Did Liverpool expect Manchester United to play with a back-three?
From what Virgil van Dijk told NBC Soccer at full-time, Jurgen Klopp had given the players an inkling beforehand.
Pre-warned or not, the Merseyside club were far from their best at Old Trafford. But yet, they still came away with a 1-1 draw.
Liverpool's struggle wasn't necessarily to do with United's decision to play with a back-three. Their record at Old Trafford under Klopp has been underwhelming, although it would only be fair to look at the last two years when he's got his team at the level he wants it.
Just like February, Liverpool were uncharacteristically meek at the Theatre of Dreams. But it's potentially a sign of champions-in-waiting that they still avoided defeat. Or also further evidence of how far back Manchester United are as a club.
But back to the approaches of both teams!
In August, Arsenal tried an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful tactic to stymie Liverpool. In their case, it was a 4-4-2 diamond. That system took the decision to deny space for the Liverpool front-three. But they also seemingly accepted the risk of deliveries from the full-backs who were afforded acres of space. Between defensive errors - AKA David Luiz - and Liverpool's quality, Arsenal failed.
Man United replicated one portion of Arsenal's tactic. In August, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe played as a rapid front-two who would split and try to exploit the channels of space on either side of Joel Matip and Van Dijk, with the understanding that Liverpool's full-backs would be compelled forwards often. This time, Marcus Rashford and Daniel James fulfilled that role of lightning-quick players who could potentially drag the Liverpool centre-backs wider, especially on the turn.
What differed and what worked to a degree for United was further back. While Arsenal tried to flood midfield, United sacrificed space there to fill in the defence in a back-three/back-five. Victor Lindelof and late call-up Marcos Rojo occupied the edges of the three either side of Harry Maguire. Scott McTominay and Fred offered protection in front, while Andreas Perreira played in the hole behind the two forwards.
Essentially the shape was 3-4-1-2. Perhaps in a pre-Fabinho era, Perreira would have enjoyed even more joy as the nominal '10'. As ex-Crystal Palace and Ireland defender Damien Delaney recently told Off The Ball, it was something his side used to target when Jordan Henderson played deepest. His propensity to go AWOL up the field used to leave space behind the midfield press and the back-four. But with Fabinho more disciplined as a holder, the channels either side of the centre-backs are the best bet for opposition teams.
That's how the Man United goal came. The general consensus was it was a foul on Divock Origi. But that major controversy aside, Scott McTominay quickly released James down the United right.
The pacy Welsh winger then exploited the space and fired a cross towards the centre of the box. In previous games, Rashford had incurred criticism for poor movement in the box when awaiting crosses. Many times, it was the fact that he didn't react and make runs towards the near post in an effort to beat centre-backs to the ball.
This time, he motioned as if to move towards the near post. But then he thought better of it and stayed behind Matip. With no full-back cover from Alexander-Arnold, Rashford had time and space to turn in James' excellent cross.
That out-ball to one of the pacy forwards to run onto and isolate Van Dijk or Matip was often United's go-to. Earlier, in the 19th minute, Rashford had drawn Van Dijk away from his position. But that time he tried to go inside rather than taking the Dutchman on down the width of the pitch and then misplacing his pass inside to James.
If you look at the changes Klopp made in the second-half, he designed them to add more creativity in midfield. Adam Lallana, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided more of a spark in that department than the jettisoned Henderson or Gini Wijnaldum.
Lallana got the equaliser after ghosting in at the back-post. But another interesting change in shape from Liverpool related to Sadio Mane. Starting on the right of the crowded front three as opposed to his usual left-side due to Mo Salah's absence, the Senegalese forward played more centrally in the latter stages. Origi had departed to the bench by then, leaving Mane and Firmino to lead the line. That meant Mane occupied one of the Manchester United defenders when crosses came in from the full-backs. Thus, a combination of lax concentration, Mane's presence and Lallana's willingness to make a run into the box, resulted in Liverpool levelling the game.
You can also watch Kevin Kilbane's Manchester United v Liverpool reaction below which followed our live commentary of the game:
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