Normally, I wouldn’t feel compelled to circulate tactics on how to beat the team I support, but in formulating my analysis, avoiding the apparent espionage had become mission impossible.
But, as I did so, I took comfort in the fact that Alex Ferguson will likely not be lifting his opposition scouting from these pages, as insightful as they may well be.
My Leaking of intelligence to the enemy, to continue the spy theme, is not really the crime here, anyway. No, the real crime here, is the ease of which Liverpool can be bullied out of game by using such a simplistic principle:
Get in their faces.
For 55 minutes at Old Trafford, Manchester United were in complete control against Liverpool and had deservedly raced ahead to a 2-nil advantage. This had been achieved by playing a high line, and relentlessly closing down the centre-halfs Agger and Skrtel, and keeper, Pepe Reina.
In doing so, this cut supply to the likes of Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard at the source and prevented Liverpool from playing their possession based passing game thats starts from the back. It nullified Liverpool’s attacking threat to such an extent, that they registered only one shot at goal for the entire first half.
The effectiveness of United’s harrying, was best typified by an under pressure Allen, when he played a blind back pass that the United forwards immediately pounced on and staged another attack. Allen was not the only guilty one. Reina too, was forced into rushing his kicks, and misplaced many on numerous occasions. Liverpool were trapped in a corner without an obvious escape route and they knew it.
On the odd occasion in the first half that liverpool did manage to circumnavigate the United pressure, if often resulted in Luis Suarez receiving the ball with a pack of defenders surrounding him, and very little, if any one for support.
Suarez has been in excellent form this season, but even so, such was his isolation, it almost felt as though Liverpool were hoping he would beat United single handedly. He’s good, but no one is that good.
Liverpool have found themselves floundering in such a predicament several times this season. Most notably against Stoke City who seemed to visibly intimidate Liverpool with the “in their faces” tactic. And, in the derby against Everton, who clawed back a two goal deficit.
For the most part Brendan Rodgers’ starting 11 at Old Trafford made sense. Much of the speculation before the game had been on whether he would start with Sturridge. But, given that Sturridge is still getting to full match fitness, starting him on the bench, I believe was the correct decision.
In hindsight, given his goal, many have come to the conclusion that he should have started Sturridge. But this – and it could well be Liverpool fans simply looking for a positive – conveniently ignores that he was guilty of missing a golden opportunity to level the match, and the many occasions he fired into the side netting, when a more intelligent option would have been to square the ball or at least hold up play.
In terms of selection, the bigger issue I believe was not with Rodgers omitting Sturridge, but Andre Wisdom’s inclusion. Specifically at right back.
Andre Wisdom, I hope, one day will mature into an excellent centre half. He is powerful, strong in the air and is quick across the ground. But at full back, (at least when defending) he struggles and has been a liability, due to his natural instinct to drift towards the centre.
During the Everton game earlier in the season he was deployed at right back and for me was culpable in Everton’s fight back, which went largely unnoticed at the time, especially after Rodgers switched to 3 centre backs at half time.
And, again this time, for Robin van Persie’s goal, most of the finger pointing has been directed towards Agger for conceding too much space to the leagues top scorer. And while it is hard to argue with such an assessment, it is in the build up where the goal was truly made.
After winning the ball back deep in Liverpool territory following more concerted United pressure, Wisdom was caught too narrow as the ball was played (as all United teams love to do) out to the wing where Evra was wide open and had plenty of time to take a touch, look up and pick out Van Persie with a crisp square pass who then steered the ball beyond Reina’s reach.
Rodgers has been forced to deploy the youngster Wisdom at full back with Enrique being out injured. However, if Liverpool are to rely on youth players, it would make more sense to keep Glen Johnson at right back where he is most comfortable, and give Jack Robinson a natural full back, who, coincidently is the same age as Wisdom, an opportunity in the left back starting berth.
Liverpool supporters will look to try and take positives and solitude in the marked improvement they made in the second half. And, while Sturridge had a positive impact on the game not least by his league debut goal, it would be false prophecy to believe he was the turning point in Liverpool’s improvement.
The turning point, was in United registering their second goal. At this point, psychologically or tactically, United sat deeper and thus finally, they relinquished some much needed space for Liverpool to play in. Liverpool drawing a goal back only further accentuated the shift in play.
Despite Liverpool losing to their bitter rivals, there are some real positives they can take from their last 35 minutes of play.
For me personally, seeing Liverpool pass, pass, pass, is thoroughly rewarding. Over the 90 minutes, Liverpool completed more successful passes (414) than United even attempted (404), and they enjoyed 54% of overall possession (stats from Opta).
It’s not often that a visitor to Old Trafford out passes and claims more possession than the opposition. However, as much of these positives numbers were accumulated after the damage had been done, Liverpool will need to find a way to force their still forming, passing and possession philosophy against the league’s better teams from the outset.
Only then will they begin to takes points from teams located above them, rather than those just those below.