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Tactics Board: Man United's press goes from bad to worse as Liverpool show them how it's done

Shane Keegan breaks down where it went wrong for the increasingly under pressure Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Sunday.


RARELY CAN THE outcome of a match be summed up easily by looking solely at just one facet of a game.

But that was certainly the case on Sunday as the gulf between Manchester United’s inability to press as a team alongside Liverpool’s perfection of it told you everything you need to know about why these two sides appear to be heading in such vastly different directions.

liverpools-mohamed-salah-left-scores-their-sides-fifth-goal-of-the-game-completing-his-hat-trick-during-the-premier-league-match-at-old-trafford-manchester-picture-date-sunday-october-24-2021 Mo Salah scoring past David De Gea. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

United’s pressing decisions makes life so easy for Liverpool

This match was only four minutes old when United would start out on a trend of causing problems for themselves at the back, by pressing so poorly from the front.

With Liverpool in possession, Bruno Fernandes decides first to press Virgil van Dijk, and then continues that press when the ball is played back to Alisson. For this to be effective, he needs the players behind him to squeeze up onto Alisson’s passing options.

As we can see below, Fred looks in a decent position to close down Jordan Henderson and does so. But it’s the decision of Mason Greenwood to also move inside towards Fred rather than pushing up onto Van Dijk that starts the problem for United.

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Van Dijk can now receive a pass back from Alisson with plenty of time to get his head up and assess his options. Greenwood, to compound his first error, then makes a second poor decision.

Instead of moving out wide to close Andy Robertson, he rushes in on Van Dijk despite having no chance of applying any real pressure on him. This presents the Dutch centre-half with the easiest of passes out to his left-back.

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Aaron Wan-Bissaka tries to rush up and put pressure on Robertson but he’s coming from too far off and it’s an easy pass down the side of Diogo Jota.

At this point the United back line is extremely stretched and with Liverpool creating a 4 v 3 in the attacking half, and Robertson busting a gut to come and join them, a goal scoring chance is already almost inevitably.

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By the time Mo Salah lifts his head it’s a 3 v 1 and he can take his pick and tee up Naby Keita or Robertson. He opts for the former and the Guinean international applies the finish.

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Liverpool show them how to do it

Just two minutes later, United would be shown just how pressing is supposed to work. As Harry Maguire plays the ball out to Scott McTominay, James Milner and Keita move in to press.

The key here though, is the willingness of Jota to double back as the ball goes past him and apply pressure from the front.

This is something we see time and time again from Jota or Roberto Firmino when either is playing the centre forward role.

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Ole Gunna Solskjear selected McTominay and Fred as his central pairing for this game at the expense of Paul Pogba and given his performance in last week’s defeat against Leicester it was an understandable decision.

But here we saw the downside of selecting his two more workmanlike midfielders. As McTominay receives the ball he seems to have a straightforward pass on to Victor Lindelof who in turn can then set Wan-Bissaka away. We can see Maguire encouraging to play exactly that pass.

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Instead, he tries to play the ball inside to Fred, just as Liverpool’s pressing players would have hoped. Keita steals the ball away and races straight through to create an immediate 4 v 2 but De Gea saves from Firmino to stop him making it two nil inside seven minutes.

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No let up from Liverpool

Shortly afterwards, Liverpool did get their second when Jota slid in at the back post to finish. But there would be no thoughts of dropping back and sitting on their lead.

Here we see Salah, Firmino and Jota start high. It’s notable just how quickly Keita appears into shot once Salah starts the press by moving towards Maguire.

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Next in is Firmino as he drives towards Lindelof, but he manages to do so at an angle that prevents the centre-back from being able to play out to McTominay.

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This forces him to try and pick out Fred who again has Keita breathing down his neck and the ball is turned over inside the United box. Had Firmino’s set back to Keita been more accurate then he would likely have had his second goal of the game.

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United press goes from bad to worse

It seemed for all the world that United would have no option now but to drop off and defend and try to get back into the dressing room at half time with just two goals in it. But the crazy pressing decisions just kept coming.

In the 37th minute, Van Dijk heads the ball down to Trent Alexander-Arnold. Fernandes’ decision to go and press the right-back, leaving Firmino in acres of space behind his makes absolutely no sense.

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The Brazilian receives the ball with ease and Liverpool exploit a 3 v 1 situation to set him away running directly at the United defence. They then get a bit of luck with Salah’s deflected effort rolling into the path of Keita but again it’s worth noting just how close Fred was to Keita when he released Firmino, before switching off and failing to track his run.

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Keita squares to Salah to make it three nil and much like Greenwood earlier, Fernandes’ decision to try and press when it wasn’t on proves costly.

And again

And still there would be more hurt before the half-time whistle came. Greenwood, who was taken off just moments later during the break, was again the first domino to fall.

As Robertson collects a short free-kick from Jordan Henderson, United are reasonably well set up with McTominay close to Firmino and Shaw in a good position on the far side in relation to Salah.

At this point, Greenwood has to try and cut off the line and help Wan-Bissaka but he repeats his earlier error by storming towards the player despite there being no chance of affecting his use of the ball.

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Robertson plays the ball down the line to Jota and darts the other side of Greenwood, which attracts the attention of McTominay. Jota uses him as a decoy and instead bends a pass around to Firmino, who has now become free.

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Impressively, Jota doesn’t just stand still after his pass either, and seconds later his driving run at the centre of the United defence attracts Shaw inside and leaves Salah with the space he needs to score his second goal of the game.

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United change shape but Liverpool continue to get it right

United came out after the break with a new diamond formation but just five minutes into the half it was the same old story. As McTominay passes to Fred, Henderson and Keita close in on him from in front and behind.

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Fred then sets it back to Pogba and Henderson goes and presses from behind again, this time joined by Firmino from the front, and he takes the ball off him.

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The work rate that Henderson displayed to help win the ball may be par for the course with him but the sublime pass that followed showed that there is much more to his game than just effort.

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Salah, as if there was ever any doubt, supplied the finish for his hat-trick. This sort of orchestrated press where the forward the midfielder work together to squeeze the player on the ball is in the DNA of every team Klopp sends out.

For United though, it is simply not an option with their current attacking players.


The remainder of the game bares little need for analysis. Pogba picked up a straight red card and headed back to the dressing room just 15 minutes after stepping onto the pitch.

Thankfully for United, Liverpool were happy enough to play keep ball from that point on and the embarrassment didn’t get any worse.

Where does Solskjear go from here?

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