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Analysis: Zlatan equaliser rescues point for resilient Reds

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s late equaliser rescued a valuable point for Manchester United as they drew 1-1 with Liverpool. Neither side will be happy with a point as they lose ground on the rest of the top four.

Ibrahimovic was back in the side after illness and Marcos Rojo had recovered from a muscle injury to take his place alongside Phil Jones in defence. Mourinho selected an attacking front six, with Mkhitaryan and Martial alongside Ibrahimovic, as United looked to continue a run of nine consecutive wins in all competitions.

Liverpool started the game in an unfamiliar shape, lining up in a 4-1-2-1-2 system and fielding a midfield diamond. With Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum playing as a narrow pair in the middle of Liverpool’s midfield, there was a lot of space in wide areas for Manchester United to attack. United were quick to try to exploit the potential chink in Liverpool’s armour, targeting the young full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold who was making his first Premier League start at right-back this afternoon.

Anthony Martial attempted five take-ons in the first half – more than any other United player. Credit: Squawka

There was an obvious emphasis on getting the ball to Anthony Martial to try and create the one vs one opportunities against the 18-year-old defender. Martial’s quick feet and electric pace against an exposed and inexperienced young player looked like a perfect opening for Manchester United. Martial attempted 5 take-ons in the first half, more than any other United player during the entire 90 minutes, all of which were down the left-hand side. He was unfortunate not to create a chance for Zlatan Ibrahimovic with a floated cross in the 13th minute, but as he grew in confidence and prominence within the game, Liverpool doubled up on him and crowded him out, minimising the effectiveness of the rest of his good work during the game.

This was Manchester United’s worst performance in several months. They were disjointed in possession, weak in defensive transitions and rarely able to sustain periods of attacking pressure throughout the match. One of the biggest contributing factors was the form of Paul Pogba. In the last few weeks he has been immense; controlling matches, dictating the tempo of the play, scoring goals, providing assists, you know the name, Paul Pogba has done it. Today was an off-day and it affected the entire team around him.

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After missing an early chance to give Manchester United the lead and then giving away a penalty, Pogba seemed to be affected by his poor start and never really took control of the game in his customary way. Rather than becoming a dominant influence on the match, Pogba took a back seat and the came almost passed him by. He was virtually anonymous after the break as Manchester United looked to turn the match around.

Paul Pogba completed just 71% of his passes vs Liverpool. Credit: Squawka.

Pogba was rarely involved in the attacking third and was instead restricted to sideways passes in inconsequential areas of the field. When United started to play with a more direct style, Pogba was again poor, giving the ball away on multiple occasions. His inability to complete forward passes prevented Manchester United from advancing up the pitch and threatening the Liverpool goal. As the visitors retreated into deep defensive positions, United needed to be able to thread the pass through compact defensive lines. With Pogba unable to do so, United found it difficult to create clear cut chances.

As the game wore on, Jose Mourinho identified United’s struggles and decided to bypass the middle third of the pitch entirely. United were unable to beat Liverpool’s intense pressing game on the ground, so they reverted to a longer, more direct passing strategy in order to gain a foothold in the attacking third. Enter Marouane Fellaini.

Marouane Fellaini won four out of five aerial duels after being introduced as a late sub. Credit: Squawka.

After some questionable performances earlier in the season, Mourinho has finally found a niche role for Marouane Fellaini; he is only to be used as a battering ram in attack. Against Liverpool he did his job well. He won 80% of his aerial duels, including all three in the opposition half, and he helped drag United up the pitch by winning headers, getting the ball down and scrapping for the second ball. It was his header that clipped the post in the build-up to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s equalising goal, and Fellaini deserves a lot of credit for the role he played in getting Manchester United back on level terms.

Another contributing factor was the growing influence of Antonio Valencia. As Manchester United pushed forward in the second half, the onus was on the players to take the right risks in the right areas to break the game open. Valencia has been one of United’s most productive attacking assets this season and continued the trend against Liverpool. His attacking ambition gave the visitors a problem in the closing stages, and with Ibrahimovic and Fellaini as targets in the middle, the option of getting the ball wide to Valencia and getting crosses into the box became an increasingly important one.

Antonio Valencia heat map vs Liverpool (45-90 mins) Credit: Squawka

He completed eight crosses in that second period, finally creating the equaliser for Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the 84th minute.

In previous weeks we have praised Manchester United when they have scored late on because they didn’t resort to direct football or seemingly desperate tactics. The two late goals against Middlesbrough spring to mind. Today, though, Mourinho must be praised again. His team didn’t play well, didn’t impose themselves on the game well enough to win the match, but he adapted when he needed to salvage a result. He made a bold substitution, taking off Matteo Darmian and introducing Fellaini, he put Henrikh Mkhitaryan at left-back and his team went for it. He used a more direct, less attractive style of football to negate the problems posed by Liverpool’s high-energy pressing style and it paid dividends in the end.

One point may not have been enough, but losing today would have undone most of Manchester United’s good work. For now at least, United are still in the hunt.

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