Premier League, October 20 2019
Liverpool dropped their first points of the Premier League season when a draw at Manchester United ended the run of 17 successive league victories that began in March. Even with Manchester City winning at Crystal Palace, substitute Adam Lallana’s late equalising goal – the first he has scored in the division since May 2017 – means the Reds remain six points clear of their second-placed rivals. United took the lead with a fine first-half finish from Marcus Rashford, and improved significantly on the recent performances that had left manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer under pressure, even if their visitors felt frustrated at having a finish from Sadio Mané ruled out by the Video Assistant Referee for handball. Solskjaer is, however, the only manager Jürgen Klopp has faced in the Premier League more than once without recording victory. "A win would have been great, but a draw is a step in the right direction," the United manager said.
7 / 2
SHOTS / ON TARGET
10 / 4
356 / 257
Passes / Accurate
667 / 562
6 / 0 / 0
Fouls / Yellow / Red
14 / 1 / 0
Manchester United were organised into a 3-4-1-2 formation by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who deployed Daniel James and Marcus Rashford in an unfamiliar front two, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ashley Young as wing-backs.
The positioning of Rashford and James was particularly influential; they attempted to play as wide strikers, between Liverpool’s central defenders and full-backs. With Andreas Pereira operating as their attacking central midfielder, they largely succeeded in occupying the visitors’ back four with three attacking players. Liverpool’s full-backs were therefore reluctant to advance and close down Wan-Bissaka and Young – if they did so, Rashford and James would have been gifted significant time and space – and they therefore delivered multiple crosses into the penalty area, although these were easily defended.
United’s approach involved remaining compact out of possession, and then attacking their rivals on the counter by releasing James and Rashford into the channels to create two-on-twos against Joël Matip and Virgil van Dijk. They also targeted areas behind Liverpool’s full-backs, who pushed up when they were in possession, and attempted to quickly switch play in transitional moments to evade the visitors’ counter-press, always looking to build their counter-attacks where they had a numerical advantage.
Out of possession, Liverpool operated in their usual 4-3-3 led by the front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi, who deputised for the injured Mo Salah. The forward trio sought to press United’s three central defenders man-for-man, but the Reds were troubled when faced with monitoring United’s wing-backs, doing so through a combination of wide attacker, outside central midfielder and full-back. Their collective awareness was strong, but the threats posed by James and Rashford made full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold reluctant to quickly advance. Wan-Bissaka in particular was therefore able to receive out wide on numerous occasions, even if his subsequent balls lacked any significant threat.
When the visitors later adopted a 4-2-3-1 shape, Wan-Bissaka and Young still regularly remained free. They appeared vulnerable to counter-attacks; regardless of suggestions that Rashford’s goal should have been disallowed, United proved capable of creating similar goalscoring chances with Liverpool’s counter-press struggling to cut off the switches of play that left them open on the far side.
Jürgen Klopp again organised Liverpool into his favoured 4-3-3 formation. They had the greater share of possession, and used much of it attempting to overcome Manchester United’s compact block.
The Reds responded to United’s wing-backs pressing full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson by withdrawing them into deeper territory so that those wing-backs would have to advance, and their wide attackers could therefore attack United’s outside central defenders one-on-one. They also attempted to create an overload in midfield, and to draw Daniel James and Marcus Rashford into narrower territory, through Fabinho, Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino surrounding central midfielders Fred and Scott McTominay.
In the second half, and a goal down, the visitors adopted a 4-2-3-1 shape that featured Henderson playing in an attacking position on the right of the line of three behind Divock Origi, with Sadio Mané moving from the right to his preferred position wide on the left. By playing both higher and wider, they occupied United’s wing-backs and created space for Alexander-Arnold and Robertson; they also had an increased presence in central areas, where Firmino sat behind Origi to give an extra attacking option. This eventually shifted into an attacking 4-4-2 shape, with Mané joining Firmino in a front two and substitutes Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana operating wide.
Liverpool’s full-backs responded to that increased time and space by delivering more crosses which, complemented by the movement of attackers who sought to run across the front of United’s defenders in the pursuit of early contact, ultimately led to the equalising goal for Lallana.
United’s 3-4-1-2 became a 5-2-3 when they were defending, as Andreas Pereira advanced to join Marcus Rashford and Daniel James on the top line. The latter two operated between Liverpool’s central defenders and full-backs, so that they were in wide positions for transitional moments. Fred and Scott McTominay played as a defensive screen, and attempted to prevent passes into Firmino’s feet while tracking the runs in behind made by Henderson and Wijnaldum.
In the second half that 5-2-3 became a 5-3-2, in response to Liverpool adopting their 4-2-3-1, and in an attempt to provide greater coverage across the pitch and of the visitors’ dangerous full-backs. Liverpool pursued switches of play to stretch and eventually overcome United’s three-strong midfield.
It was for the final 10 minutes that the hosts switched into a 5-4-1 that sacrificed their counter-attacking threat and left their lone striker outnumbered in the final third – and also encouraged Liverpool to have even more possession and to continue to attack. That latest switch appeared to confuse United’s full-backs and wide midfielders, who became uncertain when Robertson and Alexander-Arnold required pressing. It was a failure to properly press Robertson that cost United all three points and helped Liverpool maintain English league football’s only unbeaten record.