Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!

September 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Let’s be very clear about this: Manchester United deserved to beat Liverpool, in a way they didn’t deserve to beat either Everton or Fulham. As I noted at the time, Fulham were threatening and penetrative throughout, while Everton capitalised on a formational switch and a collective failure of nerve. By contrast, Liverpool scored two goals from set pieces, neither of which emerged from sustained attacking pressure; rather, they occurred due to crass-though-momentary errors of judgement from Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher; a clumsy sliding tackle, a pointless tug, and a lack of basic wall-building skills respectively.

Now, individual errors are, obviously, a problem, though the return to fitness of Wes Brown and (hopefully) Rio Ferdinand should help. Certainly, Evans, like a young Oliver Postgate, always has the potential for clangers, and is not yet a reliable first-choice defender. But to focus excessively on the fact that “United Concede Again” is to ignore what was, three silly slips aside, a controlled and confident defensive performance, albeit one against a Liverpool side lacking confidence or ambition.

Looking at the details of the match, the most notable is probably that Liverpool managed eight shots on goal. Of these, two – the penalty and the free-kick – were on target. In other words, Liverpool wholly failed to trouble Van der Sar from open play. The fact that both those attempts resulted in goals tells us that you shouldn’t make stupid mistakes either inside or just in front of the box (or if you insist on the second, at least keep the wall together). But mistakes of this kind are matters of individual concentration, not systematic weakness.

It helped, of course, that Liverpool’s midfield were unable or unwilling to connect with Torres in any meaningful way. While it’s clear that the Spaniard isn’t in his greatest form, it’s hard to tell how much this is his own problem and how much is due to the insipidness of Liverpool’s midfield. As Alan Shearer pointed out (bear with me), they simply didn’t pass the ball to him. A quick glance at the chalkboards show just one successful pass to the striker from Gerrard, and two each from Meireles and Poulsen.

Of course, Shearer didn’t get much further than: 1. Liverpool didn’t do A; 2. Liverpool lost, therefore; 3. if Liverpool had done A, they would have won. Which ain’t no kind of valid syllogism. But the why of it, at least in part, probably relates to United’s deeper-than-usual defensive line.

Torres is a magnificent footballer, but he doesn’t have the back-to-the-goal abilities of our Alan; nor, with Gerrard deeper than normal, would he have had the support to do anything. (It’s a tragedy that the witlessness of Shearer’s punditry is detracting from his quality as a player, no?) Anyway, United generally defend high, squeezing the play, which has previously allowed Torres to use this space to cultivate a reputation as a Vidic-botherer. On Sunday, however, United’s defence sat deeper, which minimised the risk of the ball over the top. And without any midfielder breaking from deep to occupy the second centre-back, they were able to retain their shape, which cut down the angles for passes in behind. Instead, Liverpool tried to work the ball to the flanks, but their crossing was insipid.

It’s significant that both Liverpool’s set piece-goals came after the introduction of David Ngog. With two strikers to stretch United’s back four, the space and the angles for the passes began to appear. Torres was able to escape the attentions of Vidic and start making runs off the shoulders of O’Shea and Evans, who both decided to embarrass themselves. This switch, coupled with the defensive brainfades, nearly nicked Liverpool the draw they came for.

Thanks Dimi!

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