United travelled west to Liverpool for a 4th round FA Cup game at rivals Liverpool. With injuries yet again hitting the side hard, they lined up in a 4-5-1 without key creative players Rooney or Nani. Rafael returned at right back whilst Carrick was joined in the middle by the oldies, Giggs and Scholes. Welbeck was asked to lead the line and at the back, De Gea was brought in at a ground he did well at last time out. Liverpool matched United’s formation with Carroll leading their attack and Carragher sitting in front of the back four.
Below, we discuss the talking points and invite Liverpool fans as well as United fans to join in the discussion.
Carroll and Welbeck isolated
For the most part, Carroll’s selection ahead of Bellamy seemed a strange one. He was isolated, and was only found once from a cross from wide, with Downing playing as an inverted winger on the right hand side. United dealt with his threat superbly, until of course the last minute. Smalling adopted his usual tactic of following the centre forward ‘out’. He kept in close vicinity to Carroll, pressed the space and tried to keep his back to goal. Evans, when called upon, often won the aerial duel with the big Englishman; his height often betrays his aerial ability and has the anticipation and agility required for these types of battles. The Kuyt winner was strange in that it was the first time in the match that Evans lost the duel with Carroll, but given the poor communication between the back four at that point, Carroll was given far too much space to manoeuvre. Perhaps a symptom of poor concentration late on in a frantic game, the defending was of the proverbial ‘schoolboy’ sort. Smalling starts too far right, Evans is pulled towards Carroll, and Evra makes the covering run just a fraction of second too late. De Gea may well have narrowed the angle to a greater extent too for Kuyt’s shot.
For United, it was a frustrating afternoon given their superior possession. Rooney’s industry was hugely missed, and thus the gap between Welbeck and the midfield was far too large, despite Giggs and Park doing their best to link the play. Giggs’ swap with Park on 30 mins seemed to have the desired effect of United keeping width on the left with an already congested middle, and Park able to work in between the lines and get closer to Welbeck. But despite the wonderfully taken goal (and a fantastic assist from Rafael who was superb throughout), the team didn’t create enough in the final third. Valencia was kept reasonably quiet, especially in the second half, especially given Jose Enrique’s instruction to stay deep; and with a similar scenario on the opposite side of the field, where Evra was sitting in and keeping the defensive shape, United’s usual threat from wide areas remained negligible. If just one of Young or Nani had been available, they would surely have been called upon relatively early from the bench.
Carragher struggles, Scholes dictates
Carragher struggled with pace of the game and was second best to every ball. Selected in the ‘Lucas position’ to presumably counter the (pre-empted) deep lying Rooney, the Liverpudlian was finding it hard to track Giggs’ runs from deep and Scholes’ clever movement. Liverpool’s fluid midfield didn’t help however, with Gerrard pushing on and Henderson interchanging positions with Maxi. When attacks broke down, United found it far too easy to spot the gaps on the counter. Carragher looked flustered on the ball, and lacking the energy to play in such a vital position.
Scholes sought to capitalise, and conducted proceedings with aplomb – 97% pass completion in first half, completing 75 (nearly 3 times as many as Gerrard). And he wasn’t just stationed near the centre either, Scholes and Carrick both took turns in getting forward to support the attack. When Scholes was found in deep positions, his tackling and intercepting was good too. United’s midfield controlled possession and took the game to Liverpool once they had gone one goal down. But it is what you do with the possession once you have it, and Welbeck’s isolation, and Valencia’s diminishing influence in the game proved too much for the Manchester side, as both sides seemed to be settling for a draw and a replay at Old Trafford.
Dalglish’s subs make impact
Dalglish must take credit for turning the game in their favour, roughly around the hour-mark. On 62 mins Kuyt replaced the hapless Carragher, and Adam came on for Maxi. This allowed Kuyt to drift in from the right to support the previously isolated Carroll as Liverpool pretty much maintained the 4-3-3 shape. Then on 72 mins, Bellamy came on for Gerrard, and the set up was basically a 4-4-2, with Downing going left and Carroll working more closely with another centre forward. United had coped well until this point, always having an extra man, and both fullbacks remaining largely un-ambitious. But now they had two extra problems: Bellamy moving horizontally across the field and Kuyt playing a slightly more central right midfield position. Liverpool’s backline moved forward (with United’s concomitantly retreating) and they took a greater control of the midfield, with Adam getting on the ball. That said, Ferguson didn’t help matters in replacing Schloles. United lost the momentum, and Carrick, who didn’t have his best game, was left stranded in the centre.
When you find that you’re having to regularly defend a player, regardless of what you think, there’s probably a problem. De Gea was on the end of a lot of harsh criticism yesterday – a game where he had little to do and actually was relatively assured on most crosses. Agger’s goal though was the perfect example of David getting nowhere near where he should have been. He seemed pre-occupied with Andy Carroll rather than the ball and ended up neither going to claim the corner nor staying on his line.
The real crime in that goal though was that Agger was easily able to head the ball towards the goal anyway. For all the blue United shirts around him, none of them jumped to challenger his header and the only player whose feet did leave the ground was Agger. An avoidable goal both from the defenders and De Gea.
Oddly the goal that worried me a bit was the Kuyt’s winner. De Gea seems to have a strange habit of going down to make a save with his feet in front of him. It not only means he doesn’t spread himself as wide as possible but it’s not a very flexible position to be in if he has to get up quickly and certainly doesn’t look like a balanced pose. There is a time to use that kind of save and it’s normally when coming off your line to make yourself appear ‘big’, as perfected by Peter Schmeichel. When rooted to your line though, it doesn’t seem to really do much – it’s not as if Kuyt found the corner of the net, it was a savable shot.
Defeats are never good but this will allow United to focus on the league. Ferguson has already said that if he has a big enough pool of available players then he’ll rotate the team for the upcoming games against Ajax. With so many players out injured, fewer games is probably a good thing. On the subject of injuries, it looks like Young, Anderson and Cleverley are both close to returns whilst Ferdinand, Rooney and Nani’s injuries appear to be less serious than initially feared. Players are slowly returning and lord knows United are due some luck in that department.
United’s FA Cup campaign is over after something of a dull affair at Anfield. Despite dominating and controlling the game, United (and Liverpool) had few ideas in the final third of the pitch.
Liverpool took the lead through Daniel Agger’s unchallenged header from a corner. Fingers were pointed in De Gea’s direction as he failed to decide whether to come or stay for the ball but the United defenders were equally as culpable for not challenging Agger. United could have actually taken the lead – a surging run in-field by Valencia ended with a powerful dipping shot hitting the post with Reina beaten.
United did go in level at half time, Rafael won the ball inside the Liverpool half and cut the ball back perfectly for Park to clinically fire the ball past Reina. Through Scholes, United had controlled long spells of the game with Gerrard in particular playing a very peripheral role. After an hour, Dalglish brought on Kuyt and Adam and Liverpool started to see more possession.
The winning goal came late on in the tie – a long ball was headed on by Carroll and fell kindly into the path of Kuyt who’d been left totally free by Evra. Kuyt took the ball into the area unchallenged and fired past De Gea. The goal came too late for United to respond and Liverpool face Brighton next in the cup. Stoke are the visitors to Old Trafford on Tuesday as attention shifts back to the league and the title race again.