In this series, we take a look at some of the most interesting matches in football, providing you with an in-depth tactical analysis powered by Wyscout tools and stats. This time, our eyes were on Anfield Road, where Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United visited Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in a top-of-the-table showdown.

Despite this weekend’s colossal Premier League clash between Liverpool and Manchester United ending goalless, there were still many interesting tactical takeaways from the fiercely contested fixture.

With Jurgen Klopp opting for his 4-3-3 and Ole Gunnar Soskjaer going for his 4-2-3-1, the two formations made for an intriguing, tense matchup.

Liverpool set the tone for the match by taking the initiative on the ball, dominating possession for large chunks, as they looked for ways to break through United’s defensive shape. The presence of Thiago in central midfield was crucial for the Reds, for his intelligence and class gave Liverpool so much control, as he dictated the play masterfully. Embarking on some searing forward bursts and constantly finding teammates with his accomplished passing, Man Utd struggled to contain him.

A key figure in build-up too, where he regularly dropped deep between the splitting center backs to form a 3v2 against Man Utd’s first line of pressure, this not only stretched United but also gave him some additional time on the ball to assess his options and pinpoint targets to progress upfield.

Thiago dropping to form a 3v2

This overload caused issues for United’s pressing strategy, as at times Paul Pogba, from his right-wing station, would step out to Jordan Henderson, which forced Aaron Wan-Bissaka to push on to mark Andrew Robertson. A consequence of this meant Victor Lindelof had to shift across, along with the rest of United’s backline, to monitor Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane, which then placed Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw into uncomfortable 1v1s with the remaining two Liverpool forwards.

An alternative of Thiago dropping was Trent Alexander-Arnold tucking into form a 3v2 overload during the build-up. This variation worked nicely due to Anthony Martial choosing to press, with the big distance he had to cover either opening the right half-space for Xherdan Shaqiri or Salah to receive in or clearing a central lane for Thiago as Fred would track Shaqiri wider.

Alexander-Arnold forming a 3v2 and drawing Martial out which frees up Shaqiri

Roberto Firmino’s movement also deserves mention, for he timed his checks towards the ball in order to generate a 3v2 overload in midfield. Seeing as Fred and Scott McTominay were occupied by Shaqiri and Georginio Wijnaldum, the Brazilian cleverly dropped to connect play, where he could either lay the ball off or turn and face.

Firmino coming deep to form a 3v2

Liverpool’s advanced eights caused dilemmas for the away side too, with their opposite movements and rotations with their nearby fullback or winger, in combination with their smart surges into the box between defenders, seeing them unbalance their adversaries. The graphics below offer some good examples of the aforementioned, as the Reds’ eights help to expertly exploit openings.

Crafty opposite movement by Shaqiri and Salah to generate space
Liverpool’s three-way rotation to open the channel for Shaqiri
Wijnaldum’s wicked run into the box as he splits the defenders

Liverpool’s threat didn’t end there, though, as the blistering forward runs from the fullbacks, which were especially effective on Robertson’s side, where Pogba was drawn in and Wan-Bissaka occupied by the winger, plus the subtle interchanges between their front three (most prominently between Salah and Mane) enhanced their menace.

To switch the focus to Man Utd’s build-up, and Solskjaer instructed his team to get into a box structure with a 2-2 staggering containing their center backs and central midfielders. This allowed them to enjoy a 4v3 numerical superiority, as Firmino was left to pick up either Fred or McTominay. While Man Utd were able to produce a couple of wicked passages to beat the press by using either a third man runner or exploiting the 2v1 vs. Firmino, Klopp did a solid job of devising an interesting scheme to combat this.

Man Utd bypassing the press after the 2v1 on Firmino

Mane and Salah would press high onto the two center backs, as Firmino would be positioned ready to harry Fred or McTominay. Liverpool would usually direct United to pass to Shaw, which was the trigger for Shaqiri to jump out to press him, Firmino to mark the ball near midfielder and Mane to shift infield to McTominay.

Liverpool’s high pressing setup
Liverpool shifting when pressing

Other notable features of their press came from how Fernandes would be monitored by Thiago and that Robertson would charge out to Wan-Bissaka.

Using the touchline as an extra defender to hem United in, Liverpool made life extremely difficult for their foes to bypass them. Angling and timing their pressure to use their cover shadows to block passing angles, this compounded issues for United.

United did, however, come to life on the counter-attack, where they’d spring forward from their deep/mid 4-4-2 block to get at Liverpool. Courtesy of Liverpool having their fullbacks and eights high, United had plenty of space to transition into. The likes of Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba and Martial relished charging into the vacated zones, which saw them fill the lanes and conjure some dangerous 2v2 and 3v3 situations.

Man Utd creating a 3v3 in transition
Rashford and Martial surging ahead on the counter while creating a 2v2

Occupying defenders effectively to draw them away from usable space and using nifty rotations, the Red Devils’ front four were able to alter defenders’ reference points and cause an element of confusion.

In the second half particularly, some promising sequences notably emerged when they’d produce some 2v1s on Alexander-Arnold, after initially building up down the opposite flank. With one man pinning the Englishman and the other attacking his blindside, this tactic saw United provide an immense threat by double-teaming Alexander-Arnold with two of their four attackers.

United creating a dangerous 2v1 on Alexander-Arnold.

In what was a captivating duel between two of the Premier League’s elite outfits, and one where both teams struggled to convert their chances due to a mix of poor finishing and classy goalkeeping, United will probably be happier with a point.

This is illustrated by the numbers, which state that Liverpool outshine their enemies in terms of Expected Goals (2.21 to 0.76), shots (17 to 7), possession (65.24% to 34.76%), crosses (23 to 6), completed passes into the final third (63 to 11), progressive passes completed (93 to 28) and passes per defensive action (8.71 to 20.15).

When speaking after the stalemate that ensured United remain top while the Reds drop to fourth, Klopp lamented his team’s inability to convert their chances, saying: “There is no easy explanation. We always missed chances, even in the games we won. We had to be good to get a point. I think we were good enough to get three points but we didn’t score.

“These moments happen in football. There are moments where you can’t explain why you score from all angles, like we did against Crystal Palace (in a 7-0 win). You have to create and create and create and then you will score.”

In a match billed as a huge test of both teams’ championship credentials, neither side could land a knockout blow, with both outfits producing some excellent approach play but ultimately unable to apply any finishing touches.

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