There is history, here. England’s two greatest football clubs lining up on the hallowed turf of Anfield, some of the World’s greatest players are there; two of the World’s greatest managers are there; but this is worth more than simply names and people: this is about bragging rights, this is to prove which is actually England’s Greatest Club… or at least it would be, if these were two truly great sides. Which in all honesty, they don’t really seem to be. Rather than championing present well, champions, both sides seem to pining for lost Iberian heroes (Xabi Alonso and Cristiano Ronaldo), and foaming at the mouth for the return of wounded warriors – Alberto Aquilani, Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Glen Johnson; Owen Hargreaves and Wayne Rooney.
Manchester United are sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League, yet you would be hard pressed to find anyone who, in all honesty, would say that they are there because of their delightful omnipotence, rather than the relative impotence of the other sides making up the division. This seems, to this observer at least, like a team caught between the past and the future – for the want of a less clichéd term, in transition.
This is majorly evident on the flanks – whereas the jury still seems to be out on the improving, but not quite there Antonio Valencia, and has been taking a long time when deciding upon the infuriating Nani, Ryan Giggs has been in sparkling form at the age of 35, and in linking up with Patrice Evra has been at times carrying this team – the second half against Manchester City being a prime example. Something that, as he nears his 36th birthday, surely cannot be expected of him for too much longer, if at all. If Valencia doesn’t adapt quickly, Nani continues on his path and age finally catches up with Giggs… what’s left? Ji-Sung Park is a very important player defensively, but does not offer a lot going forward; Danny Welbeck showed that he’s not quite ready yet in his limp performance against Sunderland, and then, what? Zoran Tosic, who, at the age of 21, and with International caps to his name, still can’t get a game in the Carling Cup? Gabriel Obertan, a kid who couldn’t get onto the Bordeaux bench ahead of David Bellion last year (leading to his loan-out), and who has played officially zero minutes for the club?
None of these seem as if they are prime options, yet Sir Alex Ferguson has been playing two wingers in what is loosely a 4-4-2 formation, which, while it seems soothing to those brought up on that being the norm, means that there is a large amount donkey work for the central midfielders to do, leading to subsquent problems:
Fletcher is very proficient at the hard-working all around midfielder role (and seems to be holding the middle of the pitch together singlehandedly at times), but Carrick, Scholes and Anderson are not: When Carrick has to do a lot of defensive work (tackling and the like) against opposition midfielders who are more mobile or more in number, he struggles to impose his character upon a game and can get washed away (see 2009 Champions League Final, Sunderland at home and Burnley away for examples); while Anderson’s energy is wasted if not put to use driving at the heart of a defence. Paul Scholes, well, passes and little else (maybe the odd shot) but does it brilliantly. If he is forced to intercept, or (shudder at the thought) tackle, then he’s a liability. If Owen Hargreaves comes back to somewhere approaching his best and can stay fit (two very big ‘ifs’), then a 4-4-2 with Fletcher and Hargreaves for the big games would make a lot of sense, with their mobility, energy and quality making a pair who can cope against three central midfielders; and would minimize the risk of paucity on the flanks, but without that pair, a 4-3-3 with Fletcher, a winger of any description (on current form, Giggs), Rooney, Berbatov and two more central midfielders makes more defensive sense, and may give one of the three central midfielders more scope to contribute offensively, knowing that the door is closed at the back. The front three would also have more freedom to roam and create new angles of attack – Rooney has been playing more ‘off the shoulder’ than ever before, and while his goal output has increased, he isn’t as much of an all-round attacking threat as he has been in previous seasons. If he felt he could drift out wide without impacting upon a winger’s space, he would be tougher to mark for a centre half, and if he started out wide and came back inside (rather like Thierry Henry in days of yore) even more so: his incredible form at the back end of last season came from such a position, proving that he can play there with great success.
This might seem like nit-picking for a team that is atop of the Premier League, but the truth is that in the Big Games, when they’ve played a 4-4-2, United haven’t been totally convincing defensively: – Arsenal could have taken all three points at Old Trafford with a bit of luck – missed chances, own goals, debatable penalties, etc – Manchester City were dominated in the Second Half but still scored three times in the match; and United’s best performance of the season by a distance, at White Hart Lane came from a front six of Fletcher, Scholes, Anderson; Giggs, Rooney, Berbatov. United’s 4-4-2, whilst being effective in the cold, hard currency of results, has been found wanting at home against Sunderland (Cana and Cattermole ate United’s two man midfield for breakfast) and at Burnley. One goal victories against Bolton and Birmingham at home have indicated that this isn’t a team bristling with confidence – and while United could have been away and gone in both games before the end, both of the away sides had glorious chances to snatch a draw. United are by no means in a large hole, (their league position suggests as much) but there is grand scope for improvement.
Liverpool, on the other hand, are stuck at what is nearly the bottom of a yawning chasm at the moment. In six games – Sunderland, Chelsea, Tottenham and Fiorentina away; Lyon and Aston Villa at home – they have a grand total of 6 defeats. A wry irony being that while Benitez was saying that Liverpool drew too many games last season… they haven’t drawn any this season, yet have lost twice as many as in the whole of last season already. The reasons for this are often stated and are clear:
- Benitez’s obsession with control, and controlling a football match where every minute detail can be planned, leads to a natural distrust of a) Going for it, until they are so far behind the 8-ball that control is irrelevant (Champions League escapes time and time again, the 4-4s last year from impossible positions, 4-1 at Old Trafford, amazing form from there on in etc); and b) a distrust of Yossi Benayoun, one of his own signings, but a player who has unpredictable creative abilities – so when Liverpool go forward and really need a goal, Benayoun is generally on hand to provide because there is no need to harness him into a structure or plan, so he is free to do something unexpected. When Liverpool are in a game that they are looking not to lose, and are set up in a clear plan, there is no place for Benayoun because he doesn’t offer the natural balance of a Riera or a Kuyt. Benitez doesn’t seem to know how to use him, Gerrard and Torres – three very creative players – and get the best out of them all at once, without being of defensive detriment to the team. Of course when Benayoun is on his own without the Big Two, he is good at creating something out of nothing, but the team isn’t built around him in the same way that it is for Gerrard and Torres, and he isn’t as good as Gerrard and Torres, and the players around him aren’t as good, so Liverpool struggle for clear cut chances.
- The centre of midfield after the departure of Xabi Alonso is a big problem. Lucas isn’t as good at distributing the ball expertly like Alonso – he is a good player, just not a similar player, or of a very good standard, yet – and so Mascherano has had to take more of a role in attacking distribution, meaning that, rather like Didier Deschamps v Paraguay once Zidane was suspended in the 1998 World Cup, he has struggled to be an effective playmaker and water-carrier combined. A further problem being that, because of his two great talents, Rafa cannot really make that two into a three by moving Gerrard deeper without ruining Gerrard’s interplay with Torres, or removing one of his wingers and asking Gerrard to compensate. Whereas United’s problems are solvable by simply switching personnel, Rafa’s 4-2-3-1 and building his team around his talents has mean that either he needs to buy another central midfielder to do an Alonso job – Alberto Aquilani is a terrific talent, but is injury prone and is a far more direct, attacking player than Alonso, meaning that there will be even less midfield cover than with Lucas there – limit Gerrard’s free role behind Torres; or hope that Lucas/Mascherano/Aquilani improve dramatically or adapt their way of playing to suit the collective. The departure of Alonso and the subsequent signings imply that either Rafa knows something that we don’t, or that he’s made a tremendous blunder in everything related to this position from his courting of Gareth Barry onwards.
- The defence. Oh Dear. Jamie Carragher, a man never known for his great pace, simply his heart, courage and other lacklustre metaphors, has started the season in atrocious form. Not only was he given the run-around by Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane on opening day, he has also been exposed by Zavon Hines on his debut for West Ham, conceding a penalty and other set pieces; Jermaine Beckford of Leeds United in the Carling Cup; and Gabriel Agbonlahor at Anfield, among others. Whereas Rio Ferdinand’s drop in form could be put down to rustiness after a stop-start start to the season, Carragher has hardly missed a game and still looked decidedly dodgy, whilst Martin Skrtel alongside him has hardly covered himself in glory either. Daniel Agger is a terrific defender, by far the best at the club, but is dogged by injury worries still, and may not last a whole season. Beyond those three, there’s little else aside from the unproven Kyrgiakos. As for the full back situation, Martin Kelly’s performance against Lyon was very promising, but this itself asks questions about Rafa’s transfer policy. Why spend £18m on a right back, when there is a talented one like Kelly waiting in the wings? Couldn’t Rafa have bought perhaps a slightly worse one offensively for, say, £10m, and spent the rest of his budget on a much needed striker? Last year, why did Rafa spend £7m on Andrea Dossena when Emiliano Insua, an extremely talented full back, and Fabio Aurelio could have played instead? Some transfers are only damned in hindsight, but the Dossena transfer didn’t really add up to begin with.
Both teams have further problems that do not require such expansion (Liverpool’s impotence on the flanks, and United’s very injury prone defence, for examples), and these major caveats, in my opinion at least, add up to a match that will be very intriguing to watch, maybe not for all the right reasons but that is moot. Liverpool are in dire need of a win, the sort of dire need that has led to “over my dead body” victories in the Champions League time and time again; whereas for United, a defeat would be more of a psychological scar than a physical wound. It would damage United’s title hopes to lose, it would damage their pride even more. For Liverpool, if they lose, there would perhaps not be any title hopes left to damage.