It was always going to be a fiery encounter. Liverpool was after all visiting Old Trafford. And this installment was helped much by the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra situation. Everyone pre-match was asking, ‘would he, wouldn’t he’ in relation to the customary pre-match handshake between the players, and when the moment came, Suarez’s hand, just as it had done in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, caused controversy.
I don’t want to dwell on the ‘Handshakegate’ because in reality, football is far too important to be discarded just because of the childish behaviour of a couple of professionals. So on to the football.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-1-1)
RAFAEL, FERDINAND, EVANS, EVRA (c)
VALENCIA, CARRICK, SCHOLES, GIGGS
G.JOHNSON, SKRTEL, AGGER, ENRIQUE
HENDERSON, SPEARING, GERRARD (c),
Unfortunately, the game wasn’t the spectacle that most expected. It however proved more of a tactical battle than anything else, especially in the midfield area.
Sir Alex Ferguson went with the same midfield that ended the previous game. Kenny Dalglish on the other hand went for a midfield 5.
I can only speculate as to both managers’ intentions. Sir Alex, viewing this as a big game, went for the calmness, composure and experience of Giggs and Scholes. With Carrick also on the pitch, it meant that United had 3 passers, thus they sought to retain possession as much as possible. Dalglish on the other hand, respected the fact that United were at home, and went for a midfield 5. The personnel in that midfield was key; he went for hard workers (Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing) probably to put the United midfield under pressure, and to look to counter-attack on receiving the ball. (Hence the industry of Dirk Kuyt on one wing, and the pace of Stewart Downing on the other.)
This meant that for long periods of the game, Liverpool stayed deep and allowed United to have the ball in their own half. However, this suited the United midfielders, as both Carrick and Scholes prefer to have the ball deep, thus they got into their rhythm quickly. As the game progressed, they got more comfortable and slowly started advancing into Liverpool’s half. They however met a well organised Liverpool midfield. This they sought to destabilize by having Giggs drift into the middle from his left wing position. This did two things. On one hand, it allowed United to have more creativity in and around Liverpool’s 18-yard area. On the other, it allowed Evra to move into the space vacated by Giggs, thus bringing more of an attacking threat on the wings.
Liverpool on the other hand were too deep, and didn’t utilize possession well. They rarely looked to initiate counter-attacks. This was partly because Downing had a very bad game down the left. There was also the fact that Henderson and Spearing rarely knew what to do with the ball when they got it, and the only forward passes to Luis Suarez were from the feet of Steven Gerrard. This, coupled with Liverpool staying too deep meant that the dangerous Suarez was mostly an isolated figure upfront.
Despite having lots of possession, United didn’t create many chances, and the game was goalless at half time.
The game was also characterized by various individual battles. The most exciting of these was the Antonio Valencia v Jose Enrique battle. Both players were competitive, and looked to get the better of each other. Overall though, Enrique shaded it, as we didn’t get to see Valencia get to the by-line and whip in a cross.
Other battles included Wayne Rooney up against Jay Spearing, and Evra v Kuyt. Rooney won his battle with the young Englishman, at times stretching Spearing off position. Kuyt on the other hand got the better of Evra, preventing him from usefully utilizing the space created for him by Giggs (though this should worry Liverpool. Whenever you have your winger continuously tracking the opposition full back instead of the other way round, something is wrong).
Perhaps the battle that didn’t materialize, and that should have helped Liverpool in going forward was the Downing v Rafael one. Downing was poor (a feature of his season so far) and so Rafael was relatively comfortable. On a good day, you would expect Downing to get the better of the erratic Brazilian, but Liverpool fans are still waiting on Downing’s ‘good day.’
Another battle that would have been great to watch would have been Suarez up against United’s center backs. But with Suarez hardly getting a pass in his direction, you can’t really blame him.
Second Half Blitz
The second half started in blistering fashion, with United getting two goals within the first five minutes. The first came from a corner and a clever flick on found Rooney unmarked in front of goal to score from point blank range. The second came about from the poor Spearing losing the ball to Valencia jut in front of the penalty area. Valencia slid in Rooney to notch his second brace within the space of a week.
With United now two goals up, they resorted to keeping possession, and didn’t seem interested in going forward. With Scholes, Carrick and Giggs on the pitch, this task was made easy.
On the hour mark, Dalglish decided to change things round. Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy came on for the ineffective Spearing and Downing. Liverpool now switched to a 4-4-2 formation, with Carroll joining Suarez upfront and Bellamy going wide left. Later on, Charlie Adam replaced Kuyt, thus Henderson went to the right and Adam joined Gerrard in the center of midfield.
The overall effect of these changes was a more positive looking Liverpool. Bellamy started to trouble Rafael, Carroll’s aerial dimension was always a threat to the United center back pairing, and the creativity brought by Adam led to Suarez receiving the ball more and running at players. However, this effect took some time to really trouble United, probably because the changes were not all made at once, thus it took the substitutes different periods to adapt to the game.
This explains why Liverpool’s goal, when it did come, came a bit too close to the end of the game to be of significance. With ten minutes remaining, United conceded a free kick which was curled in by Adam. A ricochet off Rio Ferdinand, and the ball fell kindly for Suarez, who really couldn’t miss.
Last ten minutes
The goal threatened to produce a tense finale, but in the end, it was United who saw out the last ten minutes. That is not to say that Liverpool didn’t pile on the pressure, but that it wasn’t enough. David De Gea was seriously troubled only once in the final period, a left foot strike by Glen Johnson which he tipped over the cross-bar. The only other chance that fell Liverpool’s way was a Suarez header, which apart from going wide, was adjudged to be offside.
Oddly enough, Sir Alex saw out the last ten minutes without making a change. He merely tinkered with his squad, moved Giggs permanently into midfield, and pushed Rooney out wide onto the left. It proved to be the correct decision as in the end, his team walked away with all three points.
Another game which they won by dominating the midfield. The decision to bring back Scholes continues to justify itself with each passing game. Rooney also seems to have regained his goal-scoring touch. The win also ensures that they keep up with league leaders Manchester City.
Generally, they had a very poor game. They did however show signs of coming back into it later on. One of the lessons that Liverpool can learn from this game, is that Dalglish’s long stay out of the game seems to show, for they have generally misfired whenever they have used the 4-5-1 system (as they did here). Dalglish doesn’t seem to understand its modern implication, but whenever he reverts to the basic 4-4-2, the Reds do much better.
However, Scousers will consider most of this season a missed chance on winning the Barclays Premier League, as they had no distractions of European football and this are the sort of games that they should, at the bare minimum be leaving with a point.
Evra and Suarez
Childish behaviour from both at the beginning and at the end of the match. Suarez really should have shook Evra’s hand at the beginning, Evra really should not have celebrated the way he did at the end of it. In a modern footballing world where footballers have acquired celebrity status, incidents like this don’t augur well with those expecting them to be positive role models. It does create controversial talking points for the press to feed on, but this controversy is of a negative nature and should never be condoned.