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Firmino's midfield forays key to Liverpool dominating Man Utd: Tactical lessons from the Premier League

4:00 PM GMT+4 20/01/2020
Jurgen Klopp Roberto Firmino Liverpool 2019-20
The Brazil striker may not have got on the scoresheet at Anfield on Sunday, but his movement allowed the Reds to overpower their opponents

Liverpool's march towards the Premier League title continues, with the Reds moving 16 points clear at the top of the table following their win over Manchester United on Sunday.

They were further boosted by the fact that none of the four teams immediately below them won, meaning the race for top-four places remains far more open.

Tottenham and Arsenal were unable to take advantage, however, with both north London sides only able to pick up draws.

That meant it was a good weekend for Wolves, with their come-from-behind win at Southampton ensuring they were the only side in the top half, aside from Liverpool, to pick up three points.

But what were the main tactical takeaways? Goal breaks them down right here...

1) Firmino the midfielder exposes Solskjaer's otherwise solid foundations

During brief spells of pressure, most notably towards the end of each half, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s formation at Anfield looked like the right choice; Aaron Wan-Bissaka would get tight to Andrew Robertson, Fred would set the tempo for quick distribution into the final third, and Daniel James and Anthony Martial would cleverly pick up the ball in the half-spaces, dropping off the front into gaps either side of Jordan Henderson.

But for the most part this was a comfortable Liverpool win that could, and probably should, have ended with them scoring five or six.

United’s 5-2-1-2 formation left Fred and Nemanja Matic with enormous areas of the pitch to cover against an exhilaratingly fluent Liverpool midfield, and despite superb performances from both players, the hosts duly dominated.

The key player was Roberto Firmino, who perpetually dropped off a flat-footed Harry Maguire to grab possession and help Liverpool drive at the heart of the back five.

IMAGE: Firmino successful passes vs Man Utd

Unsurprisingly, that five became calamitous under pressure. There were big gaps everywhere, whether it was Wan-Bissaka getting caught between jobs or Victor Lindelof zigzagging across the Anfield turf.

It was a valiant effort from Solskjaer’s side in the circumstances, but emptying your own midfield against the champions-elect is never a good idea.

2) Arsenal's wild wing-play highlights Arteta's need for an Ozil replacement

Perhaps the strangest tactical performance of the weekend came at the Emirates Stadium, where Arsenal lurched down the wings with the sort of chaotic individualism more reminiscent of the best days under Unai Emery than anything Mikel Arteta has been preaching so far.

Sheffield United’s 3-5-2 was typically stubborn, refusing to drop deep enough for the hosts to truly dominate with Guardiola-like passing moves, but nevertheless Arsenal’s issues were of their own making.

Granit Xhaka seemed unsure of his role alongside Lucas Torreira, leading to hesitant Arsenal passing in which creative pressure was heaped onto Mesut Ozil.

When he went missing, it was left to Nicolas Pepe, Gabriel Martinelli, and Bukayo Saka - who all had excellent games - to dribble down the flanks in the hope space would open up. Only when the Blades began to tire, dropping 20 yards deeper, did this lead to a flurry of chances.

Here was the clearest evidence yet that Arteta needs a new creative midfielder - in the Christian Eriksen or David Silva mould – to get Arsenal playing with cohesion.

3) Spurs' striker shortage allows Watford's warriors to dominate

A lot of the criticism being aimed at Jose Mourinho at Tottenham is nothing more than confirmation bias, suggesting his brand has been tainted by the third-season collapses at Chelsea and Manchester United.

Improving Spurs’ performances was always going to require time, patience, and money. He has been given none of those things so far, and though Tottenham are no better than they were in the final months of Mauricio Pochettino's reign, it is unfair to suggest Mourinho has not made changes.

For example, they began Saturday’s game at Watford with an interesting – and un-Mourinho-like - tactical plan.

Technically a 4-3-3, Harry Winks sat alone at the base of midfield while Dele Alli and Giovani Lo Celso shuttled in tandem ahead of him. Erik Lamela drifted far inside from the right wing to link with Lo Celso’s clever movements as Lucas Moura – as the falsest of false nines – yo-yoed so deep he was regularly the closest man to Winks.

Lamela, Lo Celso, and Lucas exchanged triangular passes that initially unsettled the hosts. It did not last, however, and Spurs struggled to create clear-cut chances due to their lack of a striker, which proved too big an obstacle against Watford’s physicality.

Nigel Pearson’s side won 34 aerial duels, more than double Tottenham’s 16. Mourinho needed a fulcrum; a powerful presence to prevent the game from swinging so often in Watford’s favour.

Troy Deeney, who won 20 headers, bullied the Spurs centre-backs and then fed the ball out to Watford’s tricky wingers, gradually forcing Tottenham back and breaking down those promising tactics from the first half hour.

4) Tosun torments Stones to expose City's defensive frailties

Man City have dropped 10 points at home in 2019-20, the same number as their last two seasons combined, and after winning five consecutive games in all competitions their 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace on Saturday was a reminder of why.

City’s decision not to replace Vincent Kompany, and Aymeric Laporte’s injury in August, is the sole reason why they are not in the title race.

John Stones had another nightmare game. In the first half he was beaten in the air by Gary Cahill, who set up Cenk Tosun to score the opener, and in the second half was twice at fault for Palace’s equaliser – initially losing an aerial duel with Connor Wickham and then failing to get close enough to Wilfried Zaha as he forced a Fernandinho own goal.

Stones might have been poor, but Tosun deserves praise for his role in creating the tension and discomfort that led to the centre-back’s mistakes.

He bullied the City players and gave Palace the long-ball option they have been missing this season, hence their 73 attempted long passes on Saturday – up from a season average of 57.

5) Traore switch key to Wolves' comeback win

For the first 20 minutes at Southampton on Saturday, Adama Traore was deployed on the left wing and was largely ineffective, shepherded out of the early moments of the contest by Cedric Soares.

Credit, then, to Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo for switching Traore out to the right, where the 23-year-old came into his own to terrorise the Saints back line.

It was no surprise to see Traore improve on the flank Southampton leave most open. Only a Zaha-led Crystal Palace attack down the left more than Saints (43 per cent of the time, per Opta), with Ryan Bertrand expected to overlap whenever possible and Nathan Redmond rarely tracking back as opponents counter.

Traore clearly benefitted from the high positions of these two, assisting twice and playing a hand in winning the penalty from which Raul Jimenez equalised.

IMAGE: Traore dribble locations vs Southampton (Green = successful, red = unsuccessful)

That centre-back Jan Bednarek was twice caught lunging into tackles on Traore speaks to the extent to which the Southampton defence was left in the lurch by Bertrand in particular.

It might have been the simplest of tactical tweaks from Nuno, but it was ultimately the most influential in-game change in the Premier League this weekend.