This was always going to be a day full of emotion, thankfully by and large local rivalries and race issues were side issues to Hillsborough and football on the pitch. Poignant tributes, mosaics and the Kop in full voice were fitting acknowledgements, providing an especially moving backdrop to the game.
The match started well, Liverpool dominating possession, maintaining a formation which we had seen in prior games a 4-3-3 or more accurately 4-1-2-3. Allen sat in front of the back two, with Gerrard and Shelvey providing a dynamic in midfield, sharing both attacking and defending duties. Whilst prior games had been hindered with the team coming to terms with Rodgers tactics, maintaining possession to the expense of attacking threat, the team today were far more direct, more reminiscent of the previous manager.
This was largely as a result of our front three and Gerrard’s direct play. Borini often came deep and central searching for the ball, providing the extra man in midfield (linking up play), while Suarez provided our main attacking threat through the centre with a flexibility also to come deep. Sterling meanwhile wide right using his pace to beat his man (Evra) or dift into a more dangerous position.
United by contrast were very much a 4-2-3-1 with Van Persie leading the line, Valencia and Nani providing the width and the disappointing Kagawa (nullified by Allen) in the centre. During the first 30 minutes along with Giggs and Carrick the two CM, United were unable to get the ball. They were far too concerned about maintaing a rigid formation, standing off their counterparts giving us more room. When they did have the ball both Nani and Valencia simply ran themselves into trouble.
Although clear cut chances for Liverpool were few, we had pace and conviction coupled with 59% of possession during this period. The following 5-10 minutes were typified by scrappy play, with needless errors puting ourselves under more pressure allowing United back into the game. Six minutes before half-time Shelvey made a rash 50:50 tackle, a harsh but correct red card given. Evans on the receiving end however was just as guilty and either both or neither should have been sent off. A wry smile by Ferguson as the player walked down the tunnel after berating him, told its own story. United applied more pressure before the end of the half, but were unable to build upon the two earlier long range speculative efforts from outside the box.
At half time Borini replaced by Suso to help provide better link up play with our attack, while United brought on Scholes for Nani to help control the centre of the park were United were badly losing out and add some passing quality. Suso had an immediate impact, beating Scholes on the left with a for cross which came to Johnson, with the ball subsequently ending up with Gerrard for well taken goal. It was nothing less than we had deserved.
Less than 5 minutes later though United were level through their first real attack. As much as I personally dislike Rafael, it was an excellent goal, which topped off a great game for the player, he had provided urgency to United as well an aerial dominance at the back. Despite this and having only 10 men, heads did not drop and we were continued to give as good as we got.
At this point in the match I couldn’t tell if our formation was 4-4-1 or 4-3-2 with Sterling either given freedom (remaining wide right) to provide attacking threat with Saurez or more likely tactical ill discipline by the youngster, who had generally had a good game. This was surely partly why he was replaced by Henderson, and the manager made a surprising shift in tactics.
Our formation became essentially 4-3-1-1, with Allen, Gerrard and Henderson in the center of the park, with Suso linking up with Saurez in the center (as opposed to his earlier position on the left) allowing him to influencing the game even further. I must admit was somewhat scratching my head that Sahin was not brought on for this role instead, however the youngster did a good job
This consequently gave Evra the freedom to get forward, who had previously been beaten again and again by Sterlings by his pace and movement, preventing the fullback getting forward. Consequently this change further opened up the game. With Evra attacking, Kelly also started getting forward more providing an attacking threat during the final third of the game, even coming close with a header from a Johnson cross.
Unfortunately Suso gave made a careless pass, leaving Agger under pressure. United broke and Johnson in recoverly just before the tackle he clipped the United players heal, giving away a soft penalty. Even worse Agger was injured with suspect knee ligament damage, perhaps the biggest blow of the day.
Despite a negative result, we can take great heart, in that despite being down to 10 men for 50 minutes, we limited United mainly to shots from outside the box (5 out of 7), United were only in our attacking third for 24% of the game and as a whole we generally outplayed them. Work ethic and charcter were far greater than we have seen in recent weeks, while it was good to hear the KOP in full voice during the last 10 minutes dispite being behind.
Loss of Agger
Everyone one knows how important Agger is to the team in a defensive sense, but today also illustrated how important he is in attack. During the game he made 4 surging runs forward. These runs drew United players out of position creating space for others. When we went down to 10 men, his reading of the game and movement is what allowed Johnson to continue to get forward freely, regularly moving up the pitch offering support, and coving the full back.
During corners and freekicks his intelligent play created one of the best opportunities. Gerrard’s shot from a corner which went just wide, was all down to Agger creating space, by blocking Giggs in a text book manner giving Gerrard acres of space. His movement also created further troubles for the keeper, and a separate corner, simply by good positioning was able to create space for himself. Unluckily cross was too high as he would have had a free header.
Gerrard- Sterling- Suarez link up play
A feature of today’s game was the more direct attacking approach. As can be seen from the graphic below Gerrard made a number of successful long balls, particularly and regularly finding Sterling on the right, who had the beating of Evra all day.
Likewise Gerrard also find Suarez, and Borini by it was Sterling that was providing the main outlet on the break, with his pace, direct play and urgency.
The Youngster was able to take on his man and beat him (yellow dots) or was fouled (white triangle) but also find Suarez with short through balls.
As can be seen below, those passes were almost exclusively Sterling passing to Suarez, illustrating how an understanding is developing between the two.
Although I have not been one to criticise Downing, it was a class above anything we have seen by the man who didn’t even make the bench today.
it was a similar story to many a game last year. The better team lost. Suso and Sterling are particularly bright aspects of our play and it seems our future, finally bearing the fruits of our acadamy. Mentality was far better for this game, the difficult job for Rodgers will be mainting this, especially if results continue to go against us, or against lesser teams.
For me despite the result, was one of our best displays, we can only hope lack of cutting edge wont be our downfall in games to come.