October’s 1-1 draw at Old Trafford remains, impressively, the only two points dropped by the Reds in their 21 Premier League games of 2019/20 so far. Jürgen Klopp’s side were not at their best for much of that contest — something at least partially down to the well-balanced set-up and display of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men.
So, what can the league leaders derive from that game to ensure there is no repeat? Answering that question requires a look at the problems the Reds faced and an assessment of the solutions they came up with on the day. The outcome of this assessment must be framed in the context of the respective fortunes each side has experienced in the (almost) 16 weeks since.
It was, in many ways, one of this season’s most intriguing battles. Though somewhat diluted by a slow, bitty rhythm in moments and understandable debate over elements of the officiating, there was a lot of thinking and tweaking before and throughout.
The Red Devils set-up in a 3-4-1-2 system on the day. One that could also be described as a 5-3-2, especially when out of possession.
With Liverpool starting in their normal 4-3-3, this allowed them to effectively match up the Red’s 2-3-5 on-ball shape.
The pacy Daniel James and Marcus Rashford — who admittedly is a huge doubt — could press Joël Matip and Virgil van Dijk, while also looking to isolate them in two-on-two situations on transition. One such scenario led to Rashford’s 36th-minute opener.
Andreas Pereira was often stationed in and around Fabinho or between the lines. Scott McTominay and Fred, meanwhile, could battle it out with Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum.
The back-five (at least out of possession) could also virtually concentrate on a man apiece. Wing-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ashley Young were able to focus on the forward bursts of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold respectively, while the three centre-backs — Victor Lindelöf, Harry Maguire and Marcos Rojo — could do likewise with Divock Origi, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané.
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Injuries may also have had an impact on the set-ups, and indeed the outcome.
Rojo only started the game because of an injury to Axel Tuanzebe in the warmup. Eric Bailly, Diogo Dalot, Luke Shaw, Nemanja Matić, Jesse Lingard and, perhaps most notably, Paul Pogba were also all unfit for action for the hosts.
Liverpool, meanwhile, were without Mohamed Salah courtesy of the ankle injury sustained against Leicester a fortnight earlier, with Xherdan Shaqiri and Nathaniel Clyne the only other senior absentees.
Klopp’s side struggled to create clear chances in the opening 45 minutes in particular. The best came on one of the few occasions United allowed a transition as Matip released Mané down the right in the 34th minute before Firmino’s relatively tame side-footed attempt from the Senegalese’s pull-back was gathered by David de Gea.
Even then, the host’s formation ensured the break was a three v three situation.
It was a scenario that perhaps required a little more individual creativity, rotation and incisive link-up play to test and pull Solskjær’s shape to a greater extent. But he and his team deserve credit for the discipline with which they applied the system and the efficiency and speed with which they broke in moments.
A similar description could indeed be applied to their impressive 2-1 win at neighbours Manchester City last month, one which saw them apply their more commonly used 4-2-3-1 shape.
That, indeed, was the formation Liverpool switched to at half-time at Old Trafford. It was one that did seem to pose different and ultimately more pertinent questions to their opponents.
Fabinho and Wijnaldum acted as the deep-lying midfield two, Henderson advanced to right-wing, Firmino dropped into the ‘10’ position behind Mané, and Origi occupied the left-flank once more.
While allowing more of an overload in buildup, this also provided a stronger base to halt potential United counter-attacks. Perhaps most significantly — as pointed out by Nouman in his tactical analysis of the match on Youtube — it meant there could now, at times, be six operating on the forward line, with Alexander-Arnold and Robertson flanking a front-four of sorts.
This switch, paired with the introductions of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Naby Keïta in-place of Origi, Henderson and Wijnaldum over the course of the second-period, gave the visitors an additionally re-energised, technical look in places.
The benefits of the system and personnel changes could then be seen with Lallana’s 85th minute leveller. Keïta received the ball in an inside-left position, bided his time, allowed Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dart inside to give Robertson an extra few yards of space and then fed the Scot.
Firmino cleverly dummied his low-cross and Lallana crept in untracked at the far-post to convert.
Personnel will be different for both sides this weekend, of course. Joe Gomez will likely retain his place alongside van Dijk ahead of the returning Matip and Dejan Lovren — with the Englishman’s pace potentially aiding Liverpool’s ability to deal with counter-attacks. Fabinho appears close to being an option again after injury but may not start given his last appearance was on 27th November. While Salah should be fit this time around to join Firmino and Mané up top.
For United, meanwhile, McTominay is injured, Young will not feature, having joined Inter, while Rojo has also only recently returned to training following injury issues of his own. Anthony Martial, though, looks likely to start on this occasion, having only managed 10 minutes off the bench three months ago.
Different systems still appear viable options for Klopp and Solskjær, nonetheless.
The Old Trafford club have started with a variation of 4-2-3-1 in every game bar three since October’s reverse fixture — the 1-0 Europa League win at FK Partizan the following Thursday, the 2-1 success at Chelsea in the Carabao Cup on October 30 and the 3-3 draw at Sheffield United in the Premier League on November 24 — where they again deployed a back-three. The latter of which saw them switch to 4-2-3-1 at half-time.
So while the Red Devils’ most settled shape appears clear, the effectiveness with which they have deployed the 3-4-1-2 against both Liverpool and Chelsea’s 4-3-3’s may mean that, or a similar approach, is also seen as thoroughly workable.
They have shown themselves to be a highly dangerous outfit on transitions this term. Something perhaps best demonstrated by their menacing Premier League displays against Liverpool and Manchester City, where they enjoyed 32% and 29% possession respectively, as well as the fact that none of their six league defeats so far this season have come against any of the current top-eight (at time of writing).
This also undeniably reflects the additional consistency they still require. Arsenal, for instance, appeared to earn their recent 2-0 win against them through denying them counter-attack openings. The Gunners only had 48% of the ball but, through that, set United the challenge of breaking down their well-structured shape. One they ultimately failed.
That does mean, in many ways, that elements of this weekend’s meeting are likely to play to their strengths. Potentially just as much, if not more, than October’s. With this being a home fixture, Liverpool can perhaps expect even more of the ball.
Klopp’s men will therefore be intending to use it well. Effectively, incisively and with just the right level of risk. And then the Reds themselves, of course, will aim to be excellent on transitions. They’ll want to snuff out United counters as much and as ruthlessly as they’ll want to pounce on any looseness in possession from the visitors.
In game adaptation could well be required once more. 4-3-3 has its benefits just as 4-2-3-1, or similar, does. As October’s meeting showed. Opening up the option to shift between the two when the moment is right may not even be the worst idea.
So much of these games are defined by speed of thought and application of patience. Quick thinking and swift action, combined with having the patience to to ask similar questions relentlessly, are decisive in such notoriously cagey games.
Variation and consistency feel like opposites, in truth. But, pair them up to just the right degree, add in the characteristic intensity in the stands and on the pitch, and it can help offer solutions in scenarios such as Sunday’s game.
For the above reasons, it feels like Liverpool v Manchester United has the potential to be as interesting as it is intense.