On a day where emotions were running high at Anfield, and with the eyes of the footballing world focused firmly on British football’s biggest rivalry, United fans, as well as the manager and Sir Bobby Charlton, all acquitted themselves in an exemplary manner. Both sets of fans applauded the tribute to the 96 people who died so tragically at Hillsborough in 1989. In terms of the league, United were hoping to keep up with the early pacesetters Chelsea, whilst Rodgers was looking to end a torrid run of results, which has seen his team accumulate the sum total of two points thus far. Comments from both sets of supporters are welcomed.
Fergie’s selection and formation quandaries
Going into the game, Fergie arguably had to make three key decisions in terms of selection: Retain Lindegaard in the league? Giggs or Cleverley? Nani or Welbeck? He went with the Dane, the Welshman and the Portuguese. Giggs’ inclusion meant that this was the 12th consecutive season at Anfield where either he or Scholes have started the game! The manager also had to decide between the 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 formations that have been used so far this season. Opting for the former as he has mostly in the league, Fergie’s intention was perhaps to protect his fullbacks from the threat of both Kelly and Johnson – who need no encouragement to get forward – trying to double up with Sterling and Borini respectively. This strategy however, relied on two presumptions; that Nani would be able to continue the improvement on the defensive side of his game by ensuring he tracked Borini (and the laterally drifting Suarez) into defensive positions; and that Shinji Kagawa, starting off van Persie, would be able to read the game astutely, dropping into centre midfield alongside Carrick and Giggs when United were without the ball.
None of these things happened, which meant that aside from the first 5 minutes, Liverpool were able to dominate the centre of the pitch (3 v 2) and thus control the tempo of the game. United were pushed very deep (with the gap between midfield and the front two large), and whilst Carrick retained calm possession as best he could, Giggs was less effective in a midfield two – and Allen and Gerrard in particular relished the space. Out wide, whilst Evra did very well against Sterling, Nani was frequently caught high up the pitch, and one started to wonder whether the refreshed Welbeck might have been the better option wide left.
Cleverley’s absence (and lack of involvement) was perhaps more baffling given that he had not been involved in last two outings at all, and his England performance versus Ukraine aside (which Fergie said he didn’t watch!), his performances have been very good – his energetic and creative displays important to the way the midfield function operates. Fergie got it right with Lindegaard who was fantastic (though we can expect further rotation), but perhaps not so with the latter two given the disjointed approach. In fairness, the gaffer quickly changed things, and at half time Nani was replaced by Scholes, with Giggs asked to play in a narrow left position. Fergie will still be unsure of his best system – options always encourage him to tinker; although he would certainly prefer to have such selection dilemmas across the pitch rather than not to have them at all.
Centre-back partnership understanding fantastic
Jonny Evans started ahead of Vidic, with the United captain looking rusty to say the least since the season’s advent, and the defender apparently still feeling tightness in his knee from the injury he sustained early last season. With Evans performing well versus Galatasaray and a brief cameo against the Latics last week, it made the decision a fairly straightforward one for the manager.
One of the positives to come out of last season was the partnership of Ferdinand and Evans, and today we saw much of the same. With no direct opponents – given Liverpool’s shape and the fact Suarez’s movement from left to right was fluid throughout – it is often hard for the centre-backs to know how to position themselves with greatest effect. It was vital then for both Rio and Jonny to communicate throughout, pressing the space in synchrony and keeping slightly wider apart than we would usually expect, assisting the fullbacks where necessary against the threat sustained threat from wide. They did this with aplomb, and despite the fact that Suarez did have some joy in spinning off one of the pair into the channels at times in the game, the covering centre half would invariably be in lieu tracking the Uruguayan and putting in a crucial interception. Rio in particular was superb in this respect, sweeping left and right, where Evans’ strengths today came in his aerial dominance and in the three key challenges (one an impeccably timed tackle on Suarez, which was close to being a penalty – the ball’s direction of travel is key here) he made in the penalty area where Liverpool were threatening the United goal. With Rio slightly deeper, the onus was on Evans, to bring the ball out of defence, and his passing (with either foot) once again stood out – the one area of his game, which greatly needed improving just 18 months ago.
Leadership and passion
One criticism of United at Anfield in recent years has been the lack of ‘fight’ shown by individuals. Fans expect players to match their passion and if they’re going to lose, at least go down fighting. Rafael’s attitude to playing in general is somewhat ferocious – he always plays as though every game is a derby and certainly at Anfield last year, he was the one player to put up any kind of fight. Once again yesterday he was a warrior who more than deserved to impact the game’s memorable moment. He, like Ruud and Ole, seems to get what United is all about.
That hunger to win was shared by Carrick and the centre backs but it was a tough welcome into this fixture for both Kagawa and van Persie. Both were on the fringes of the game and Shinji in particular seemed to struggle, unable to find space and rarely buying himself any time. The game cried out for a leader and although it looked as though he’d picked up a game-ending injury at one point, Rio was imperious. On the day where John Terry retired from international duty, England’s finest centre back of the past 10 years served up a timely reminder of why he still starts for one of the world’s best teams.
Shelvey’s red card
One can understand why Shelvey might be frustrated by the decision to send him off. He flew into a challenge uncontrollably, but so did Evans. There were similarities between the Evans-Holden tackle a couple of seasons back that saw Jonny sent off and Holden badly injured but both had gone in recklessly. The timing was crucial though, Evans got to the ball first and won it, albeit with two feet – Shelvey only arrived on the scene after the ball had gone though and made contact with Jonny. Therefore despite the way in which Evans got to the ball, it was Shelvey who had to be sent off.
A game like that can do funny things to people and Shelvey will surely regret the way he had a go at Ferguson as he came off, trying to blame him for the red card – amusing but immature. He was also quick to tweet post match:
“I have also apologised to sir Alex , just where I come from people don’t grass people up to get someone sent off.”
Clearly, he saw what was wrong with that and quickly deleted it but not before it had already been seen and noted by people in the press and probably at both clubs.
Evra understanding the occasion
There was plenty of speculation pre-match about the day and what might happen. The Evra-Suarez situation had been somewhat nicely overlooked but even so, as the Liverpool plays walked past the United players they shook hands. Liverpool fans may dislike Evra but post-match, he said plenty of things they’d hopefully respect:
“The most important thing today was respect, it was a game between two big clubs. There was a big tragedy. People were talking about a handshake but the stories of the clubs is bigger than that. If I hadn’t shaken Suarez’s hand, I would not be respecting the stories of the clubs. In the end I am glad this time he shook my hand. More importantly, it was important to respect the families. It was not an easy day.”
Thankfully the talking points after the game have been about what took place on the pitch rather than off it.
A genuinely terrible United performance concluded with a win on Merseyside. In many ways it would be nice to completely ignore the manner in which United won and just be happy that we’ve beaten them in their own back yard but that first half in particular will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons. Liverpool might feel hard done by, not so much because of refereeing decisions but in that even with ten men they dominated the game and only sporadically made Lindegaard have to make a save. It’s obvious to point out but they really need a striker.
Newcastle visit Old Trafford on Wednesday in the Capital One Cup and hopefully we’ll see a few youngsters mixed in with the first team for that one.