This match was essentially two separate tactical battles; before and after Jonjo Shelvey's game-changing red card. His dismissal will have been particularly infuriating for Brendan Rodgers, whose starting approach resulted in a fine Liverpool display before half-time.
Sir Alex Ferguson is generally cautious in this fixture, naming a defensive-minded 4-5-1 system in each of his last two visits to Anfield. Unusually he selected a true playmaker, Shinji Kagawa, behind Robin van Persie in conjunction with two natural wingers.
There were more attackers in the United team but this allowed Liverpool a numerical advantage in the centre of midfield, meaning the home side completed over 100 more passes in the first half. That would not have bothered Ferguson – despite a more attacking tilt to the side, United were set up to play on the counter-attack and Kagawa was charged with instigating the breaks. The Japanese playmaker thrived in that role at Borussia Dortmund – Jürgen Klopp's side specialised in quick transitions – and Kagawa barely contributed to the defensive phase of play. He looked to drift into pockets of space and turn defence into attack rapidly.
Something similar was intended here and, early on, United's formation without the ball often looked like 4-4-2 as Kagawa did not seek to get goalside of Joe Allen, instead playing a shielding role, preventing the Liverpool defenders playing easy passes into the Welshman.
Movement into deeper positions from Shelvey and Steven Gerrard provided alternative passing options and Liverpool were simply commanding the midfield three-versus-two; eventually, Kagawa dropped deeper and played more of an active role when Liverpool had possession. That was sorely needed – he saw little of the ball on the break because Liverpool's pressing forced the United defence into wayward long balls and United's poor transitions would have concerned Ferguson far more than the simple possession statistics.
Liverpool looked most dangerous when they got players between Manchester United's lines of defence and midfield; with Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs already overrun by three Liverpool midfielders, they could not cope with any extra bodies in that zone.
Luis Suárez played deeper than usual, with his movement to overload Carrick and Giggs reminiscent of Lionel Messi's in the European Cup final of 2011. His excellent pass through the defence for Fabio Borini charging inside is exactly the point of the 'false nine' system perfected by Barça, and a better first touch from the Italian would have resulted in a goal perfectly fitting Rodgers' philosophy.
Shelvey's dismissal changed Liverpool to a 4-4-1 and, as Ferguson tried to get a grip of the game by introducing Paul Scholes for Nani, the first 15 minutes of the second half were, tactically, uninteresting, despite both teams scoring in quick succession as they familiarised themselves with a new system.
That changed when Rodgers replaced Raheem Sterling with Jordan Henderson, switching to 4-3-1-1 with the substitute Suso in close support of Suárez. This gave Liverpool a lift, reinvigorated their pressing and increasing the tempo of the match.
It meant a more attacking role for both sets of full-backs – Rafael and Patrice Evra had no direct opponent and were always available for a pass, while Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly were expected to provide the home side's width – Johnson's cross for Kelly's headed effort was the closest Liverpool came to scoring at 2-1 down.
The formation switch was not crucial in the outcome of the match, with poor Liverpool defensive play primarily to blame, but Rodgers can take positives from the defeat. His starting approach outwitted Ferguson and he demonstrated an ability to compete with 10 men and change the shape of the match with a substitution.
Michael Cox is the editor of the tactics website zonalmarking.net
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