Thursday, 13 October 2011

Anfield Agony - Can United reverse the recent trend?

O'Shea scores at the Kop end - cue pandemonium!
This weekend Manchester United travel to Anfield, to face Liverpool.  For the first time in the history of these great clubs, United will go into this match having won more domestic league titles than their North-West rivals; a fact which will surely not be lost on the supporters of both clubs.

As we approach my least favourite fixture of the domestic season, I felt it would be fitting to take a look back at some of our recent visits to Anfield.  You'd expect that with 4 titles in the past 5 seasons, our recent record at Anfield would be strong, however that's not the case.  In actual fact, in the past 5 seasons, Anfield has been our 3rd least successful ground (W, W, L, L, L)
, behind Stamford Bridge (D, L, D, L, L) and The Emirates (L, D, L, W, L).  

Let's take a look at the games over this period:

2006/2007 Liverpool 0 - 1 Manchester United

In a match that is easily forgotten, the end will live long in the memory, as John O'Shea acted out the dreams of every single Manchester United fan.  United rode their luck for long stages of the game, with Liverpool the better team throughout.  The first half was a drab affair with Liverpool creating a couple of half chances and United barely threatening.  The game came to life in the second half as Gerrard, Bellamy and Riise all had chances for Liverpool, shortly after the restart, however they were either wasteful or denied by the excellent Edwin Van Der Saar.  After 70 minutes the game had settled into what looked like being a fairly disappointing 0-0.  On a rare United attack, 12 minutes from time, Louis Saha was tumbled inside the box, however Martin Atkinson waved away the penalty appeals.  

With less than 5 minutes left Paul Scholes and Xabi Alonso clashed, with the Englishman seeing red for raising his hands - despite no contact being made with his Spanish counterpart.  Shortly after this Edwin Van Der Saar produced an incredible save from a Peter Crouch shot, at the time seemingly guaranteeing United a point.  Still a twist was left in this tale, as Pepe Reina dropped a Ronaldo free-kick at the feet of John O'Shea, who gleefully smashed the ball home, in front of a horrified Kop End.  Cue pandemonium.  A wonderful 3 points, however far from a deserved win, truth be told.

2007/2008 Liverpool 0 - 1 Manchester United

After a summer of change at Old Trafford, this fixture saw a new look United take on their North-West rivals.  Carlos Tevez, Anderson and Owen Hargreaves were all making their debuts in this clash, and it was Tevez who would settle it.  Possibly the most exciting aspect of the game, though, was the way that new midfield star Anderson dominated the Liverpool midfield, including one Steven Gerrard.  A fairly even first half saw Anderson clear Liverpool's best effort off the United goal line, before Tevez capped United's best spell with the a goal in the 43rd minute.  A corner from Ryan Giggs found it's way to Rooney who lashed across goal to where Tevez was on hand to turn the ball into the roof of the net.  The second half proved to be a comfortable affair for United, as a strong defensive display easily kept Liverpool at bay.  In truth it should have been even more comfortable, however Rooney missed a sitter after a brilliant counter-attacking move, shooting wide from Ronaldo's pass.

2008/2009 Liverpool 2 - 1 Manchester United

Manchester United came into this early season fixture on the back of a couple of poor performances; a 1-1 draw against Newcastle, at Old Trafford and a 1-0 win away to Portsmouth - Darren Fletcher the unlikely scorer in both games.  What better way for the Champions to kickstart their season than with a win at Anfield, against their rivals, who were missing their key men, as Gerrard and Torres started on the bench.  3 minutes in and Carlos Tevez fired United into the lead, after a pull back by new £30m signing Dimitar Berbatov.  This, however, was as good as it got for United on the day.  Edwin Van Der Saar gave an unusually poor display and it was his error, coupled with a breakdown in communication, that saw Liverpool draw level through a Wes Brown own goal.  Defending which would have did the Keystone Kops proud.  Tevez then had a chance to restore United's lead not long after, however he blazed his shot high and wide.  

Following this Liverpool went on to dominate, creating much the better chances in the second half.  The winner finally came in the 77th minute, when Ryan Babel was on hand to turn in a Dirk Kuyt centre, after Ryan Giggs was carelessly dispossessed by Javier Mascherano on his own touchline.  United's misery was compounded when Nemanja Vidic was dismissed for leading with his elbow in an aerial challenge, meaning that he would miss the next game, away to Chelsea.

2009/2010 Liverpool 2 - 0 Manchester United

Going into this game Liverpool were on their worst run of results in more than two decades and pressure was starting to mount on manager Rafa Bentiez.  Liverpool were again denied the services of their influential captain Steven Gerrard, however United fans had learned their lesson from the previous season and were not lending too much weight to this.  A good start to the season saw United sitting top of the Premier League, and the odds were heavily in favour of the champions avenging the previous seasons defeat at Anfield.  From the start of the game, however, it became apparent that the Anfield club, backed by a vocal barrage of support for their under-fire manager, had other ideas.  Liverpool looked the hungrier side and were the winner in every 50/50 battle.  United's only real chance of the first half came from a Wayne Rooney header which went straight into the arms of a grateful Pepe Reina.  

At the other end Edwin Van Der Saar was by the far the busier of the two keepers.  A wonderful save in the 14th minute stopped a Fabio Aurelio free-kick which was destined for the top corner, and it was Aurelio again who was denied 10 minutes before half-time, when his free header went straight into the arms of Van Der Saar.  In the second half there was more of the same with United failing to muster any real threat.  The breakthrough came in the 65th minute when Fernando Torres lashed home, after being played through and easily shrugging off the attentions of Rio Ferdinand.  United did produce a rally of sorts and Antonio Valencia smashed a shot against the bar, after being set up by substitute Michael Owen.  In the 90th minute Nemanja Vidic was sent off for the 3rd successive game against Liverpool, before a counter-attack goal caught United pushing numbers forward and David Ngog coolly slotted home to make the points safe for Liverpool.

2010/2011 Liverpool 3 - 1 Manchester United

March 2011 saw Manchester United go to Anfield, hot on the heels of a 19th title.  A win here would put them 6 points clear of their nearest rivals, Arsenal, with just 9 games left to play.  United fans arrived armed with banners galore, and masks of the face of the Old Trafford legend, Eric Cantona.  The best banner of the day was surely the response to the Anfield faithful
s mocking message to Cantona; "Au revoir Cantona, come back when you've won 18".  The response from Manchester United fans was as simple as it was cutting; "You told us to come back when we've won 18.....we are back".  Of course another banner simply had to make reference to Sir Alex’s famous quote about Liverpool and their perch.  You all know the line.

Once the match started, though, the carnival atmosphere amongst the Manchester United fans soon died.  Bereft of first choice defensive pairing Ferdinand and Vidic, United had to rely on Wes Brown and Jonny Evans at centre-back, and those two were offered little in the way of protection from a midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes - incidentally the same pairing who had started this fixture 5 years previously.  Liverpool started the brighter of the two teams, with Luis Suarez missing a presentable chance just 2 minutes in, however United hit back through Berbatov, whose long-range drive hit the outside of the post.  Wes Brown also went close with a header which was cleared off the line.  35 minutes in and the ever-dangerous Suarez produced a moment of magic, evading 3 tackles inside the United penalty area before squaring to Kuyt for the easiest of tap-ins.  As good as the Uruguayan's piece of skill was, the lack of any real challenge from Rafael, Brown and Michael Carrick was unforgivable.  5 minutes later, another shocking piece of defending was to cost United a second goal.  Nani, while attempting to clear the ball, inexplicably headed back across goal to where Kuyt was waiting, and he duly accepted the gift to put Liverpool 2-0 up.  

Just before half-time things flared up between both teams.  Jamie Carragher put an end to Nani's game with a knee-high tackle, which unbelievably didn't earn him a red card from match official Phil Dowd.  Rafael was then lucky not to be red carded for a flying lunge at his compatriot, Lucas.  Although it went unnoticed by most at the time, Rafael's tackle was undoubtedly the result of frustration due to Maxi Rodriguez's thigh-high,studs-up challenge on him, just seconds before he lunged at Lucas.  The second half started much like the first, with Liverpool on the offensive and United offering little going forward.  Edwin Van Der Saar saved well from a Raul Meireles shot, however he was then at fault in the 65th minute, allowing a Suarez free-kick to spill from his grasp, which Kuyt lashed home to complete his hat-trick.  Javier Hernandez, on as a replacement for Nani, added some respectability to the scoreline with a 92nd minute header, however it was definitely a case of too little, too late as United were deservedly beaten.

2011/2012 Liverpool ? - ? Manchester United
All of which brings us to this weekend's game.  Surely the rot has to stop?  In my opinion, given the relative ease with which teams have cut United open this season, something needs to change in midfield if we are to avoid being overrun.  Although the style of our attacking football has been a joy to behold at times, I think it could be in our interests to set up a little more defensively on this occasion and attempt to hit Liverpool on the counter-attack.  Possibly a 4-3-3 with a mobile front 3 of Nani, Young and Rooney.  To supplement this I'd go for a midfield 3 of Carrick, Jones and Anderson.  I think Phil Jones has shown enough in his games this season that he should at least be considered as a midfield option, given our relative weakness in that area.  Jones has played there regularly for Blackburn so it's not as if the role would be alien to him.  Anderson would be given licence to get forward and support the attack, with Jones and Carrick there to cover for him.  Jones would also be able to go on his marauding runs, as we've seen him do numerous times, without worrying about leaving his defence exposed.  In defence I would go with De Gea, Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra, provided they are all fit and available for selection.

Of course a compelling argument could also be made for playing 4-4-2 given that Liverpool’s weakness is undoubtedly their defence.  A 4-3-3 formation often stifles Rooney and leads to him becoming frustrated and ineffective.  As I alluded to in my piece on Danny Welbeck, I would start him up top with Rooney playing off him.  I think Welbeck’s overall gameplay is superior to Hernandez’s and it’s important that we don’t surrender possession cheaply in this game, if we are to avoid our 2 man midfield being overrun.  Again I’d be tempted to play Jones in midfield, alongside Anderson, however I’d say it’s more likely that Sir Alex would play Darren Fletcher.  Given that Fletcher and Anderson completed 0 tackles in 90 minutes against Norwich (an unbelievable statistic), a marked improvement would be needed from both if we are to expect anything from this fixture.  An argument could also be made for a pairing of Giggs and Carrick, with Rooney playing just in front of them.  Both players will be fresh after the international break and it was this pairing that dominated Chelsea in both legs of last season’s European tie, as well as the league game at Old Trafford. 

Whatever team and formation is selected, I just hope that we can come out of this game with our heads held high, unlike the past few seasons.  Come on United!

By Tim Ferguson

What are your thoughts ahead of the game? Would you go 4-3-3 or 4-4-2? Please leave your comments below:

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