Liverpool Show Ability to Find Gaps in Man Utd Midfield in 0-0 Draw at Anfield

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Jurgen Klopp wasn’t exactly thrilled with Liverpool’s performance against Manchester United, and in some ways, that was understandable. His Reds controlled the match, dominating in terms of both possession and shot creation, but they couldn’t find a way through. The contest therefore ended in a 0-0 stalemate, and though Klopp could understand why others would be happy with that, especially in light of Liverpool’s recent poor form, he himself viewed the game with indifference. “If you want to be happy today you can be happy,” the German manager said, “but if you think, ‘OK, again not too bad…’ – which is probably my view on it – then you can be in this mood and carry on.”

Liverpool will carry on from that, and probably with a lot more positivity than they have in previous weeks. They came up against a strong Manchester United side, albeit one slightly weakened through absences, and they acquitted themselves well in front of their home fans. They held onto the ball nicely against Jose Mourinho’s men, and aside from one big chance conceded to Romelu Lukaku, which he fired straight at Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, they were excellent defensively. It was, in terms of a big-game showing, a solid one. Of course, there were no goals to provide tangible proof of that on the scoreboard, but they will realise that they were the better team nonetheless.

More specifically, they did a good job of finding pockets on either side of United’s central midfielders. Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera took up those positions for the Red Devils, and they didn’t do anything wrong in providing a stable defensive base. They were a fully-functioning part of Mourinho’s deep-sitting defensive system, which, in effect, ended up as a 4-4-2. Henrkih Mkhitaryan, United’s No. 10, and striker Lukaku took up the highest defensive stations, while two banks of four sat behind them. The problem for United’s central midfield duo may not be apparent from that description alone, but when you consider the way United’s wingers, Ashley Young and Anthony Martial, went about their business, it soon becomes more obvious.

Young and Martial defended the wide areas with plenty of spirit and application, but they really made sure to cover their direct markers. Young, on United’s right-hand side, shifted out towards the touchline to cover Liverpool left-back Alberto Moreno, and Martial did the same thing on the other flank, easing himself out wide in a bid to blanket Reds right-back Joe Gomez. This made a lot of sense, as it enabled them to get close to their direct opponents, but the problem then came when defending the centre.

Indeed, with United’s wingers so keen to ensure the wings remained unbreached, they left pockets of space open on either side of their central midfield pairing. This meant Liverpool could attack these areas, and given that they had a massive 62% of possession, they had plenty of chances to do just that. Whether it was one of their two more advanced central midfielders, the hard-running Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum, pushing on and getting in those positions, or someone like Philippe Coutinho dropping off the frontline in order to find time between the lines, Liverpool had these spaces available to them quite regularly.

By way of example, Liverpool generated an early chance for Wijnaldum in this fashion. The ball started with Dejan Lovren, who assessed his options as United sat back. At this stage, both Young and Martial were wide, sticking to Liverpool’s fullbacks. This meant Herrera and Matic had a lot of ground to cover, and with the former sitting deep and off to the right, trying to cover Can, Mohamed Salah managed to slip in between United’s midfielders to receive a pass from Lovren.

The Egyptian quickly evaded Matic from there, and even though that slowed him down enough for Herrera to get close, he had little trouble in weaving beyond the Spaniard. Salah then noted that, off to the side of Matic, Wijnaldum had made a run into a right-of-centre position. He happily fed his teammate the ball, and with Martial so wide due to defending against Gomez, Wijnaldum essentially found himself one-on-one with United right-back Matteo Darmian. The Dutchman cut inside Darmian and fired at goal, but despite a steady connection with the ball, it was nowhere near enough to beat David De Gea.

Still, this was the kind of opening that Liverpool were capable of creating. They had dynamic, mobile central midfielders who could make use of the pockets of space between United’s wingers and their central midfielders, and as well as that, they had Coutinho, a player who loves to hit those half-spaces. He did this beautifully in the second half, at one point dropping deep as Liverpool worked the ball from right to left.

At this stage, Young was so deep and wide as to be a part of United’s backline, so when Coutinho received a pass from Jordan Henderson in a left-of-centre location, he had a lot of time to pick out a pass. He quickly settled on Liverpool centre-forward Roberto Firmino, who was breaking in behind United’s defence. Coutinho found him with a clever little chip into the area, and his compatriot responded by producing a cross to the far-post. It proved to be just beyond the reach of an onrushing Salah, and in a match characterised by near-misses for Liverpool, this was yet another.

The Reds had 19 shots to six, five shots on target to one, but couldn’t find a way through. They were, however, the superior team. Lovren was probably right when, in the post-match, he said that he and his teammates deserved “more than a point,” but despite failing to get that, it was still an accomplishing performance. Klopp’s men found a good area through which to generate attacking momentum, and in those pockets surrounding Matic and Herrera, they did some good work.

Maybe they could have been more clinical and maybe they could have been more inventive, but after a fairly ordinary sequence of form, this was probably more than most were expecting. In fact, the game against United – a dominant showing against Premier League contenders – should go a long way towards restoring their confidence, and with games against Maribor and Tottenham Hotspur to come, they have the opportunity to build upon that performance.

The key is now to capitalise with a mix of goals and wins, and for both the club and for Klopp, they need to do just that in order to put a shabby start to the season firmly behind them.