It was never going to be a quiet affair. Manchester United at Anfield rarely is and Liverpool’s rejuvenation in recent times ensured a feisty contest from the outset on Saturday lunchtime. Controversial refereeing and post-match accusations of racism simply add to the drama of the occasion, which remains Britain’s biggest and most intensely fought match.
Yet, whatever wrongs United will feel at Charlie Adams’ tumble or Patrice Evra at Luis Suarez’ alleged racist language, Ferguson’s bewildering tactics and team selection also deserve attention. In truth it was not one of the Scot’s finest days, an observation he will only briefly reflect on as fixtures come thick and fast in the coming weeks.
United’s team and formation felt wrong from the start, with far too much negativity, and too many players out of position. That Ferguson’s side went to Anfield in search of a point says much for the Scousers’ progress in recent months, however inconsistent, but for also for United’s attitude after three defeats in-a-row at Anfield. Ferguson sought and was happy with a point from the trip 30 miles west.
The safety-first formation, without Wayne Rooney and Nani until 20 minutes from the end, also included Phil Jones and Darren Fletcher as central midfield holding midfielders. The formation left Ferguson shorn of this campaign’s two best players, while Danny Welbeck was isolated in attack. Meanwhile, Park Ji-Sung, the coward’s winger, focused on retaining United’s shape and not providing attacking impetus. No wonder United appeared so disjointed against a Liverpool outfit that has improved only marginally under Kenny Dalglish from a very low base.
Rooney, said Ferguson, was left out of the fixture after learning of UEFA’s three-match Euro 2012 ban. It was, and remains, a limp excuse, smacking of a manager’s distrust of the player’s recent performances at Anfield. Or his maturity. Or, perhaps, both. “He’s devastated by the suspension,” said Ferguson disingenuously. “I felt with these circumstances that he’s better off starting from the bench.”
Nani’s omission was simply tactical, with Park’s defensive discipline preferred over the Premier League’s leading dribbler and, according the statistics, second best crosser this season. Security over creativity and end-product. It was the same story in central midfield, with Anderson – so often lauded as a potential fantisista (albeit rarely delivering) – dropped in favour of Jones, for the youngster’s first game in midfield for his new club. At Anfield of all places. The experiment failed.
And the muddle so nearly ended in defeat, with Liverpool bossing possession and creating more chances than United, until the final quarter-hour, when Ferguson’s side finally found its attacking feet.
“It only became a good game after Liverpool scored,” Ferguson added. In truth the match only came to life when the Scot introduced Rooney and Nani, and then, with 15 minutes remaining, the match-saver Hernández. Each should have been on from the start demonstrating the bold, creative, attacking play for which United grabbed so many plaudits early in the season. All that now feels a long time gone.
“We looked upon it as a two-team situation as we wanted to make sure there were no silly mistakes,” Sir Alex explained.
“They had no real chances apart from Suarez when there was a lucky break but, other than that, they were never a threat to us. That job had been done, that’s why we were bringing Wayne and Nani on when they scored the goal.
“It was probably a typical United-Liverpool game. It was very intense, of course, and I don’t think the game really got started until Liverpool scored. It was a good game after that. When you’re one-nothing down with 15 minutes to go you can’t be confident, but we’ve got the players who can do that.”
But this tactical muddle has been vastly overshadowed by subsequent events.
First, there is the controversy surrounding Adams’ 67th minute dive to earn Liverpool the goalscoring free-kick. Adam’s was a tumble so blatant that MUTV was today forced to censor United defender Jones’ angry interview on the matter. Midfielder Adams tacitly admitted the dive – albeit under the guise of a denial – claiming that “it’s just the way it goes” when there is minimal contact. Of course it is Charlie, when you live in Steven Gerrard-land!
Then Evra accused Suarez on French TV station Canal Plus of calling the 30-year-old Frenchman a “n****r” at “least 10 times.” It is an accusation that United will take to the Football Association after Evra reiterated his grievance in a meeting with Ferguson on Monday. Uruguayan Suarez “vigorously” denies the allegation, although player and club are hardly likely to do anything else.
“We spoke to Patrice today and he’s adamant that he wants to follow it on,” added the United manager.
“It’s not an easy one because everyone knows that Manchester United and Liverpool have great responsibilities in terms of what happens on the field. I thought Saturday’s game was a terrific game and both sets of fans were good; there was none of the silly chanting we’ve heard in previous years and both sets of supporters deserve praise for that.
“It’s not something that we want to level at Liverpool, and it’s not against Liverpool. Obviously Patrice feels very aggrieved at what was said to him and it rests in the hands of the FA now.”
More concerning though is Liverpool’s reported demand that Evra face sanction should the accusation against Suarez not be proven. In a case that is likely to come down to one man’s word against another, with no conclusive evidence yet forthcoming, the Anfield club’s call is tantamount to denying Evra his moral right to freedom of speech.
Few expect the FA to act on Adam’s dive nor Suarez’ alleged racism, even if the latter is proven.
Highly important though issues of racism and diving are, neither should obscure analysis of United’s sixth average performance in the past seven matches. The other was the reserves’ victory over Leeds United at Elland Road in the Carling Cup. And each has come without Tom Cleverley, in whose absence the heart has grown significantly fonder.
Yet all this adds to a ‘Lancashire’ derby that although no spectacle on the pitch has become one of the more dramatic in recent times. Indeed, the fall out is set to roll on while the FA conducts an investigation of Evra’s allegations. United, meanwhile, may have cause to warn Jones of the negative headlines inflammatory remarks always bring, no matter how in-the-right United’s 19-year-old defender may be.
Meanwhile, Ferguson may well reintroduce the aforementioned Nani, Rooney and Hernández at Romanian no-hopers Otelul Galati in the Champions League on Tuesday night. Figure that one out.
Galati, aside from being the weakest side in this season’s Champions League, is a club also under scrutiny for racism, with the Romanian FA having fined the Romanian champions for racist supporter chanting against Rapid Bucharest earlier this year.
All we need now is an outrageous dive and a controversial goal to complete the full circle this week.