom to roam the half spaces and the space between Liverpool’s midfield and defence was enabled by the work rate of Herrera and the positional fixation of Fellaini; both aspects intertwined constructed a tenacious double pivot. 

Unfortunately for Manchester United, this was never fully taken advantage of by Pogba. 

Pogba could have evaded tight marking, and influence build up play further for himself by drifting into either half space, which would have inevitably forced even more pressure upon Clyne and Mane or Milner and Firmino (depending on which side was occupied). Pogba could have participated in a 1 vs 1 situation, using admirbale strength or technical ability to consequently hold up possession allowing a teammate into space, adding more numbers into advanced areas of the pitch. 

Theoretically Pogba could have drifted to the right halfspace, where hold up play could occur subsequently, allowing a maurading run from Rashford or Ibrahimovic. Either way, the defensive structure may have been disfigured.

Less build up play from deep-lying areas

Manchester United endured a tretchurious performance in a creative sense, this was mainly due to the sheer lack of build up play from defence and deeper areas of midfield. Neither holding midfielder (Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini) dropped between the centre backs to carry the ball into midfield, or pass the ball through between lines. Instead, longer passes with more height were carried out to evade the Liverpool press.

There was also less possession of the ball on behalf of central defenders Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling, exemplifying how fearful Manchester United were of Liverpool’s counter pressing style. This sense of fear was also showcased by less peripheral passes being played to either Full back (Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind). Had this interchange occurred, Liverpool could have deployed a clinical 2 vs 1 situation, either winning possession from the full back, or forcing a returning backwards pass, which would ignite further pressurising (In this theoretical situation, Liverpool would have been able to switch to a flat front line press, with the wingers drifting inwards towards the centre, allowing the Central midfielders to push forward). 

Daley Blind, a key creator in chief for Manchester United did not have enough time or space to instigate an attack; Blind did not overlap as much in comparison with Manchester United’s impressive 4-1 victory over Champions Leicester City. Against the Foxes Blind completed 4 crosses within the first half alone while against Liverpool, Blind failed to begin attacks through vertical passes between lines suggesting the inability to be press-resistant. 


Author: Ryan Quinn

A freelance football journalist, focusing on the historical and tactical sides of the beautiful game.