Jurgen Klopp won a comprehensive tactical victory over Louis Van Gaal on Thursday night to earn Liverpool a two-goal advantage ahead of next week’s second leg at Old Trafford.
Although both sides lined up in 4-2-3-1 formations, the respective personnel employed on the flanks differed greatly. Klopp’s choice of two number tens, in Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho, allowed Liverpool to flood the centre of the pitch and dominate possession. Meanwhile, Van Gaal opted for Memphis Depay, a natural wide player, and centre-forward Marcus Rashford as his wide men.
As such, United’s midfield double pivot of Morgan Schneiderlin and Marouane Fellaini found themselves swamped in the first half, with the latter’s zone particularly ripe for Liverpool exploitation. Lallana drifted into this space to play the through ball that led to Liverpool’s opener from the penalty spot. He also found himself free between the lines to feed Sturridge for the cross that saw Coutinho spurn a glorious back-post chance.
Fellaini’s typically high centre-left positioning in the attacking phase often left Schneiderlin stranded at transitions. Marvel at how the Frenchman was drawn and turned by number ten Roberto Firmino, before the Brazilian teed up Sturridge to force one of many key saves from David de Gea. Van Gaal might have taken a leaf out of Arsene Wenger’s book; after seeing his side swamped by Tottenham’s three number tens earlier in the season, Wenger fielded both Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny in the holding roles at the weekend. Instead, United’s most positionally intelligent midfielder, Michael Carrick, languished on the bench.
Until half-time that is, when Carrick was introduced into the centre of a back three; Van Gaal switching to a 3-1-4-2 formation in a desperate attempt to increase his side’s paltry 29% share of the football. United would now have six defensive players in central zones instead of four, a move also designed to plug the gaps that Liverpool’s attacking midfielders were rampantly exploiting.
The change certainly improved United’s ability to compete in the middle of the park. In the opening eighteen minutes of the second half, the visitors’ share of the possession pie stood at 52%. Schneiderlin managed his side’s first shot on target – from range – in the 50th minute, while newly-acquainted strike partners Depay and Anthony Martial very nearly combined fruitfully on the hour mark.
Sensing a shift in momentum, Klopp acted promptly, introducing midfielder Joe Allen in place of striker Daniel Sturridge. Now configured in a 4-1-4-1, Liverpool immediately resumed control of the contest, with both Allen and Jordan Henderson encouraged to make wide runs designed to overload the United wing backs. This tactic produced Liverpool’s second goal from a Henderson cross from the byline and very nearly produced another when an Allen cutback from the byline was blazed over by his captain.
With ten to go, United tilted their midfield triangle, with the introduction of Ander Herrera signalling a shift to 3-4-1-2, but this was no more than a cosmetic change in terms of the balance of play. Liverpool will travel to Old Trafford unburdened by the concession of an away goal here, but troubled by the knowledge that Klopp’s triumph over his opposite number should have produced a far, far greater margin of victory.