Manchester United upset the form book to beat Liverpool 2-1 on Sunday, completing a Premier League double over their rivals in 2014-15 and opening a five-point gap between themselves and their arch-rivals in the table.
Formations and XIs
Liverpool played their usual 3-4-2-1, with Raheem Sterling at right-wing-back, Adam Lallana as a No. 10 and Joe Allen holding in midfield. Gerrard began from the bench.
Manchester United went unchanged from the weekend victory over Tottenham Hotspur, playing Mata on the right side, Wayne Rooney up front and Daley Blind at left-back.
1. Using Fellaini and Switching Play
The first thing Manchester United did from kick-off was lump it to Marouane Fellaini in the left inside channel, testing how Liverpool were intending to deal with him and what resources they were set to commit.
Emre Can was the man who challenged for that ball, and he lost out. And that set a tone for the rest of the afternoon as the Belgian became an easy outlet for David de Gea and Co. to hit. Multiple passes were threaded through to him, and United began building play through Fellaini from his position in left-central midfield, attracting the press and then flicking it out to the right in space.
It's something Internazionale used to do, building on the left then switching to Maicon on the right with space to run into; it's a devastating tactic if you can hold it long enough to attract markers then free your spare man.
In this case, the spare man was largely Mata. Fellaini and Ander Herrera were quick to find him ducking in off the right flank, and the first goal came from a wonderful pass by the latter, slipping Mata in behind Alberto Moreno (who was awful throughout).
United stretched Liverpool to the maximum in midfield early on, with those moves forming the key to their strong attacks.
2. Failing to Spring the Right
It was pretty obvious which flank Liverpool wanted to target: United's left. In particular, the channel between Blind and Phil Jones (LCB) was of particular interest to Brendan Rodgers, but the Reds struggled to spring Sterling into dangerous positions throughout.
United's compact midfield and snappy tackling had a lot to do with that; Herrera attempted nine, Blind seven, Mata six and Fellaini five, per WhoScored.com. They also engaged high up and stopped Liverpool from bringing the ball out of defence in a controlled fashion; at one stage Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho played a horrendous one-two, which spanned the width of the pitch, in miscontrolled passes under pressure.
Allen struggled initially to turn on the ball and play forward, and Jordan Henderson was badly restricted too. In the end, a slight nuance in Liverpool's formation occurred, with Lallana dropping far deeper and swapping to the left to pick it up and run, helping his team out of their own third.
One the two occasions the Reds did spring the right side they could have scored—Sterling botched one chance due to hesitation, and Daniel Sturridge missed the other—but otherwise the midfield protected Blind well and limited exposure.
3. Down to 10
Gerrard replaced Lallana at half-time and began playing in a deep role. Before we were able to ascertain exactly what Rodgers' plan was, though, the captain was sent off for stamping on Herrera in the aftermath of a challenge. Tactical chaos ensued.
Firstly, it forced Liverpool into a 4-2-2-1; they converted to a back four with Emre Can at right-back, stuck Allen and Henderson in as a shield and played both Philippe Coutinho and Sterling just behind the striker. The two No. 10s had license to dart wide and form temporary width when required but played loosely centrally.
When things got no better—in fact, they got worse, as Moreno made his second mistake of the game to allow Mata to score a sweet scissor kick—Rodgers subbed off his underperforming Spaniard and brought on Mario Balotelli in his place.
Sturridge remained up front to run and press the centre-backs in possession; Balotelli slotted in just behind to protect the ball and link play, and he formed the tip of a midfield diamond that saw Henderson pushed right, Coutinho to the left and Allen stitch it together at the base. Sterling was moved to left-back.
None of the systematic changes were able to overcome the man advantage United held, and although the Reds did kick one back, it was a product of Coutinho gliding through challenges and releasing Sturridge for a shot on the right of the box, not due to an overload or weakness exploited.
4. To Kill Time
Excuse the pun, but Mata does deserve credit for a minute bit of play in stoppage time, and we draw focus to it because it's not done enough.
As United were attempting to see the game out with a goal advantage, the Spaniard orchestrated three minutes of keep-ball to seal the win. It's what should happen every week, but lesser-minded players succumb to headline glory.
Twice Mata was played in between the lines just outside Liverpool's box late on, and twice he had the chance to open his body and curl an 18-yard shot at goal or try a high-risk, high-reward pass into the box. Both times, he twirled and passed it back to a teammate in space.
It sounds obvious, but so many "give it one last go" and end up subjecting their side to a final, sometimes devastating attack.
- Sakho was immense. Do not doubt that he is a quality defender; some of his tackling and passing between the lines on Sunday were sublime.
- Mata and Herrera connect superbly; Louis van Gaal would be wise to continue to foster the linkup.
- De Gea was beaten at his near post—and some have questioned his role in the goal—but it's important to remember he expected Sturridge to take his usual five touches and cut inside. He'd studied up on the striker, and it surprised everyone to see him shoot first-time—just like he did at West Ham.
- Fellaini was brilliant again, and Blind gave Can a rough ride surging forward. The left was strong again for United in attack.