The 4-2-3-1 is typically a problematic system for Liverpool whenever they come up against it because of the natural overload it creates in the build-up versus Liverpool’s press. Manchester City, Napoli, Flamengo, Spurs and Ajax have all had success against Liverpool using that system (amongst other teams I’m sure I’m forgetting). Manchester United also typically play this way, but never have done against Liverpool because of the difference in quality over the last few years. The 4-2-3-1 represents a high risk-high reward approach as the system plays into Liverpool’s hands because of their notorious pressing (assuming the opposition play out from the back, which is what United do). As a result of this, Solskjaer always felt that a low block was the best way to play against Liverpool because he didn’t trust his players to play out of Liverpool’s press.
“Sometimes we’ve struggled more in games where we’ve had to break teams down. I can’t see Liverpool coming to park the bus – that’s just not in their mentality. So I can see it being an open game, which will suit us.” (@talksport, @metro).
However, with United stumbling their way to the top of the league, he may feel that now is the time to implement this higher risk style vs a team of Liverpool’s quality (although he may have implemented it in this last fixture if it wasn’t for Rashford’s injury).
So, how is the 4-2-3-1 successful against Liverpool despite it playing into their hands? It basically stems from short and risk averse passing amongst the midfield and centre back quartet. The two midfielders are staples in the middle of the park so they’re a constant passing option combined with being a constant presence in the middle of the park to stifle defensive transitions. The two fullbacks are also present so the team in possession has 6 options to build play through Liverpool’s press. Liverpool want you to play out from the back, but if short and risk averse passes are being played, the likelihood of errors occurring aren’t high when top technicians are passing the ball around, particularly with no crowd present to unnerve the build-up. This results in Liverpool’s press becoming much less effective. However, when tensions are high early on in games, Liverpool typically get joy via pressing despite the tactical disadvantage they’re faced with.
Alternatively, when the game wears on (past the 10/15 minute mark), the tactical and technical advantages begin to bear fruit and Liverpool are forced back into a deeper block.
The dynamics of the game change as a result of this. Liverpool’s primary method of chance creation goes from (counter)pressing to relying on keeping the ball and breaking down the opposition’s block, and secondly counter-attacking. However, it’s difficult for Liverpool to keep the ball as they can’t sustain attacks as they generally can’t win the ball back quickly. Similarly, Liverpool’s ability to counter attack is weakened as there are consistently 6 players behind the ball vs Liverpool’s three forwards.
The Reds can of course still gain success in moments throughout the game because they have top class players and the opposition are bound to make a mistake at some point, but the clash of systems and quality almost always proves to be an incredibly difficult game for Liverpool, which is why it seems reasonable for Solskjaer to finally pick this system against United’s arch rivals.
The McTominay-Fred double pivot has proven to be a tactically disciplined duo and they fit the bill in relation to the technical quality and the pass volume required in the 4-2-3-1 vs Liverpool’s press. Lindelöf, Maguire and Shaw are similarly reliable, although De Gea and Wan-Bissaka are less clean technically so they could prove to be problematic for United when building play. The likes of Matic and Pogba will almost certainly not start in deeper areas as they’re not physically cut out for such an intense game, nor are they reliable enough in possession. Bailly is another one who probably won’t start as a result of his erratic technical tendencies, and the same goes for Alex Telles.
In an ideal world, the analysis would be completed at this point but as we all know, football isn’t that linear. Game state is an important factor to note when analysing any game, and it’s no different when analysing this one. Liverpool’s last Premier League game was against Southampton and the dynamic of the game was set up for Southampton to try and press Liverpool high up the pitch before reverting into a deep block if their plan proved to be successful. However, the Saints scored in the second minute, so the onslaught of pressing that Liverpool had prepared for never came. So, instead of trying to be technically secure and attacking open spaces off the back of playing out of Southampton’s press, Liverpool had to face a deep, compact block for virtually the entire game. This proved to be a much tougher challenge for Liverpool and they didn’t come to grips with the change in game state until the second half when they settled into a different pattern of the game. A similar change in game dynamics can easily occur when Liverpool face off against Manchester United, should United *or* Liverpool score early.
Should United go 1-0 up, they are well equipped at blocking space in a 4-4-2 shape and have some devastating transitional players such as Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford who can enable the defensive block to get out and punish Liverpool going the other way. This combined with their technical level and tactical advantage in the build-up can see them keep the ball for large periods of the game. As for Liverpool, if they can punish United early on (which, as implied above, is the time period in the game where they’re most likely to score), they can also approach the game in a more conservative manner. Liverpool have top transitional players within their front 3 and they will continue to press because that’s how they play, but they may also become more conservative as the game wears on and block space as they naturally want to ‘hold on’ to their lead. With Liverpool’s hypothetical 1-0 lead in mind, United will be forced to press high and take the game to Liverpool. Although United are compact centrally, they’re not great at sustaining attacks because their attackers are very direct and don’t keep the ball in the final 3rd. This could lead to lots of transitional and counter-attacking opportunities for Liverpool.
Regardless of what happens, it’s a fiercely competitive game with so much at stake and I am very much so looking forward to it.