Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Liverpool-Manchester United Thoughts

It's a little late and there are other more current items to discuss, but I still think we need to go over the happenings at Anfield on Sunday.

Without going back over the specifics of the Liverpool "crisis" before the game, it seemed everyone was waiting for the final nail in the Red's coffin for this season, only for Liverpool to valiantly pull off the 2-0 victory. It was something of an unexpected result but it really shouldn't have been so surprising in retrospect.

Other than the team turmoil coming into the game, the only aspect that was really surprising about the game was that without Steven Gerrard, Liverpool still dominated the midfield behind a great display from the oft derided Lucas. Surely it was his best performance for Liverpool, though he was lucky to escape without a booking despite countless fouls against (though some were questionable, the persistent calls warranted a booking).

Nonetheless, there are a number of reasons why the result should not have caught anyone off guard.

-Liverpool swept a better Man U side last year. Rafa Benitez has shown the ability to get his team to win cagey matches against his managerial rivals, such as Jose Mourinho when at Chelsea.

-Related to the first point is the fact that Man U have been inconsistent against the other members of the Big Four in the past year. Last year they managed a win and two draws against Cheslea, Liverpool, and Arsenal. This year they already struggled to beat Arsenal and now lost to Liverpool. Of course they still beat Arsenal in the Champions League semifinals last year.

-Rio Ferdinand is struggling, and apparently Fernando Torres owns Nemanja Vidic. Rio has turned the corner on 30, which isn't necessarily a problem, but his constant injuries combined with his age and losing even one step has caused a massive drop in form. He's made some big blunders and was made to look bad chasing down both Craig Bellamy and Fernando Torres in two of the key games this year. Vidic is one of my favorite defenders, but something about Liverpool brings out the worst in him. Granted few have successfully dealt with Torres in the EPL recently, and Vidic wasn't playing poorly for the most part before getting caught for a second, inescapable yellow on Sunday. Even though they've only allowed 11 goals in 10 games, tied for third best in the league, there's a sense that something is amiss. If the Torres harassment doesn't permanently start weighing down on Vidic (which I don't think it will), we could start seeing a Johnny Evans-Vidic partnership.

-Man U's midfield needs strengthening. The big tactical error for the match was SAF's choice of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick was curious. Talk about a pair with no bite. Aside from the fact that Scholes is pretty much done as a significant impact player in the high tempo world of the EPL (when his passing accuracy starts going, you know it's time to put him down) and Carrick isn't exactly a midfield workhorse. Once again the absence of Darren Fletcher's bite was telling, and even Anderson would have been a better choice. This January, or more likely this summer, SAF is going to have to seek out a new central midfield fulcrum. He'll also have to figure out what to do with this next person...

-Dimitar Berbatov oozes silky skill and touches, but his playing style does not suit Man U. His skill alone allows enough glimpses that when he combines with Rooney and Giggs it must make SAF salivate, but it's too few and far between. Some people hoped that his mercurial nature and wonderful abilities would be the second coming of Eric Cantona, but King Eric had an altogether different, more aggressive approach to game. Even if he does produce, which he very well may, he will never really warm to the never say die approach of Man U. And with Michael Owen being next off the bench, SAF will have to hope Frederico Machedo and Danny Welbeck develop into regular first teamers while also seeking out striking reinforcements.

-Jamie Carragher's game is built of blood and guts, and it would have made sense for him to step up to the plate in place of missing captain Gerrard. Unlike Rio Ferdinand, whose defense is predicated more on smooth skills and elegant speed, Carragher is just a battler who throws himself into every challenge. He had been struggling this year but played superbly, and although he may have lucked out by not getting whistled on one or two borderline penalties, he epitomized the Liverpool team for the day. In an intense game such as this one, his ability to step it up is less impacted by his recent form, unlike his opposite England man.

Still, I think Man U will push Chelsea to the end. There are legitimate concerns, and unless the midfield stays healthy and improves, it could be a death by a thousand cuts without there ever being a particular moment where the season ever really goes awry. Still, one game being outplayed by Liverpool is not cause for great alarm. Ignoring the final goal while pushing for the equalizer, they essentially lost by one goal on the road at a charged Anfield, only really being tested once (a great shot and rebound that Van der Saar saved in the first half) other than Torres's goal.

On the other hand, I still don't think Liverpool will challenge for the title. I also wonder if such a good display today actually hurts Liverpool by masking apparent shortcomings. Rafa may feel confident in relying on Lucas, who despite his great match, I doubt anyone would put money on him replicating that display over the course of an entire season if he has to deputize for Gerrard or Benitez rotates his squad as he's prone to do. Aquilani is returning from injury soon, so maybe he changes the dynamic, and his precense with a healthy Gerrard, Torres and Mascherano could give them a very dangerous spine. A follow up this weekend against Fulham could be telling, same with Man U trying to respond against a pretty dismal Blackburn Rovers side at Old Trafford.

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