Analysis: Manchester United’s defensive issues perfectly highlighted in Liverpool defeat

Protests, postponements and punctured bus tyres, among other things, could not stop two historic rivals from colliding for one last time in the 2020/21 season, as Liverpool visited Old Trafford to face Manchester United.

The Red Devils had secured UEFA Champions League football for next season as they sat a comfortable 10 points clear of the fifth-placed side, but with only four points between themselves and third-placed Leicester City, the runners-up position was not yet a done deal.

However, what would have been sweeter was a win to derail Liverpool’s Champions League ambitions for possibly the final time this season as the visitors were way down in sixth with seven points to fourth-placed Chelsea, although they did have a couple of games in hand.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side ultimately could not manage that, though, as they were blown away by Liverpool in a 2-4 defeat despite taking an early lead.

Following his injury against ex-club Leicester City, captain Harry Maguire was not in action for the home side for the first match in his time in Manchester, and he was sorely missed as United were quite disastrous defensively.

They conceded four goals to Liverpool for the first time in the Premier League, having last done so at their home stadium back in 1910.

In this analysis, we will inspect all of United’s defensive frailties that Liverpool exposed last night.

Set-piece problems

United’s set-piece problems have been quite well-documented this season – they have the second-worst record at defending them in the Premier League, having conceded 14 times from such scenarios. These issues were once again on show against Liverpool.

The Red Devils’ set-piece defending system typically uses a mix of a zonal and man-marking system, where the far post area has the latter.

In this case, Paul Pogba (who had, by the way, given away this set-piece for the silliest of fouls) was keeping an eye on Roberto Firmino, and the situation was under control at this point.

Then, Andy Robertson gave this signal:

It was undoubtedly meant for Firmino, as the Brazilian striker sneakily moved a couple of steps away from his marker without attracting Pogba’s attention.

The ball was then delivered to the far post region, where Firmino naturally headed home with Pogba on the floor.

Some of United’s defending, though, was just downright lazy. Case in point: Liverpool’s equaliser. When the loose ball dropped in front of a red mass of bodies, the players at the edge of the box did not give a singular damn to where it might end up.

Instead, Scott McTominay was quite literally walking away while Bruno Fernandes and Fred were possibly pulling out some popcorn for what they were about to do next.

All of this ball-watching naturally left acres of space in the box, so Nathaniel Phillips decided to run into it. His movement was directed straight towards Fernandes and Fred, but the popcorn was too delicious to drop for them.

So, Phillips pretty much managed to get right under their nose before shooting…

…with his effort being flicked in by Diogo Jota.

Needless risk-taking in possession

Lastly, United aren’t even safe from themselves when they have the ball, as they often make poor decisions in tight areas at the back.

Even in less dangerous positions, their choices can be quite puzzling. In this instance, for example, Bailly has time on the ball with pressure arriving soon. The simple choice would be to go back to the keeper, who would have yet more time to easily deal with it.

Instead, the Ivorian centre-back decides to take the opponents on and pick a pass through them, which is where he obviously fails and gives the ball straight to a Liverpool man.

Victor Lindelöf was no saint either in these terms, as he made a few questionable decisions. In this instance, he could have done many things, most of which involved passing the ball to a teammate and mainatining safe possession.

Instead, of course, he chose to walk right into the trap between three opponents, where his pass was quite obviously blocked by one of them.

Lindelöf was one of the culprits for Liverpool’s third goal. Fred does appear to be showing for the ball here, but the Swedish defender should know better than to look for him when he is under pressure.

Unsurprisingly, Fred was forced to play a first-time pass, which was quite wayward and picked up by Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Luckily, United were let off the hook here as Liverpool failed to capitalise, but they had yet more gifts to give. This time, it was Luke Shaw’s turn, as the English full-back decided to dribble his way out of trouble.

He got past a couple of opponents but had quite obviously bitten off more than he could chew, so he also ended up giving the ball away…

…and this time, the visitors made it a point to punish the disarrayed defence.

Conclusion

Many of United’s defensive issues in this match were down to the absence of Maguire, which forced Lindelöf to move into a bit of an unfamiliar role on the left of defence and see Bailly get a starting berth.

United’s captain was missed for his aerial ability in set-pieces, overall leadership in organising the defence and, perhaps most crucially, ball progression ability.

As we explored in a fair amount of detail, United’s possession-play around the back was incredibly suspect at times, but things might have been different with Maguire.

He had completed nearly 250 more passes this season than any of his teammates before this match, with his passes also covering over 2,000 extra yards in terms of progressive distance than any of his compatriots.

This was also partly the reason why Shaw was rarely spotted in attack, which in turn allowed Alexander-Arnold to get forward in full flow and cause a multitude of problems.

United have been linked incredibly heavily to Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho for almost a year now, but it is quite obvious that their priority should be to sign a strong centre-back and a magical defensive midfielder (or maybe even two).

Unfortunately, given their recent transfer history, that seems quite unlikely.

Stats courtesy Premier League, WhoScored and FbRef.