Sunday’s contest between Manchester United and Liverpool may not have been a great game, but it was a great lesson. A lesson in the importance of organized pressing. This means having an understanding from individual players on when and how to press — curving pressing runs to cut off passing lanes, forcing to a certain area. This means pressing as a unit — going together rather than one player on his own, keeping compactness as you press. This means having a plan that players are aware of and can refer to during the game — having specific pressing triggers, knowing where to force the play, knowing each player’s responsibility in the press, etc.
Manchester United look like a team without a plan. Against Liverpool on Sunday they showed little cohesion or understanding of what their teammates were going to do in pressing situations. This was Manchester United’s most obvious deficiency and the main reason Liverpool picked them apart with ease time and time again. United looked like a team of 11 individuals rather than one cohesive unit.
The contrast to Klopp’s Liverpool could not have been clearer. Liverpool have built their recent dynasty on pressing — pressing with energy but also with organization. The Liverpool players pick their moments to press and are connected as a unit when they do so. Undoubtedly, this comes down to coaching. The Liverpool players know exactly what to do in their press because they have gone over it many times and it has been tested against every different system and scenario imaginable.
This game provided an interesting look at what happens when you have one of the greatest pressing teams of all time against a team of individuals without a coherent plan of how to defend.
Let’s look at how Liverpool scored their opener. Here, Mason Greenwood is in a decent position to start the press. He is helping to cover James Milner as we can see McTominay pointing and likely telling Greenwood to be aware of Milner’s presence behind him.
However, what he does next is quite confusing. As Alisson passes out wide to Robertson, Greenwood chooses to cut off the passing lane to Van Dijk, instead of cutting off the passing lane into Milner. He also fails to provide any pressure whatsoever to Andy Robertson. This leaves Milner open in space and forces Aaron Wan-Bissaka all the way up to pressure Robertson. Greenwood looks completely lost. Robertson chooses to go long and United are able to deal with the initial threat but just seconds after, Liverpool score from a very similar buildup situation.
Liverpool play the ball back to Alisson who gives to Van Dijk, and Greenwood chooses to press. Greenwood, however, fails to angle his pressing run properly. Greenwood runs straight at Virgil Van Dijk, giving him an easy out to Robertson.
Again, AWB is forced to step up and pressure Robertson after Greenwood is easily bypassed.
This causes a domino effect that results in Manchester United’s entire backline shifting over. Luke Shaw is essentially left 1 v 3 after Maguire is played through, and Liverpool make no mistake in punishing them.
It wasn’t just Greenwood though, each of United’s front four looked as if they had no idea of when or how to press this Liverpool team. Let’s look now at how United handled Jordan Henderson, who played a fantastic game but was repeatedly given loads of time and space to play forward passes.
With Ronaldo half-heartedly pressuring the centerbacks, the responsibility of marking Henderson usually fell to Bruno Fernandes. Fernandes struggled to keep track of Henderson, repeatedly letting passes into him and allowing the Englishman to link Liverpool’s defense to attack when building up.
Here, we can see Ronaldo staying tight to Virgil Van Dijk despite the ball being over on the touchline with Alexander-Arnold. Fernandes is the player responsible for Henderson but looks as if he wants to step to Konate. That gives TAA the passing lane to Henderson who is able to turn and play a forward pass through the lines, in a situation where United could have forced the play backward.
As the play progresses, Fernandes again finds himself on the wrong side of Henderson. Henderson is then able to play forward to Salah between the lines; relieving pressure and advancing Liverpool up the pitch.
Henderson was consistently able to receive the ball and turn up-field with little to no pressure whatsoever. Part of that was good positioning by him, but more so there was a lack of effort and a lack of organization by the forward players of Manchester United.
A great example of that here. Jordan Henderson is able to receive the ball from Van Dijk and carry forward between Ronaldo and Rashford before playing a pass forward to Mo Salah. Neither Rashford nor Ronaldo provide any real challenge to Henderson.
As mentioned earlier, pressing requires energy and effort but it also requires intelligence and cohesion. The pressing from United lacked intelligence and cohesion. Often, one United forward would decide to press without any support from his nearby teammates. This made it extremely easy for Liverpool to bypass the pressing player, with United’s forwards also failing to block passing lanes with their pressing runs.
Here is one example where Fernandes decides to press without supporting players in position to help. This sequence leads to Liverpool’s third goal.
As the ball goes backward to Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fernandes chooses to press aggressively. He runs straight toward TAA. Again, however, he fails to cut off any passing lane and fails to notice that no one is pressing with him. Alexander-Arnold can easily play the ball out to Roberto Firmino and Fernandes is completely taken out of the play with one simple pass.
Fred is forced to slide all the way over to the touchline, and just like that United are outnumbered in the midfield. Liverpool work the ball forward using their numerical advantage and score to make it 3–0. Fernandes would have been much better off dropping and covering Firmino than pressing Alexander-Arnold with no support around him.
Manchester United’s forwards continued to make similarly pointless pressing runs throughout the match. This time, Marcus Rashford is the culprit. As Keita plays the ball back to Andy Robertson, (Robertson and Alexander-Arnold had momentarily switched sides) Rashford decides to press. He shoots out straight toward Robertson, again failing to cut off the passing lane.
Robertson simply touches the ball back to Naby Keita. And just like that, Rashford has completely taken himself out of the play. Fred is once again forced to slide over and cover for Rashford, who slowly walks backwards but does nothing to help defensively.
These mistakes might seem minor because they happen so far from the goal, but the knock-on effect they have is dangerous and we saw that multiple times in the match Sunday. Because of Rashford being played around so easily, Fred and McTominay are forced to slide over. Greenwood then has to slide over and support the midfield, rather than tracking back to support his right fullback. This leaves Alexander Arnold wide open at the top of the 18-yard box, and Liverpool very nearly score their fourth goal from his cross.
Ronaldo was ineffective in his pressing as well. He failed to provide any real pressure to Liverpool’s central defenders, nor did he do a good job of cutting off the supply lines into Henderson as we saw earlier. Like his fellow forwards when Ronaldo decided to press it was often in vain as he failed to do so in conjuncture with his teammates or angle his pressing runs correctly to cut off passing lanes.
Here, Ronaldo decides to press hard following a back pass from Konate to Alisson. However, he does not cut off the passing lane back into Konate nor are their teammates pressing with him to make the press effective.
Ronaldo is easily bypassed as Alisson returns the ball to Konate, who can now turn and pick out a pass with no pressure whatsoever. Ronaldo is left standing behind the play.
It’s hard to know exactly who is at fault for United’s lack of organization in the pressing department. Is it the coaching staff’s fault for not having a plan and implementing it through proper training and instruction? Is it the players fault for not executing the plan or lacking the appropriate work rate to do so? Hard to say just who is responsible and maybe the fault is spread throughout the organization. However, if Manchester United continue to play like this than quality teams will continue to pick them apart.
Liverpool, on the other hand, are a famously excellent pressing team. Let’s quickly look at how they pressed on Sunday and see why their way was so much more effective than their counterpart’s.
Manchester United go short on a goal kick here to Maguire. Salah is quick to apply pressure, but importantly he and Firmino keep Fred and McTominay in their cover shadow (blocking the passing lane). Liverpool have supporting players in the area to support the press and are ready to engage in the next line.
Maguire passes across to Lindelof, and now Firmino applies the pressure. Again, it is important to note how he angles his pressing run in a way that keeps McTominay in his cover shadow still. Keita is just out of frame but is close enough to Fred to jump in and challenge any ball into his feet.
Lindelof does in fact pass into Fred’s feet, but Keita is close enough as the supporting player to intercept the pass. Keita shows us here the importance of pressing as a unit. There has to be players in the second line supporting the pressing players in the forward line in order for the press to be effective.
Firmino is one of the most intelligent pressing forwards in the world. He is constantly checking over his shoulder and adjusting his position to make sure he is cutting off passing lanes.
Here we can see Liverpool start their high press. Firmino makes sure to deny the pass into McTominay and leaves Wan-Bissaka with only the option to play backward. Milner and Keita are alert — they recognize that the press is on and make sure to get into good positions to support the forwards. Their work rate is exceptional.
The entire team moves forward as a unit. Firmino steps up to pressure Lindelof, again keeping McTominay behind him. Milner and Keita are in good positions to make any ball into United’s double pivot a risky one. Salah provides balance on the right.
De Gea is then forced into playing a lofted ball over to Luke Shaw. Alexander-Arnold sprints forward to keep the pressure on. Salah and Firmino shift across as well to squeeze play to one side. Shaw is forced to go backward to Maguire who ends up playing the ball out of bounds. Again, Liverpool show the importance of pressing as a cohesive unit.