A Manchester United line-up that did not quite add up
Anyone switching on the television 10 minutes into yesterday's Premier League clash between Liverpool and Manchester United - a match described Sir Alex Ferguson as the biggest in England - could have rubbed their eyes in disbelief, and not because of the bright autumn sunshine at Anfield.
As the Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel attempted to clear the ball from the edge of the penalty area, he was pressured not by one of United's world-class attackers such as Wayne Rooney, Nani or Javier Hernandez, but Phil Jones, the defender who has impressed greatly since signing from Blackburn Rovers in June. Five minutes later, Jones ghosted towards the back post before heading wide.
Jones, 19, is renowned for his defensive rather than attacking attributes. Yesterday, he was asked to play in midfield for the first time at his new club as Ferguson chose a line-up which baffled even his greatest advocates.
Ferguson has never bowed to convention and his single-mindedness can be one of his greatest strengths, but in leaving Rooney, Hernandez, Anderson and Nani on the bench, he went for a defensive line-up with Daniel Welbeck as a lone striker.
Liverpool have yet to hit full stride at home this season. This was a chance for Ferguson, with an array of attacking talent at his disposal, to take the game to Liverpool. But United had lost their last three games at Anfield and their form has dipped in recent weeks. Thus Ferguson chose caution, but the change in formation didn't work.
In a compliment to the creative talents of Charlie Adam, Jones was asked to shadow the Scottish midfielder, just as Jack Rodwell did two weeks ago for Everton in the Merseyside derby. This ensured Jones was frequently United's most advanced midfielder as Adam dropped deep to receive the ball.
United were frequently exposed down the middle of the pitch when Liverpool got in behind Jones.
The momentum was with Liverpool for most of the match as Ferguson refused to alter his line-up. In fact, United's changes didn't come until Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool captain, opened the scoring in the 67th minute. Only then did Ferguson send in the cavalry. Rooney, Nani and Hernandez all came on.
United were immediately more dangerous and it was Hernandez who poached the equaliser with nine minutes left.
One can only wonder what the result might have been if United had the added dynamism of that trio for the entire 90 minutes.
That United were still in the game at that stage was credit to keeper David de Gea. The young Spaniard is growing into his role and yesterday he made several top-class saves, the pick being a one-handed tip to turn a Jordan Henderson half volley wide in the latter stages.
Before the game, the Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalglish, had disagreed with Ferguson's comments that United v Liverpool is the biggest game of the season.
"It's another fixture where the reward for winning is three points," said Dalglish, who will rue that his side did not take all three of those points.
His Scotland compatriot in the opposite dugout has De Gea and Hernandez to thank for saving him from some awkward questions after a rare mistake in his team selection.
Published: October 16, 2011 04:00 AM