Van Gaal's United overcome midfield scrap at profligate Liverpool

Posted Jan 17, 2016 by Tyrrell Meertins
Jurgen Klopp’s decision to alter his preferred formation may have been down to absentees, but it still highlighted the Liverpool manager’s attempt to stifle a United side that encounter difficulties providing penetration in the final third.
Manchester United s Rooney celebrates after scoring a goal against West Ham United during their Engl...
Manchester United's Rooney celebrates after scoring a goal against West Ham United during their English Premier League soccer match at the Boleyn Ground in London
The two sides were coming off positive midweek attacking displays, but where Liverpool maintained the levels of their direct play, United’s display was considerably tepid.
Louis Van Gaal named an unchanged XI, which meant Juan Mata and Memphis Depay were on the bench, while Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial featured on their preferred flank. More so, United’s wide players presented a threat on the break against the Liverpool defence, but equally ensured adventurous full-backs Nathaniel Clyne, and Alberto Moreno rarely surged forward.
United, however, were unable to sustain lengthy spells of possession as per usual, and out of possession they remained beleaguered. Matteo Darmian was constantly exposed when he stuck tight to James Milner, the midfield was overrun, whereas Emre Can was free to charge forward with Lingard occasionally tucking centrally to press the German.
Without Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger, United were deprived passers in deeper zones, which in return thwarted the possibility of bypassing the Liverpool defence with slow methodical build up play — though, the aforementioned absentees have displayed their deficiencies against intense pressing in recent years. Therefore, Van Gaal’s men were stifled in midfield and solely threatened the hosts when Martial ran at defenders from the left flank. In particular, two chances in the second half witnessed the Frenchman evade several challenges in the box only to fire his efforts wide of the far post.
Klopp’s decision to field an additional midfielder gave Henderson and Can license to surge forward, but the Reds exploited Darmian’s narrow positioning at left-back, while United were susceptible against simple long balls over the defence. Lucas located Lallana’s deep run from midfield beyond the United defence, but the England international couldn’t nod his effort past David De Gea. Then, Firmino and Henderson — the latter received two opportunities — charged into space behind Darmian to receive passes, but wild finishing proved costly.
On the other hand, Liverpool also displayed positive cohesive passing to evade the United pressing. Firmino played a significant role, here, by dropping into midfield to combine with teammates, whilst continuing to make diagonal runs into the channels to provide a threat behind the United defence. Essentially, Firmino’s varied movement to create chances for his teammates was the antithesis of Rooney’s display.
The Brazilian was behind Liverpool’s best second half move, but the non-existent goal-scoring threats within the Reds’ set-up was evident.
"I didn't see too many chances for Manchester United and we didn't take ours," Klopp told BBC Sport. 
"We did really well creating the chances, but there were a lot of situations where we could have created more chances and didn't.”
Firmino received the ball between the lines to combine with Lallana, which resulted in Can surging into the box only to be denied by a superb De Gea save. Later, the Brazilian received a pass in the left channel, and subsequently eluded challenges from Darmian and Schneiderlin, but Henderson tamely guided his pullback directly at the United keeper.
Though United’s possession dominance has been a key trait throughout Van Gaal’s tenure, when required, the Red Devils have occasionally showcased they can be a devastating counter-attacking outfit. Despite committing several mistakes at Newcastle a fortnight ago, there was a concrete attempt to exploit space behind Darryl Janmaat.
Here, their plan appeared devoid: apart from hopeful punts from De Gea into the left channel — though the rare clipped pass into this area for Martial won the corner that led to the winter — United’s attack was predominantly blunt despite slightly retaining the ball following Mata’s introduction.
"I am very pleased with the second half because Liverpool were, in the first half, the team that dominated and we had to survive,” said Van Gaal. “In the second half, we showed our way of playing and we can score out of every situation."
United were fortunate to gain a winner, but the goal — scored with their first shot on target in the 78th minute — stemmed from a set-piece that partially coincides with their limited creativity in central areas. Liverpool are developing into the embodiment of a legitimate Klopp side through exceptional work-rate and counter pressing, but similar issues that aroused during Klopp’s final years at Borussia Dortmund currently halt further progression at Anfield.
Klopp’s Liverpool simply lack reliable goal-scoring attackers that can convert dominance into weekly triumphs.