In the end, the points had to be shared.
Let’s be honest. After around 20 minutes of first-half action, most of us watching wanted the halftime whistle to go.
With Sir Alex Ferguson opting for an experienced midfield quintuplet, the middle of the Anfield park was congested. And with neither side starting with an urgency and flowing movement that have been evident on several occasions already this season, it was no lone fault of ours that the first 45 minutes were entirely forgettable.
The pedestrian and boring start to the game featured a plethora of misplaced passes straight to the opposition. And even when the passes did find another player in a Red shirt, they often ended up going horizontal or backwards. With an already congested midfield and Steven Gerrard yet to approach peak fitness, there were no barnstorming runs from the center of the park, and no razor-sharp vision to find the diagonal balls to the wings.
But if there’s one thing this Liverpool team doesn’t lack in, it’s team spirit and a desire to keep going until the end, and that much was evident in the second half, especially after Hernandez’s equalizer.
United’s switch to a 4-4-2 saw Liverpool fashion plenty of chances, and Jordan Henderson turned in an impressive performance having come on as a substitute for Lucas. His movement in the midfield and in the attacking third opened up plenty of space for Liverpool to attack, and he alone had two great chances to kill off the game, first via a sumptuous volley that David de Gea brilliantly turned over, and second in the form of a header that met Stewart Downing’s cross.
A quick word on Fergie’s team selection.
United reverted to a 4-5-1 formation, with such big-game players as Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-sung and Darren Fletcher starting at Anfield. Their substitutes bench was littered with world-class names and they were able to bring on Wayne Rooney, Nani and Javier Hernandez, who might as well be the best substitute trio in the League this season. but the question is: why weren’t they starting?
As much as some onlookers may want to pin it on Rooney’s mental state and the travel weariness following the international break, Ferguson’s personnel choices reflected a cautious respect for Liverpool.
It could have been a yearn to break our three-game winning streak in this fixture. It could have been a formation to deny us the space we crave to pass and move. But it was definitely a nod to Ferguon’s pre-match claims that this was the biggest game in English football. And that we’re starting to rise again to be a major competitor for United.
The men in Red showed that his concerns were not misplaced on the day.
Liverpool attacked well in the second half on Saturday. We defended well for the entire game, the defensive lapse leading to Hernandez’s goal aside. (And that wasn’t a corner anyway.)
On the pitch was some United attack. And opposite them was some Liverpool defence. Martin Kelly and Jose Enrique particularly caught the eye with assured performances and solid attacking support. It’s not everyday that Manchester United are limited to two shots on target in 90 minutes. It’s not everyday that Ashley Young is subdued for 70 minutes (or that he only lasts 70 minutes). And it’s not everyday that Nani is kept quiet on the pitch.
So, the good news is: with Kelly and Enrique on the flanks, Liverpool possess a very complete partnership on both our wings. (This is very, very bad news for Glen Johnson.)
Here’s another piece of good news: Steven Gerrard is back. Let’s first take a moment of silence in response to those who dared suggest that he wouldn’t be able to get back into the team.
Anyway, Steven Gerrard is back. And him being deemed fit enough to start and fit enough to last the entire 90 minutes can only be a good thing for Liverpool.
For all of Kuyt’s and Henderson’s industrious work-rates, Gerrard’s energy and ability to make incisive attacking runs will make a huge difference, and he will add an extra dimension to the Reds attack if he stays fit. His dead-ball and crossing prowess mean that chances will be created for our strikers to pounce on, and we will hopefully no longer be restricted to the left-foot specialties of Charlie Adam. His passion for the Reds cause will see him track back and make crucial tackles in his own half. His on-field, lead-by-example leadership will inspire confidence and instill calm in the Liverpool side.
Oh, and he’s capable of scoring important goals.
Unfortunately, this brings us back to the age-old question: Are Liverpool (still) a two-man team?
And unfortunately, the answer to that question is (still) a resounding yes.
Mention the other components of the Liverpool spine (Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher, Dirk Kuyt) all you want, but Liverpool remain a two-man team. Just like Fernando Torres during his time at Anfield, Luis Suarez finds the majority of Liverpool’s attacking chances at his feet. But, for all his unpredictability, invention and hunger, he is far from a world-class goalscorer. When Suarez found himself with only David de Gea to beat in the first half, he shot straight at the keeper.
During Fernando Torres’ days at Atletico Madrid, before his move to Anfield, he was labeled more as a scorer of spectacular goals than a spectacular scorer of goals. This seems to be an accurate description of Liverpool’s #7 right now, and while he is seen to be more versatile and creative than Torres, he needs to get his finishing up to the old Torres’ level, simply because the bulk of Liverpool’s goalscoring chances are now his.
Which brings me to my next point: Where were Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy?
Given the number of inviting crosses sent into the United box, especially towards the end of the game, and given the physically culpable duo of Rio Ferdinand and Johnny Evans, this was a perfect game for Carroll to make his mark. Instead, he found himself on the bench for the entire 90 minutes, which must have been as disappointing for him as it was for us Reds fans.
With all the chances being created, Liverpool need to step up a gear and actually finish them off, or risk losing points when they really should be taking them on board. This is where Andy Carroll, with his aerial and finishing ability, and Craig Bellamy, with his pace and experience, come in. Or should be coming in anyway…
But instead, in the end, the points had to be shared.