Manchester United will be feeling mightily relieved after the weekend's fixture at Liverpool, as they somehow managed to steal a game that should never have been theirs for the taking. The obvious turning point, of course, was Jonjo Shelvey's red card, the young Liverpool midfielder displaying his youth in making a rash challenge in a part of the field where it was completely unnecessary and also right in front of the referee.
Before this moment, there was only one team in the match. Liverpool were completely dominant, with Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen controlling the middle of the park, and making it look easy. Shelvey himself was having a good game, and Liverpool's attackers, particularly young Raheem Sterling and also Luis Suarez, were threatening United's defence from all parts of Liverpool's attacking third.
United looked almost completely bereft of ideas. Ponderous attacking movements were easily shut down, and United players looked uncomfortable in possession and unable to link up in the Liverpool half, with several misplaced passes and communication breakdowns adding to an extremely lackluster display.
United's defence was linking to the midfield well enough at times, but the midfield was not able to get good ball to Robin van Persie or even keep it among themselves. Nani looked terribly out of touch, and Giggs was not up to the pace of the fixture.
Michael Carrick struggled when United were not in possession, and he was not able to settle into the game at all. He was having to cover ground that was not being made up by Ryan Giggs and Shinji Kagawa as well, was having to drop deeper to try to press more, which is not his natural game.
Kagawa was brought in to find space and attempt to create goalscoring opportunities for United strikers. At times at Anfield, he may well have wondered what he had gotten himself into, as time and again he found himself chasing the ball instead of having it passed to him.
If not for Anders Lindegaard making two fine saves and a couple of reaction clearances from Rafael and Carrick, United could have been a couple of goals down before Shelvey did his raging bull impression and saw red.
Brendan Rodgers said in the post-match conference he thought the best team did not win. Anyone who had been watching the match would have had to agree. The extremely worrying thing for Sir Alex Ferguson is that his side were still not the best side even when they had a man advantage. Liverpool were able to prise them open at the back on a few occasions, one leading to a goal for Gerrard and a couple of other times to decent penalty shouts.
United, of course, left Anfield with the three points, and the United faithful will happily gloat over this. If they pause and reflect on the nature of the win and the manner in which it was attained, they may soon realize that even though they sit in a pretty position near the top of the Premier League pile, their season could well start to unravel very soon.
In no match this season have they looked convincingly superior. Even when beating Wigan 4-0 at home, there were moments in the first half when they were too sloppy and nothing at all close to teams that have called the same ground home in the past few seasons.
If not for Ali Al-Habsi having a decidedly poor game by his normally high standards, that game could well have been very different.
United are not at present a very good side, and the telling thing for them is that they do not really have many options to call on in order to sort this out.
An aging Paul Scholes is not going to be the midfield dynamo capable of driving the team on, as he once was, and this is the exact thing they are missing. A dynamic, ball-winning, tempo-setting midfielder. It was plain to see at Anfield that this was the type of player that is missing from the United setup. Energy and bristling intent in the middle of the park.
Paul Scholes did, of course, come on and managed to bring some energy to United's play in the second half, but realistically, United cannot continue to rely on Scholes to bring the energy and intensity he once did. A notable absentee from the match was Tom Cleverley, who sat on the bench throughout. Cleverley is touted as the new midfield hope for United, but at present is getting scant chance to show it.
Manchester United looked terribly disjointed at Anfield and did not look improved at all on the side that was shown up on opening day by Everton at Goodison.
Against Everton, it was clear they had not strengthened the midfield in the summer as they needed to, and they were given quite the fright by David Moye's side. This weakness will begin to show again when they start to face more decent opposition, as it did at Anfield in the weekend gone. With Spurs visiting Old Trafford this weekend, it will be the first true test that United will undergo on their home ground.
Andres Villas-Boas' side picked up a hard-fought win at home over QPR and now have two wins in a row. There is no way they will capitulate like Wigan did, and we have every reason to believe that they could give the Manchester reds a very trying time.
Manchester United are a shadow of the side they have been in the past two decades, and they are looking more and more like a side that is nearing the end of a golden era. Papering over the cracks with expensive signings like the acquisition of Robin van Persie may have relieved a lot of the support to the intentions of the club.
However, to anyone who really knows the game, it is clear that United do not have a side capable of challenging the might of Europe and are quite possibly not in possession of a squad of a high enough standard to mount a serious and sustained challenge for the title.
At present, the form sides look to be Chelsea, Arsenal and (rather surprisingly) Everton. Manchester United sit in second place, though how long this lasts is to be seen. It is always a dangerous thing to write off Ferguson, though, as many have done so in the past and have been made to look fools.
United could win this weekend and Chelsea could lose, sending United to the top. Even so, the problem of United's threadbare resources in midfield would still not be solved. Does anyone really think that Ryan Giggs would be starting in such a match at Anfield if Ferguson had better options? Ferguson needs either Anderson or Cleverley to take the initiative and make the midfield spot theirs. One wonders whether either is capable of doing so.
One ace up Ferguson's sleeve, of course, is the returning Darren Fletcher, and never has Ferguson needed his fellow Scot more. Fletcher could well be the missing piece in the puzzle that drives United forward again. Such is the ability of the Scot when he is fully fit.
It remains to be seen whether his rehabilitation will enable him to reach the levels he once showed on a match-to-match basis. Fletcher is a true world-class talent, though, and if he can get back to full form, he could be just the player United need. He is able to fill the role that Scholes vacates to a slightly lesser degree, and in tandem with Carrick, United could well have the midfield duo capable of driving them once more to trophies.
If United have any chance of taking the EPL title this season, they will need either Fletcher or one of the other of the midfield contingent to really take the bull by the horns. Or, if these options fail, they will definitely need to bring in a proven midfield performer in the January window. If not, they may again find themselves in a winning position only to be overhauled by a team with greater resources.
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