Manchester United claimed bragging rights over their traditional enemies, Liverpool, with a 2-1 victory in the EPL on Sunday, but once again made life hard for themselves in the final quarter after controlling the game for the opening hour.
Just as they had done at West Ham in the FA Cup last week, United came out of the blocks with all guns firing. They dominated possession and created several chances before, predictably, Robin van Persie finished off a slick move involving Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Patrice Evra with a clinical side-foot finish.
Sir Alex Ferguson decided on a more traditional setup in midfield with Shinji Kagawa and Ashley Young providing width and Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley filling the central roles.
It is a system which, in my opinion, suits the players the manager has at his disposal and avoids the congestion in midfield that the diamond formation sometimes produces.
Once again, Carrick was the inspiration early on with his cultured, unhurried manner and pinpoint passing setting up most of United’s attacks.
His partnership with Cleverley is blossoming and brings the best out of the bustling tyro.
Danny Welbeck, given a vote of confidence by his manager to start the match, worked tirelessly in support of his esteemed strike partner, van Persie, and all that seems to be missing is his ability to apply the coup de grace to his imaginative approach work.
Perhaps a prolonged run at the Dutchman’s side, whilst learning his trade, will help Welbeck to hone that particular skill.
He did enough, however, to be awarded the Man of the Match award which, while perhaps a little generous, was a just reward for his endeavour.
Going up 2-0 early in the second half from a header by Evra (or Nemanja Vidic—take your pick!) seemed to cement victory for the Reds, but Liverpool—to their credit—struck back almost immediately. David de Gea’s full-stretch save from a Steven Gerrard blockbuster fell nicely to the feet of Daniel Sturridge, who opened his Merseyside account with a tap in from five yards.
To be fair, United had begun to struggle a bit when Brendan Rodgers pulled off Lucas at half-time and replaced him with Sturridge in a bold attempt to get his team back into the game.
The additional striker upset United’s rhythm, and Carrick found himself dropping deeper to help the overloaded defence.
For the final 15 minutes, it was all hands to the pumps for United, who brought on Phil Jones for Kagawa to try to steady the ship.
Despite a few shaky moments they had done enough, and Sir Alex will feel that any victory against the old enemy is a welcome one.
The positives for United as I saw it were as follows:
- Vidic got another game under his belt and is not far away from full match fitness.
- Kagawa, a brave selection from Ferguson after his weak performance against West Ham, looked more comfortable than last week and seems more suited to a slightly deeper role than he did when playing just behind the strikers in the early season fixtures.
- Welbeck continues to improve and, hopefully, will be given more chances to develop his game. I personally don’t think he should be put out on loan at this stage.
- The defence is looking more solid and limited the prolific Luis Suarez to a few scraps until the introduction of Sturridge. Unusually, de Gea was a spectator for much of the game. Evra, in particular, seems to have come through his sticky patch and the electric pace supporting attacks has returned. He provided an excellent cross for van Persie’s opener.
- Cleverley continues to impress and is reminiscent of David Beckham in the work he gets through every match.
- Van Persie. No need to say any more!
The negatives are fewer:
- Once again, they didn’t kill off a team that they dominated for the entire first half. They were unlucky to be denied a golden chance to score a second just before half-time, however, when Kagawa seemed to be pushed as he was about to tap in a rebound from van Persie’s back heel.
- Ashley Young is still not quite "at it," and when he came off, Antonio Valencia, his replacement, still seemed short of the self belief that allowed him to terrorise full-backs last season.
- Being hyper critical, the change in Liverpool’s formation seemed to throw United, who thereafter were clinging on to what they had.
Not many teams are brave enough to go on the offensive against United and, when they do, the Reds need to come up with a better answer than they did on Sunday.