Ferguson sets his stall out to defend; City on the offensive
Manchester United adopted a very defensive stance against Liverpool at Anfield
United's Wayne Rooney started on the bench due to his state of mind
Chelsea were unimpressive yet again but still managed an emphatic win
Five thoughts from Saturday's action in the Barclays Premier League:
1. Defense or attack? Manchester United started Saturday sitting atop the Premier League. Yet for the visit to Liverpool, where United have had problems in recent seasons, Alex Ferguson evidently decided it was time to address a little problem. Manchester United had allowed more shots than any team in the Premier League. The three teams who allowed most shots last season were all relegated. United might have been as far away from the relegation zone as it is possible to be, but Ferguson opted to address the issue by playing one striker and a five-man midfield.
As it happens, the Liverpool manager, also dropped a striker, Andy Carroll, and added a midfielder, Steven Gerrard, who is working his way back from injury. Liverpool's five-man midfield enjoyed an edge in possession. Yet for 69 minutes United's defense, which had looked so porous at home to Norwich in its last game, restricted Liverpool to one serious chance. The problem was that at the other end United's own attack, so dangerous for the first seven games, did not carve out a single dangerous chance.
Gerrard had an afternoon when the rust showed with "an uncharacteristic number" of misplaced passes, but when Liverpool won a free kick just outside the United penalty area after 69 minutes, Gerrard took it. He aimed a pass inside the post. On the end of the United wall, Ryan Giggs, inexcusably, danced out of the way. David De Gea, the United goalie, had no chance.
Ferguson immediately went back to Plan A. Ferguson threw on three attacking players. With 10 minutes left, one of the replacements, Javier Hernández, swooped onto Danny Welbeck's flicked header to nod the equalizer. United had rediscovered its teeth. Unfortunately, its defense suddenly looked vulnerable again. In the closing minutes, Liverpool created a series of chances. Jordan Henderson headed just over. De Gea saved a close-range shot from Dirk Kuyt. The game ended 1-1. It is beginning to look as if this year's United can either defend or attack, but not do both well with the same lineup.
2. Resting Rooney. Having decided to rest a striker; Ferguson still pulled a surprise with the player he chose to drop. It was Wayne Rooney. Perhaps Ferguson, a man who sometimes has anger management issues of his own, knows more about managing the volcanic Rooney temperament than Fabio Capello, the England manager. Maybe the United boss felt that Wayne Rooney's emotions had not yet regained their fragile equilibrium after the events of the previous 10 days.
Last week, Rooney's father and uncle were arrested over a suspected soccer betting scam. Capello decided Rooney still had his mind on soccer and picked him for England's final Euro qualifying game, in Montenegro. In the second half, Rooney cracked, kicked an opponent and was sent off. This week he was handed a three-match international ban, which casts a pall over his participation in the Euro 2012 finals. Capello will have no choice but to play without his star striker for all the group games. On Saturday, Ferguson opted to put Rooney on the bench.
"I think he was very disappointed in the decision by UEFA," Ferguson told the BBC after the game, adding, rather inaccurately but like a true Scot, that since "England have had difficulty in qualifying" for the knockout stages of major championships, the ban meant Rooney knew he might not play in Euro 2012 at all.
"I wanted to go into the game today with everybody in good fettle and good form without any albatrosses over their heads," Ferguson said.
When things went wrong with 20 minutes left, Ferguson turned to Rooney. But since the manager also sent on Hernandez and Nani and did not remove Welbeck, Rooney ended up playing in central midfield. He ran round like a dervish. He even made a crucial challenge deep in his own penalty area. He never got near the Liverpool goal. He didn't kick anyone. It was an odd little cameo. What is certain is that United has more top-quality alternatives to Rooney than England does.
3. Jones the midfielder. It has been quite a season for Phil Jones, a 19-year-old who arrived at United in the summer from Blackburn. He has delivered a series of impressive displays at fullback and center-half. He made his debut for England last Friday in Montenegro. He has been a rock in a besieged defense and his frequent bursts forward have caused chaos in opposing defenses. Jones has even found himself compared to one of the most revered names in United history: Duncan Edwards. Edwards was just 22 when he died in February 1958 after the plane carrying the United team crashed at Munich airport. Edwards was a physically powerful and skillful player. He made his England debut at 18 and played in nearly every international until his death. He could play in defense but is best remembered as a dominant midfielder.
On Saturday, Ferguson opted to try Jones in the Edwards position. Jones was the part of the five-man midfield (he'd also played in midfield for Blackburn at times). When Liverpool had the ball, Jones went man-to-man against Liverpool's playmaker, Charlie Adam. In the first half Adam only escaped once. His break helped set up Liverpool's best chance, a shot from Luis Suárez which de Gea saved. After 69 minutes, Adam again broke free, he was charging toward the goal when Rio Ferdinand clipped his ankle. Gerrard scored from the free kick.
When the ball came to Jones he looked rather like a central defender who was unsure of his bearings. He looked like a lost boy. But then, while he is already a very imposing and big man, he is just 19. The question is whether Ferguson sees Jones as a future central midfielder or whether the manager was simply trying to solve a particular tactical problem.
4. Maddening Mario. There's an old soccer saying that you have to "miss 'em to score 'em." It's a cliché that does seem to be trotted out most often in defense of players who don't score 'em. Yet it does seem to apply to Mario Balotelli.
On Saturday afternoon, with first place beckoning, Roberto Mancini still left Edin Dzeko, David Silva and Samir Nasri on the bench for the home match with Aston Villa. Presumably all three will be on the field when City hosts Villarreal in the Champions League. After the game, Mancini said that the trio had been away playing for their national teams last week and were tired.
Instead Balotelli started. Balotelli is the sort of player who causes coaches and fans a lot of agita. Quite apart from his disciplinary record, he is a man who misses a lot of chances and often misses then badly. He started by wasting two opportunities. The second, when he was set up in front of goal by Yaya Touré, was practically an air shot. It was ugly. Then after 28 minutes, he seized on a far more difficult chance. With his back to goal he flipped up into the air and smashed the ball over his shoulder and past a dumbfounded Shay Given.
Balotelli had done his job. Adam Johnson, a man who wasn't even on the bench for City's last Champions League game, scored in the first minute of the second half. City was on its way to a 4-1 victory and first place in the league, top for the first time in 34 years.
Balotelli has scored four goals in six appearances this season. Asked if the striker could keep it up, Mancini looked dolefully at the camera and said: "I hope so." He will have to live with the misses.
5. Eleven men went to snooze. For much of the second half the effects microphones at Stamford Bridge picked up only a gentle murmuring from the crowd. It sounded as if some 40,000 fans were snoring gently through an early evening nap. Chelsea played almost completely without urgency and still gained an emphatic, 3-1, victory over a hardworking Everton team. This has rather been the story of Chelsea's season, consistently unimpressive yet equally consistently victorious. When Ramires put his team 3-0 up after 61 minutes, it was only Chelsea's third strike on goal in the match yet Chelsea was in no way fortunate to turn its few chances into goals. The Ramires goal and the opener by Daniel Sturridge were both close range strikes created by crisp, penetrating moves that showed what Chelsea can do when it injects a little pace and purpose into its attacks. The other goal was a typically powerful header by John Terry after a free kick. Terry was rather aided by the fact that goalkeeper Tim Howard had charged out to leap for the ball a couple of yards away from where it actually was. The victory means Chelsea has 19 points from eight games. That is championship form. It sits third, just three points behind Manchester City and one behind United. The Blues could still catch the Manchester clubs sleeping.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.
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