Man United take 3 points at Anfield: By Accident or Design?
So, as it turned out, there was a football match amid the chaos at Anfield yesterday – a day that started, and ended, with a concentrated eye on the behaviour (alleged or otherwise) served up a game as a main course that didn’t disappoint.
Liverpool versus Manchester United at Anfield rarely disappoints regardless of how many times the ball is put in the net, or how many tricks are displayed – it presents a unique atmosphere for one to experience, an enthralling insight into the most emotionally charged game in English football, and provides pantomime like no other. While last season’s clashes among the bigger sides brought bagfuls of goals, games like yesterday exhibit another side of the game that draws so many people in.
Atmospheres can make for a great leveller in football, one that at times defies logic. Manchester United travelled to Anfield without a win there since 2007 but few could argue that they have had the more superior side out of the two since the title challenge of the 08/09 season; just what did they put in the water up there that made Sir Alex Ferguson’s men so unable to compete? Whatever it was, Brendan Rodgers was counting on it repeating to help turn around his side’s dreadful run of form in the league.
Much of it can be explained by United’s lightweight midfield – Michael Carrick may well be a fantastic footballer and Ryan Giggs’ career and pedigree needs no introduction, but as Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Fabio Borini buzzed about in front of goal, the experienced pair offered the visiting defence little protection. Indeed, it was perhaps only a lack of composure that has been an inherent handicap for some time for Liverpool, that stopped them putting their guests to the sword.
Rodgers insisted that his team had been the better side and that they had suffered cruel luck; whether one can associate Jonjo Shelvey’s conscious decision to recklessly lunge into a tackle as bad luck when, even at the tender age of twenty, he’s old enough to know better (particularly as this kind of tackle has not been a one-off for him this season), and whether one can dismiss Glen Johnson’s conscious decision to twice go in on Antonio Valencia as simply unfortunate when he is certainly experienced enough to know better, are both open to interpretation. He wasn’t wrong to praise his side; up until they scored, they were most certainly the better side.
Yet if United were guilty of making the same mistakes at Anfield again, Liverpool were paying the price for their own decisions – Rodgers must privately have reflected that with a more clinical front man, the indiscretions of Shelvey and Johnson would not have been so pivotal had they still happened. Though Liverpool arguably still played better than United with ten men, Ferguson was able to use the half time break to settle his side down and work on a game plan that could expose the fact his side had an extra player.
Steven Gerrard and Rafael both scored wonderfully executed goals to breathe some entertainment into the passionate battle; by this point, Paul Scholes had entered the fray, and as so often is the case, he restored some kind of order to his midfield. Scholes’ contribution here was not as obviously instrumental as it was at Southampton a few weeks ago but his mere presence was a guarantee of sensible, clever play in place of the unpredictable Nani.
Not that the change was enough to say with any conviction that United deserved all three points on the balance of play. Even in winning the penalty, Antonio Valencia was guilty of over deliberation when he had two team-mates ideally placed; it was Johnson’s moment of madness that ultimately cost his side – the defender knew what he had done before the whistle was even blown, and Robin van Persie put an end to United’s penalty hex by smashing it past Pepe Reina.
Rodgers’ side were unable to summon the extra energy required to come back into the game as, for the first time, their numerical disadvantage began to tell; as the final whistle blew, Ferguson was able to enjoy a true smash and grab victory having struggled, yet again, to have put in a performance worthy of three points – as Ryan Giggs quite rightly suggested afterwards, this game in particular for United is one where three points is all that matters. Fortune, however, played little part – a game plan executed by Ferguson was enough for his side to leave Liverpool with a point, but it was the hosts’ generosity that gave them all three.
United’s dilemma on how to play well and win convincingly at Anfield is an annual one; Brendan Rodgers’ dilemma, after the feeling of perceived injustice subsides, is how to generate the same level of spirit and commitment in Liverpool’s upcoming games. A run of games that has seen them take on both Manchester clubs and Arsenal might have afforded Rodgers some patience, but there can only be so long until reality hits home.
Liverpool, a club whose proud tradition has been so prominently reminded to us all of late, sit in the relegation zone after their worst start to a season in over a century. It is of course too early to make any damning judgements but, for Rodgers’ and Liverpool own sake, the managers’ private hymn sheet ought to be different from that which he sung from publicly yesterday – it’s by design, not accident, that his team are in the position they currently occupy, and it is by design, not accident, that he will need to get them out of it.by: Wayne Barton, September 24, 2012