You would not think that anything could overshadow a Manchester United-Liverpool game, but thanks to Suarez and his antics everyone has seemingly forgotten that United won 2-1 thanks to a quickfire Rooney double right after half time. The former Evertonian could have had himself a hat-trick had the referee not disallowed his 30-yard effort for a free kick against Evans, who to his credit won the ball marvellously. It really has been a big-game season for Wayne Rooney, who has now scored 21 goals in all competitions. More impressively, 11 of those goals have come in matches against Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Man City, and now Liverpool. United could have had more though, totally dominating Liverpool from start to finish. Following Glen Johnson’s effort in the third minute, the Scousers did not have a single shot on target until Suarez pounced on some poor United defending to make it a nervy couple of minutes at the end.
Following some less than impressive performances against Liverpool Sir Alex got it right this time around, and in the end the scoreline severely flattered the visitors. What exactly did United do?
In the past few weeks we have seen a midfield set up in very much the same way: Carrick holding back, Giggsy doubling up on the flanks from his central-midfield position, the left winger cutting inside acting like an attacking midfielder along with Rooney, and Valencia doing his own marvellous parading down the right. However, there was something odd about United’s set up in this game. With Scholes returning and Giggs moving out to the left flank it looked like a pretty solid 4-4-2, but as soon as the game started you could see it was anything but that. Offensively it was a 3-4-1-2, defensively it was 4-5-1. Despite getting a few crosses in, Giggs was anything but a left winger. He moved inside, making it a three-man midfield along with Scholes and Carrick, with Evra doing the duties on the left. Carrick and Scholes both held back to defend against any counter, although Scholesy got out of position one time to get United’s best chance of the half. Rooney played as a main striker, something he has done rarely this season. Both him and Welbeck dropped deep at times, but they were seen in the opposing penalty more regularly than they have all season long. United rarely got free down the left flank, mainly because there was not any solid threat down there, and despite Evra’s best efforts to attack he rarely got it going. The build-up was either too slow or too risky for Patrice to fully commit in his forward runs, so the right wing became United’s main source of danger.
Let it be said that Valencia and Rafael have created a really good relationship together. They seem to know each other’s game inside-out, and honestly they should! They are a perfect fit, with Rafael certainly not afraid to attack and Valencia more than willing to defend that side. Whenever Valencia seemed trapped, Rafael was exactly where he needed to be and got the Ecuadorian out of danger. They have previously shown their magic against Liverpool in the FA Cup tie, with Rafa getting an assist, and against Bolton where both had a stormer. Valencia tormented Enrique for the full 90 minutes, and with Downing yet again proving his lack of focus Rafael had no worries going forward. Unlike Evra, the Brazilian shows no respect to his opponents and marches down the right wing as if it was his own. It was a good partnership in 2009/10, but it has majorly improved since then and these days opponents seem to have no answer.
With Evra having more attacking duties than he has had lately, Rio and Evans had to be sharp. An obviously fired up Suarez is a tough nut for all to handle, but the two of them kept him quiet for most of the game. Rio put in another great performance, stopping everything that came his way. He put in a vital challenge on Suarez when he was straight through, and made sure that the Uruguayan knew this battle was one Rio wanted to win. He did everything right, vital interceptions, solid headers, and when needed his passing either got the Reds out of danger or stopped Liverpool’s surge. His partner had a great game as well, doing everything right. Evans has gotten a lot of stick from United fans during the years, but again he proves just how vital he is. His one laps of concentration got Liverpool a goal though, mistiming his header leaving Rio in very difficult circumstances. Besides that he stopped everything, and could have had himself an assist had his wonderful tackle not been given as a free-kick against. The Rio-Evans partnership yet again looked solid, with Evans doing the dirty work of following Suarez’ every step, leaving Rio to pick up the pieces. Evans man-marked the controversial striker, and whenever he got free Rio was there to stop him. Marvellous.
In the first half United’s tactics was fairly obvious. The back four stayed low, and packed the whole midfield with three men. If Liverpool were going to get to chances it was through the wings, which in the end did not turn out to be a big threat. Glen Johnson had a few shots when Evra got dragged in by Kuyt, but when you manage to force them into crossing for Suarez with Rio and Evans in there, there really is not any contest. Since Valencia never sways from his defensive duties, their left flank was completely blocked, and with Kuyt not being the most attacking of wingers they often got that side served. No unpredictability from them, with United stopping them to great effect. Rooney did not close down Johnson properly in the first few minutes, but when 10 minutes had passed Wazza was there to do his job. United could clear the ball and it would end up at Welbeck or Rooney, with their mobile runs creating havoc for Agger and Skrtel.
Despite having most of the possession in the first half United had not been awarded for their efforts with a goal. For the second half we saw Giggsy moved out to the left wing, making it a solid 4-man midfield for United. Rooney, who had played as the main striker in the first half, got in behind Welbeck and played as he has done for most of the season. The first goal came from a corner, United’s second this season and second against Liverpool, but the second goal was a joy to watch. Some great build up play by United was stopped when Spearing blocked Valencia’s back-heel, but the Ecuadorian was never going to give it up. He won the ball, and slid in Rooney for his second. That goal came as a reward to Welbeck as well, with his gut-bursting run opening up the space for Rooney to score. It is the kind of runs Danny does every game, and against Chelsea it was also these kind of runs that proved to be United’s downfall. Welbeck made a near-post run, with the United players deciding passing it to him was a better option than moving into the space those exact runs opened up. This time Rooney got it right, Welbeck making the run that put Skrtel on the back-foot, thus giving him the problem of deciding where he should go. It was rewarded with a goal, and as Rooney fired away towards the camera in celebration you could see Valencia and Welbeck running towards each other in the background as it was those two who had created it.
Now that United had gone with a two-man central midfield, Dalglish made changes. Adam, Bellamy and Carroll came on, although they did not prove to be any threat to United. Despite having a three man midfield, Scholes and Carrick dominated possession running Liverpool ragged. In the words of former Liverpool boss Roy Evans: “Scholes must have thought “this is just a practice match for me” – no one laid a glove on him!” Scholes played the ball, moved in space, picked up the ball and then created another attack, with one particular move after 63 minutes proving exactly why his return is a God-send. Whenever a Liverpool player got close to him, he just passed the ball 5 yards only to get it back right away, playing some wonderful one-twos that United have not seen since Cleverley performed his heroics at the start of the season. Just like against Chelsea, Scholes and Carrick kept them at bay, and with United on cruise-control there was no way back for Liverpool.
For the second half we saw Rooney help out Scholes and Carrick defensively, with Giggsy being left on the wing. The old Welshman had a quiet game by his standards, and with Liverpool doing their best Stoke City impression for the final 10 minutes it may have been a good idea putting Berbatov on for him. They won a few corners, seemingly United’s downfall this season, but never really threatened. When Rafael wins 4 out of 5 headers against Andy Carroll, you just know it is going to be a good day. One last attempt was magnificently saved by David De Gea, who for the second match running wins the points for United with a spectacular last-minute save.
Despite giving a goal back to Liverpool through a softly conceded set play (yet again), United were on cruise control and the final scoreline severely flattered Liverpool. Suarez was kept quiet, Gerrard invisible at best, and although Glen Johnson had a couple of shots it was a performance which no Liverpool fan should be proud of. Evra had a decent game, doing his duties and stopping Dirk Kuyt whenever needed. However, despite being the man of the moment he does not get the man of the match award. That goes to Rio Ferdinand, for the second game running. Scholes, Rafael, Valencia and Evans all put in solid outings, but the former England captain put in a performance that reminds us exactly why he once was considered the best defender on the planet. He won every 50-50 ball, made some vital tackles and clearances, his passing was sharp, and his dedication for the cause was obvious for all to see. This was a battle for him, Rio has always been vocal in his fight against racism, and from the moment he decided not to shake Suarez’ hand you just knew this meant something to him as well. Unlike Evra he kept it cool, and put in the performance of a true Manchester United captain.
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