Following United, the expectation is our lads will create at least five clear cut chances and at the very least, one will get put in the back of the net.
At Anfield yesterday this wasn’t the case but the frustration we feel through the hangovers today could have been avoided if several things had been done differently.
1. The referee
If United had played in the below par fashion that we did yesterday but Andre Marriner got the crucial decisions right, we would be talking about our well deserved point.
With half an hour played at 0-0, Michael Carrick burst in to the box and Jamie Carragher clattered in to him. Whilst Carragher touched the ball, he didn’t win it. The ball remained directly in front of Carrick and how this two footed challenge which floored our player has been hailed as a legal tackle is beyond me. He took the player but he didn’t take the ball. Penalty. United 1-0 up after half an hour? Yes please.
Lucas Leiva made nine fouls in the game, enough to earn two yellow cards, but didn’t even get booked. On 32 minutes Marriner had a word with the player after he fouled Carrick, as if warning him that was his last chance. Seven minutes later, he pulled down Evra at the half-way line, which was when the first yellow card should have been shown. Ten minutes after the restart Lucas made a cynical foul on Rooney when stepping across him just outside the box. At least two bookable challenges there but he went all game escaping a yellow, before playing the ball in to Ngog that made it 2-0, a ball that never would have been played had Lucas been rightly sent off.
With three minutes of normal time remaining Michael Owen had the perfect chance to shut the scousers up as he raced past Liverpool’s back line thanks to a superb pass from Rooney. Carragher hauled Owen to the ground, making no attempt to play the ball, in a similar fashion to Nemanja Vidic on Steven Gerrard last season and Old Trafford which saw him red-carded. Carragher, who should have seen at least a yellow card for the foul he made on Carrick in the box during the first half, was shown just a yellow card for his professional foul. This should have been a straight red if the referee was to follow the rules of the game, but regardless, should have been his second yellow. Whether Carragher was sent off or not though, what we lost was the goalscoring opportunity, something no free-kick or red card would replace, but at least it would even the score slightly. As it was, the advantage remained ridiculously one-sided in Liverpool’s favour.
Based on our performances, we didn’t do enough to win the match yesterday. But had the referee performed it wouldn’t have mattered. Some days you score four goals and it doesn’t matter that the referee misses the offsides, the penalties and the fouls. Other days you need the referees to get the big calls right to ensure the right result occurs. Based on Marriner’s performance, he should not be refereeing a Premiership match next weekend – there’s too much at stake to allow a bottler in charge of the biggest games.
2. Darren Fletcher
Before Sunday, I polled readers of RoM to see which player we saw as being most vital to us getting a result at Anfield, given that our four best performing players, Darren Fletcher, Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney, had all missed the midweek game through injury. Whilst Rooney has been long hailed as our most important player, it wasn’t much of a surprise when Fletch came out on top of the poll given the difference we’d already seen in our team when Darren wasn’t playing. He had been a warrior through our Champions League campaign last season and our man of the match when we destroyed Arsenal at the Emirates in the semi-final. Yet when playing against a side who plays similar football to Arsenal in the final, we played a completely different game without the wrongly suspended Fletcher.
We were certainly missing a Fletcher type player in our midfield yesterday. Given the fact Lucas was afforded so many fouls without a yellow card, this would have been an ideal game for Fletcher, who makes so many hard challenges that tend to rub most referees up the wrong way. Liverpool had a man in the middle of the park fouling left, right and centre so it would have been good to have a man of our own who could put the opposition under that kind of pressure, as well as winding them up.
With Owen Hargreaves now six weeks away, we can look forward to having more grit and determination in our midfield. For now though, we need Fletcher back, desperately.
3. The midfield selection
I know it’s easy to point to team selection after the game has been played but even before the match I thought we had to have Anderson playing if Fletcher wasn’t going to make it. For these tough games we need a battler in the centre of the park and that’s something neither Michael Carrick nor Paul Scholes can offer us. Giggs is an important inclusion but I do wonder why Ferguson opted to play him down the left wing, a position he said was too demanding for Giggs a year ago, instead of centrally. Whilst Antonio Valencia is more than earning his place in the team, with it being him who came closest to scoring, as well as providing the balls in for Rooney’s header on goal and what should have been the Carrick penalty, Nani clearly isn’t doing enough for the manager. He scored against Liverpool and Arsenal in his first season at the club so his regression is something that needs to be addressed. With Park still out injured, Giggs getting the nod down the wing ahead of Nani shows how limited our options are. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Giggs because I think he’s had a fantastic season, but he doesn’t have anything like the pace, particularly over 90 minutes, that we should be looking for in one of our wingers.
Wayne Rooney clearly wasn’t ready to play and Dimitar Berbatov became increasingly frustrated by the string of decisions that went against him. Neither really got in to the game though which is down to them having an off day, but more to do with the midfield battle being lost. Berbatov put in a good shift though, all in all, but Rooney looked a game away from being properly fit, despite working his arse off. They weren’t given the support needed to create the chances but more worryingly there doesn’t seem to be a partnership there. This isn’t panic stations and I’m not setting alarm bells ringing, but both players appear to play better with Owen than they do with each other. I wouldn’t want Owen in the team over either of them but is that something the manager is going to have to try? The jury is still out for me but it is something to consider.
Of course United wanted to win yesterday but we didn’t need the three points as much as Liverpool did. They were on their worst run in years and simply couldn’t afford to lose again. It was that desperation that set the teams apart yesterday and quite frankly, I’d rather be second in the table and on the losing side yesterday, than outside the top four but winners yesterday. We don’t have cause to be as needy as they were for the points but I’d still expect more quality from United. We were hassled and pressured on the ball and didn’t have enough quality to deal with that on the day.
Fernando Torres is a brilliant player so there should be no shame in conceding to one of his goals but Rio Ferdinand’s lack of speed and strength when attempting to deal with the Spaniard was quite shocking. Whilst being beaten for pace isn’t too much of a crime, to be out-muscled by a player who spent most of the match falling over under the slightest of breezes is a worry. Rio has to be better than that and I imagine once he gets more than a few games in a row under his belt he will be better prepared. He won’t often come up against players as good as Torres, but he will certainly face players who are physically stronger. Needs more time in the gym or what?
Vidic got sent off for the third consecutive game against Liverpool but I don’t feel like he had much choice. His first yellow card wasn’t a booking but he was left with very little option for the second yellow card. Some are slating Vidic this morning but I think despite looking unsettled and nervous at times, he generally dealt with what came his way.
Patrice Evra wasn’t given the opportunity to have his usual attack influence on the game whilst John O’Shea proved the right-back spot is up for grabs. He didn’t have a bad game but he didn’t have a good game either and given our reliance on our fullbacks to support our wingers, John doesn’t add enough to be first choice. But who could replace him? Rafael and Wes aren’t available, and what Neville adds in attack he loses with his lack of pace defensively. O’Shea is a good player and good will have to do for now.
All in all, there were several aspects to Sunday’s game which meant we left with no points and thankfully we’ve got plenty of time to put things right. Our manager is right in what he has said in his summing up. We didn’t play very well but the referee got the key decisions wrong and that undoubtedly changed the result.
We don’t seem to know what our best XI is, or at least, the manager doesn’t seem to know, which we need to sort out sharpish. I realise in these days of ‘squads’ there will always be some grey area as to what the strongest starting team should be but yesterday’s midfield looked like it had been picked from a hat. We can use Blackburn as a practice for the most important game of the season so far, away at Stamford Bridge, and we need to perform a lot better, regardless of what the referee does!