Pragmatic United defend stoutly but look far from perfect
Musa Okwonga, author of A Cultured Left Foot, noted that games between Manchester United and Liverpool are “to be endured, not enjoyed” and he could hardly have been more right; for this unsightly affair was not so much in preserving the image of the beautiful game, rather dig deep, fight hard and play if necessary for three points. In the end, neither side achieved their end goal – but the result did prove the team that deserved the shared spoils less still have many issues to be addressed.
Indeed, the greatest shame about this performance was that we know just how good this United side are and can be. 1-1 at Anfield and the end of an undesirable run of defeats at this ground isn’t such a bad result; nor is it when you consider that Manchester United were a goal down at one point with just ten minutes to go. Instead, it was the way that the visitors set up at the very start which was a touch disappointing; they appeared to opt for pragmatism and because of this, failed to really assert themselves, especially when going forward. Their brief flirtation with a fluid style right at the beginning of the season which saw the opposition on the verge of begging for mercy looked a distant memory by the time 90 minutes were up.
Of course, you would argue that the pragmatic approach does allow for better defending and it did so here. At the back, United were resolute and it only took for a contentious set-piece and a rare lapse by Ryan Giggs in the wall to allow Liverpool the initiative. However, it could be seen as a failure in the sense that no balance between defence and attack was found. This is how United had set up last season and it was particularly effective at home and in Europe – but away from Old Trafford, they were dismal, limping to a result and feeding off scraps, and so must avoid going down that road again in this campaign.
The selection was a little curious, too. Phil Jones got the nod in midfield alongside Darren Fletcher and exciting as that did sound before kick off, it barely reached its potential. Jones was playing in front of Fletcher and that itself was questionable; when he had played in midfield for Blackburn Rovers, he was primarily used as a defensive midfielder. That isn’t to say that they shouldn’t play together at all, but it is all about balance and perhaps the two are too similar in a sense.
It sounds almost strange to say, but United didn’t need to opt for the sensible. The difference between this team and the one we saw last season is that they’re better set up to play free, flowing football. That showed when Nani, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez were brought on. Those three were only together for 15 minutes but United’s performance picked up considerably, and it was from there where Hernandez was ready to pounce from a corner after some much-needed pressure in the Liverpool half. Nani and Rooney are almost the ambassadors of this style; and along with Young, who looked lost without the two, United have the potential to beat most teams in this manner. Almost certainly, a pragmatic Manchester United might not have scored more than three, let alone eight, against that weakened Arsenal team in August. Arguably, however, they might have not conceded twice either – but a ruthless edge is what can set the Red Devils apart from most others, not a cautious method which would only see teams in an ever-improving Premier League fancy a chance of earning a result.
That doesn’t mean that whenever Rooney and Nani play, United pick up the pace and are automatically devastating with the ball. That isn’t true at all. But it is increasingly obvious that they, and the team, prefer being set up to win convincingly rather than cautiously. United are a good enough team to get away with it most of the time.
They are also missing Tom Cleverley. Since he picked up an injury in a 5-0 win over Bolton, United look a team with less authority. Their central midfield also lacks depth. There isn’t anything wrong with the individuals, more so with how they might perform as a duo or even a trio. Yes, these are good times for the club; but we mustn’t look past and ignore things. For a team in a transitional period, that sort of attitude isn’t going to help. Just to put into perspective the difference between United and Liverpool going forward, the hosts only made 16 defensive clearances, the away side 47.
There were many positives from this game and it would be rather unfair to overlook those. David de Gea, in particular, was very busy and a generally safe pair of hands, pulling off a few superb saves in the process. In a sense, it is a little concerning that the Spaniard has had so much to do – much more than van der Sar ever had to last season. And saying that gives off the impression that United hadn’t defended very well, but that’s far from the truth; indeed, both the solid Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra made a return to form with gutsy performances and once again, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling looked assured and comfortable on the ball.
But, it must be said that Liverpool were the better team. They won the midfield battle and so looked the likeliest to score; but that goal came about, unfortunately, from a Charlie Adam dive. The thing with diving is that it is always wrong – and any sort of history and the attitudes towards it or any other form of cheating that is equally as bad is irrelevant because there is certainly no justification for the action. He wasn’t punished, and instead won a free kick. We know what happened next. Liverpool’s joy from Gerrard’s goal was to be short-lived however as Javier Hernandez converted a Nani – yes Nani – corner. But the game itself was drab.
In fact, let’s never speak of it again.