Follow Doron on Twitter
In the first of Sunday’s two big games, United hosted Liverpool in one of football’s most famous and at times, ferocious, rivalries. United would be without Rooney and Evans – the latter pulling out just the day before due to a hamstring injury. For Liverpool, just one player who’d have started was missing, Jose Enrique. A captivating game would ensue and as ever, we welcome comments from both sets of fans.
The first half – why it worked
Fergie remarked after the game that the opening half had been as well as United had played all season. Aside from some of the spells when United have been forced to chase a game, he’s probably right. The one thing lacking was goals.
Liverpool, as shown by numerous teams this season, do not like to be pressed high and forced deep – one reason why starting with both Welbeck and Kagawa was a master-stroke. The pair, whilst not necessarily obvious starters, were able to execute the tactical plan perfectly – pushing high onto Liverpool’s defenders when in possession and Welbeck in particular did a superb job of dropping onto their deepest midfielder, much like Rooney would have done. It meant Liverpool were rushed and being forced to try riskier passes that United simply picked off. When attacking, Suarez was often isolated and neither Sterling nor Downing were given a chance to spend a lot of time on the ball.
The key battle came in the middle of the pitch. On one hand United have been brave going with just two central players against Liverpool’s three but it worked. Allen and Lucas both like to play deep and so Carrick and Cleverley were often confronted just by Gerrard – easy pickings. They may not be the most intimidating of midfield pairings but they compliment each other well and seem to be developing a good understanding. Whilst Carrick was the most expansive of the two, picking passes for fun and generally giving momentum to United’s attacking play, Cleverley kept forever busy buzzing at the heels of Liverpool players and making an incredible effort to get back and be another body for them to have to get through.
Whilst defensively sound but also untroubled, it was the attacking play that thrilled the most. Quick, incisive moves that were characterised by short passing and often series of triangles between Carrick, Cleverley and Kagawa at times cut Liverpool open with ease. Both Rafael and Evra bombed forward to great effect, doubling up with both Young and Kagawa who often came inside. Kagawa’s role was intriguing and could have a point on its own – he seemed to flourish in the space he made for himself and it was encouraging to see him both demand the ball and get stuck into the physical side of the game too.
If it weren’t for a bit more luck and composure from both Robin and Danny in particular, United would have gone in a few goals ahead rather than just one and could be forgiven for thinking the game was nearly secured.
The second half – why it was uncomfortable
Rodgers, no doubt relieved that Liverpool were still just about in the game, made a telling change at half time. Sturridge came on for Lucas and something resembling a 4-4-2 formation was adopted by Liverpool. Despite conceding early (some more poor defending) to Vidic’s somewhat fortunate and potentially offside (was he level?) goal, the response by Liverpool was good and strong.
Suarez was no longer isolated and with both he and Sturridge making runs all over the pitch, United’s players were dragged out of positions to pick them up. Things they did better and different from the first half included: pushing higher up onto United’s defenders and Carrick (who became quite flustered and started uncharacteristically misplacing passes at strange heights) in particular; getting their fullbacks forward to support attacks; switching the point of attack across the pitch better; made runs beyond United’s defenders; and in general, just increased the intensity of their play and committed more men to their attacks.
Their goal was a good bit of anticipation play by Sturridge but Rafael was having a nice doze and was very slow to react to the loose ball. To be fair to the Brazilian, he had a great game and is having an excellent season – those kind of errors have been nearly wiped from his game but it was a reminder that there is still polishing to be done. The save that lead to Sturridge scoring was actually excellent. Maybe de Gea could have pushed it further away but as TV has shown, he was unsighted for the shot and it was remarkable he even kept it out when others certainly wouldn’t have.
As the second half wore on, United created a couple of chances but defensively became nervous and at times desperate as Liverpool threw men forward and created chances that really should have been taken or at least hit the target. On reflection, Rodgers is right that Liverpool maybe should have come away with at least a point… if you forget that United should have been way ahead at half time. A game of two captivating and very different halves with an end result that overall fitted the balance of play.
Danny Welbeck – man of the match?
Sky and Gary Neville awarded Danny Welbeck man of the match much to the surprise of many, particular some United fans. Whilst I think Rafael, Evra or Carrick would have been more deserving there’s a good case that can be made for Danny.
The problem many people have with Welbeck, and it’s understandable, is that for a forward, his finishing lacks finishing. Whilst a crucial thing to be good at for a striker, Danny’s more than just goals and doesn’t strike me as someone who’ll ever be prolific so there’s little point holding out for him to be. One goal in twenty four games this season does not read well for him but he’s seldom actually played through the middle as a striker and what he does for those around him often more than makes up for it.
Looking at yesterday in particular, he was a constant thorn in Liverpool’s side. Defensively he closed Liverpool players down all game and as already noted, was quick to drop onto both Lucas and Allen, playing a big part in stifling them in the first half. Going forwards, his movement and the runs he made were excellent whilst his pace had Skrtel in all sorts of trouble at times. Where Danny maybe has the edge over some strikers is what he can do outside the penalty area – his link play and appreciation of where his team-mates are is superb and he often dropped into some of the best passages of football with the midfielders.
In the second half, when United were under pressure, he was the player looking to carry the ball forward and drag United up the pitch. He’s so good at beating men and in just a few seconds can bring the ball over 40 or so yards. Composure both in finishing and his impressions of Bambi at times will come particularly the more he plays but yesterday was all about a player giving his all for the sake of the team and that was why he was one of United’s better players.
The fact he is different is of course a good thing too. All four of United’s strikers excel at a range of things and there are few similarities in style between them. This can only be a good thing and it allows Fergie to pick those who best counter an opponent’s style. Of course, if there’s another reason needed to like Danny and be patient with him it’s that he’s local and a boyhood United fan. Supporters can be quick to get on a player’s back but those who’ve come through our Academy have always been given extra time and often won fans over eventually. We’ve had far worse players than Danny play for us and be liked more than he is so the fact he’s become something of a boo-boy is plainly odd.
Some thoughts about Sturridge, Suarez and the flare
It’ll be intriguing to see how Sturridge and Suarez link up and play for Liverpool over the coming months. Whilst he had a very positive influence on how Liverpool played, Sturridge’s second half would have been all too familiar to Chelsea fans. He got in the right areas and was lively but at times both his finishing and decision making was rash. He is, by nature, a selfish footballer – strikers of course need to be selfish but it’s as if Sturridge sees what he should do and still makes the wrong decision.
Suarez of course is a fabulous footballer but like Sturridge, he thrives on being single-minded and direct. Whether the pair can strike up an understanding or not and even have the desire to play as a duo in terms of supporting one another rather than doing it all alone, remains to be seen. One such example yesterday was when Sturridge shot into the side netting when a pull back to Suarez was the better option. Of course it’s early days for Daniel’s Liverpool career but I’m unconvinced he’s the “real deal” just yet.
Thanks must go to Liverpool’s away fans for allowing photographers to get some nice shots of the game through a reddish haze, much like the blue haze at Man City. Now this might be a game of passion and emotion but a flare to mark pulling a goal back seems bizarre, particularly as Liverpool seldom seem to use them. Often lit before games to intimidate, to mark going ahead, or when victory is close, they can look good, particularly at night. However, Liverpool’s flare was set off in a colour that United were playing in and when their team were behind – all a bit odd and something older Liverpool fans may be slightly embarrassed by.
As United-Liverpool games go, the fact that this one passed without incident and with a refereeing performance that seemed to arguably just about favour the away side (although I’m sure Liverpool fans will find a reason to disagree with that) makes it largely forgettable. Rodgers will continue to say that on the pitch the gap between the sides isn’t huge but the league table says it’s probably not been this big for a long time.
Van Persie notched up league goal 17 of his season and United’s defenders continue to chip in with contributions in the final third giving a two goal lead with 35 minutes left to play. Once Liverpool came alive though they were impressive and should added more than just the one goal they did.
United can now look ahead to the midweek FA Cup replay against West Ham and then a big game at Spurs next weekend. The gap remains seven points to Man City as they comfortably overcame a poor Arsenal side. On the injury front there may be concerns for United – Vidic came off having felt his knee whilst Young was rumoured to have been spotted leaving the game on crutches. Rooney, Anderson and Nani should be expected to play some part in the next two games which is more encouraging.