Some thoughts on the pretty dreadful match today:
– Jonjo Shelvey’s sending off was rather harsh, given that Jonny Evans was going in with two feet as well. But Evans looked worse off because Shelvey seemed to raise one of his feet slightly at the last moment and appeared to catch the United player’s midriff, which was what swayed Mark Halsey’s mind.
– Liverpool’s penalty claims weren’t all that, but what ticked off Liverpool supporters more than anything was the fact that the advantages Halsey played on United fouls didn’t remotely lead to anything and Liverpool would have been better off playing the set-piece (particularly considering their lack of strikers / abundance of tall, imposing defenders like Agger, Skrtel and Kelly).
– United were again pretty terrible, and against ten men didn’t look anything like the team with the advantage. Up front, Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa were lacklustre, overelaborating where more directness would have worked, and offering worryingly little penetration against a Liverpool defence that hasn’t looked all that formidable this season.
– Liverpool were fairly robust in their closing down, which meant that Carrick looked uncomfortable. Given that he is not a mobile midfielder, Carrick works best when given time to receive and release the pass, but Gerrard, Shelvey, Sterling and even Joe Allen closed him and Giggs down very quickly.
– Rafael scored a cracking goal, but he was so wayward in his positioning that at times the whole right side of the United defence was completely empty. Valencia had to track back numerous times to fill the void, with Rafael rushing back from central positions to recover. Liverpool’s goal came from developments from United’s right side, and they looked the most threatening from there all game, so it’s interesting to wonder why Brendan Rogers didn’t put Sterling, the most penetrative Liverpool player alongside Luis Suarez, on the Liverpool left rather than Borini, who is enterprising but hasn’t shown himself to be as incisive as the teenaged England international.
– Given the fact that matches with Liverpool are usually fast, frenetic, and messy affairs, it was tempting to wonder whether starting with Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck would have worked better. But Ferguson obviously wanted United to impose their own pace, with the selection of the sedate pairing of Giggs and Carrick, which became even more so in the second half when Scholes came on. It didn’t quite work due to the Liverpool pressing, but Carrick in particular shouldn’t be criticized for this, which is what usually happens.
– Speaking of Scholes, once again he was excellent and made United’s midfield much more fluid and creative. Some of his passing was simply uncanny: on one occasion, a pass was made with a flick of the outside of his boot without him even looking at the teammate who received the ball from the other side of the pitch. Like a fine wine and all that.
Wrap-up: United have not been convincing at all so far this season. That will change, but today’s game is another reminder of the weaknesses in United’s squad. Many will say that is in the midfield, but it’s actually in defence: Ferdinand’s health problems are well-documented, but Vidic is also aging, and Evans – who admittedly played well last year – isn’t a bedrock that United needs in the centre. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are both still out injured, so while United on paper have lots of players to fill the two centre-half positions, for now and probably until winter there won’t be a stable partnership to build the team on yet. The full-backs, however, are the bigger problem: Evra, the best left-back in Europe for the best part of the past 5 seasons, is clearly no longer at his peak, and it’s startling to see now how uncertain he is defending near or in his penalty area. Going forward he can still contribute, but there again I’m not sure he has his old zest. Rafael on the other side is on the ascent, but his cavalier attitude towards positioning is continuing to open gaps in United’s back line. More worrying is the fact that in both positions there aren’t great covers: Alex Buttner looked good when he played last week, but that was one game, so we will see. On the right, Valencia fills in when needed, but United need him on the wing, Smalling and Jones are unavailable, and none are natural right-backs.