In preparation for an away trip to a rampant Liverpool side who had not lost in the league since September, with a host of players unavailable through injury or suspension, Erik ten Hag made a number of tactical adjustments to the usual system Manchester United have played with this season.
The team employed a much more compact structure, particularly in midfield, when out of possession, while the players were instructed to play forward as quickly and directly as possible when they did get on the ball. They were content to sit deeper and frustrate their opponents while looking for opportunities on goal through direct counter-attacks.
United completed a sequence of nine-plus passes once yesterday – their lowest this season. By comparison, the same group of players produced thirteen nine-plus passes against Bayern Munich just five days prior.
Ten Hag spoke in a post-match interview about wanting to see his side make “three, four passes [and] get the switch in and…you can hurt them.” United averaged only 5.3 seconds per move – again, the lowest of the season – demonstrating this direct approach was a deliberate one at the behest of their manager.
Sofyan Amrabat and Kobbie Mainoo were deployed as a much tighter midfield unit compared to how United’s midfielders usually line up. Laurie Whitwell (The Athletic) believes this adjustment was crucial in how the game unfolded.
“There was constant communication between the back line and the two midfielders positioned ahead of them, which meant United reduced the passing lines available to Liverpool in the zone in between. Opponents have found space in that area constantly this season, but United tightened up significantly here.”
Ten Hag was content to set his side up pragmatically; something which has been a rarity this year.
The result was an unpleasant watch; the antithesis of the platitudinous phrase used by pundits of an ‘advert for the Premier League.’ It was a rare example where the half-time adverts actually provided respite from a match which was starved of meaningful quality, from either side.
Liverpool produced an almost record-breaking number of ‘chances’, yet their best opportunities came from corners. United played with their backs to the wall for large parts of the match, but still fashioned the best passage of play in the game when Rasmus Hojlund was slipped in by Scott McTominay. The Dane was unable to capitalise, however.
After the match, Virgil van Dijk accused United of being content with a draw, believing only his side were “trying to win the game.” This assessment was met with a fiery response by Roy Keane in the Sky Sports Studio, who accused the Liverpool captain of “arrogance.”
While Van Dijk’s assessment tilted more towards the truth than arrogance, it omits the context United found themselves in on Sunday – one which both explains and validates such a game plan.
Going into the weekend, Liverpool were top of the league and have won every single game at Anfield this season. United were sixth and reeling from back-to-back losses to Bayern Munich and Bournemouth.
Under Ten Hag’s stewardship, United have won not a single away game against a top-nine side. And it’s not that they simply fail to win these matches, they often implode in spectacular fashion. The humiliating 7-0 loss in the exact same fixture last season – a result which immediately entered footballing lore – exemplifies this mental fragility best.
Furthermore, Ten Hag’s squad had a list of thirteen players who could potentially miss the game, through injury or suspension. While some of these players were fit enough to make the bench, players like Lisandro Martinez, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Casemiro, Christian Eriksen, Bruno Fernandes and Mason Mount are all important options who would have started yesterday.
The choice by Ten Hag to adopt a more pragmatic approach was therefore a sensible one.
It allowed his side to quickly grow into the game and establish a solidity which has been sorely lacking this season. United looked united; a team playing for their manager and executing his game plan to a tee – a fry cry from the reports of a disaffected dressing room demanding a deposition only a few weeks prior.
After a frantic opening five minutes, United’s performance was sound enough to silence a raucous Anfield.
In commentary, both Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville adjudged the match to be the worst atmosphere at a United-Liverpool derby they could remember. This flatness in the stands fans at Anfield was largely driven by the tactical choices made at Carrington earlier in the week.
Even at the illustrious height of United’s success under Sir Alex Ferguson, a 0-0 draw at Anfield was seen as a minor victory. By the standards of this year, it was a resounding one.
Ten Hag must recognise the positive effects the tactical adjustments he made had on United’s performance yesterday and use them as a springboard for the remainder of the season.