In a game where incidents before kick-off and after the final whistle have grabbed the spotlight, it has been almost forgotten that a dominant United team sealed a return to the top of the Premier League.
Two well taken goals from Wayne Rooney cancelled out Luis Suarez’s efforts at the other end and ensured United earned the three points.
After starting last week’s encounter with Chelsea on the bench, Paul Scholes returned to the starting line up and played a pivotal role. Alongside a resurged Michael Carrick, he dominated the midfield and allowed United to dictate the tempo of the game.
United played the 4-4-1-1 shape we have become accustomed to, with both centre midfielders starting from deep before joining in on the attack. This was perfectly evident in the build up to the best chance of the first half, when Reina parried a header from Scholes following quick intricate passing between Scholes, Welbeck, Rooney and Giggs. The move saw Scholes collect the ball deep and gradually work his way into a goalscoring position.
Dalglish, for me, got too many major decisions wrong, which ultimately cost his side the game.
Starting line up - Liverpool dropped Andy Carroll who has been enjoying his best run of games since he joined the club for 35 million over a year ago. Craig Bellamy also found himself on the bench which negated Liverpool’s goal threat.
Despite his quality, Luis Suarez has struggled to find the net this season and Stewart Downing and Dirk Kuyt have never been clinical goal-scorers, with the former yet to score a league goal for his new club, 25 games in.
This made them over- reliant on either Suarez finding his shooting boots or Gerrard slotting home a set-piece when it was Carroll, in fact, who won the header for the winner in Liverpool’s 2-1 victory over United in the FA Cup tie.
Tactical shape - Liverpool set up in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Spearing the deepest of the 3 centre midfielders. This meant that Spearing was ultimately given a man marking job on Rooney, however he didn’t perform it as expected and looked a little lost at times.
United were able to exploit the space around Spearing and behind the Liverpool midfield, with Giggs coming inside acting as a ”second number 10” and Welbeck dropping deep, leaving Liverpool outnumbered in this area.
Dalglish failed to recognize and change this, and refused to put either Gerard or Henderson alongside Spearing to close up the space. Even if Adam had started, his passing range meant he could have dictated Liverpool’s play, and when United had the ball, he would have provided an extra body in front of the defence to close up the space.
Substitutions - While Downing was largely ineffective throughout the game, Dalglish’s substitutions made no sense for me. He brought Andy Carroll on for Downing. Someone who needs service and the ball placed on top of his head, on for the club’s best crosser.
This left Liverpool without wingers and genuine width to create chances for Carroll. Carroll was forced to knock the ball down to Suarez or Bellamy who had also come on as a substitute; Liverpool needed a goal, but brought on a striker and then negated his only threat.
Set piece approach - A lot has been made of David De Gea’s light physique and awkwardness under crosses, a flaw Liverpool exploited to perfection a few weeks ago, crowding the area around the young Spaniard from corners.
This time however, Liverpool changed their approach. While the tactic may not have worked again, what they did use definitely did not. And with Liverpool’s lack of creativity and genuine goal threat from open play, Agger and Skrtel coming up from the back was as good a chance as any. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it Kenny.
Enrique Vs. Valencia
This battle between the Premier League’s most in form winger and most in form left back was always going to interesting.
Enrique dealt with the Ecuadorian well at times as he knew how to play against him, forcing Valencia to settle for a corner or retreat and play the ball back to another United player. Therefore, when Valencia did fail to beat his man, he struggled to get a cross in, on a number of occasions, due to his lack of faith in his weaker foot.
He still had a very good game however, he exploited the area away from Enrique more often, a new dimension in his game this season, and his persistence eventually resulted in an assist for what proved to be the winning goal.
Valencia’s play also helped United on the other wing, as his form has meant we can afford to focus our wing play solely on him, and work the ball into the box on the other side. His width meant Giggs could come inside and exploit the space around Spearing
United’s steady improvement
Ever since being schooled by Barcelona in the Champions League final last May, United’s ball retention has steadily improved, most notably in recent weeks, and on Saturday the team’s hard work paid dividends.
A fine blend between quick intricate passing, wing exploitation and steady passing has created a better balance. The return of Paul Scholes has aided this, however it is not Scholes alone who has made this happen.
Michael Carrick is enjoying a fine season, and his ball retention is as good as ever. Always providing an option, and playing that Hollywood ball more often means United have a centre midfield duo who are both very comfortable on the ball. Good teams are built from the back though, and Johnny Evans bally playing skills have come on leaps and bounds since the start of the season. The Northern Irishman played the ‘Piqué role’ in the game with Stoke, bringing the ball out of defence and joining in the attacks.
On Saturday again, he was very comfortable and composed on the ball and always found a man. The experienced youngster enjoyed an excellent 90% pass completion record. It is not just this element of his game that has improved however, his aerial ability and strength as well as his reading of the game have developed excellently over the last seven months.
His confidence has reached new heights too, we saw him shout at Rooney, and tell Evra and Ferdinand to push up or drop deep at times. He took control of the back line and showed true leadership qualities. He was so good that Alan Hansen even referred to him as ”British” on Match Of The Day. United fans are finally beginning to see the player that Piqué was let go for.
Brazillian full back Rafael got a full 90 minutes under his belt and put in a very impressive display. There were doubts over his fitness and ability to complete a full match for United which might dictate his future, however he appears to have proven doubters wrong and improved his fitness and strength.
De Gea had another good game, helpless for the goal, he made an important camera save towards the end of the game from a Glen Johnson shot. Although it was relatively routine, he kept his focus and composure and put the ball behind for a corner, instead of parrying it back into the danger zone.
Young Danny Welbeck put in another solid display, not his finest game but the Englishman has still shown promising signs of maturity and awareness. His natural relationship with Rooney looks very promising for the future.
Evra celebrating at full time
Finally, a lot has been made of the Evra Vs. Suarez incidents, Suarez has apologized for refusing to shake the United player’s hand which puts to bed any doubts over who it was that refused the handshake. Evra, while deep down he knows he shouldn’t have celebrated like he did, must be commended for bottling his rage and turning it into relief at the end of the game.