Apprehension, anxiety and pressure will have been the feelings for under-fire Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez as the hugely significant game with Manchester United approached this weekend. After four straight losses Benitez got Liverpool back on track with a tough, hard-fought win against their fierce north-west rivals.
A last minute goal from Lyon in the Champions League group stage was enough previously to ensure that Liverpool were defeated for the fourth time in a row – Benitez’ worst run of form as Liverpool manager. Tactically Liverpool seemed deprived of energy and purpose in the midfield areas and a lack of concentration was the problem at the back, not to mention the key absentees Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. However, problems had to be tackled head-on for the Liverpool boss as the Reds faced United in what was going to be a pivotal day for the Spanish technician.
Glen Johnson and Fernando Torres returned for the vital clash, two players who possess that energy, drive and class which Liverpool have seemed to lack in the last few weeks. Johnson utilises his pace and super engine from the full-back area to give Liverpool a lift and inspire a much more attacking atmosphere to the side. Torres offers the sheer world-class striking ability Liverpool have been missing, displaying a cutting edge in front of goal and causing problems with his pace and clever runs in-behind.
Liverpool started the game with an unfamiliar 4-4-2 pattern to their play. Fabio Aurelio occupied a position on the left, Yossi Benayoun on the right with the combative duo of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva in the middle of midfield. This worked superbly for Liverpool throughout the game, Dirk Kuyt supporting Fernando Torres with his dogged determination and work rate for the cause putting Manchester United defenders under pressure at all times. Aurelio was an important addition to the team sheet for Liverpool. His technical ability on the ball is somewhat of an unknown quantity in the Premier League, however he excelled in everything he did against United. Cross-field balls, wonderfully accurate set-pieces and a lethal first touch gave Liverpool that added edge of quality.
Manchester United started the game with a central-midfield duo of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, possibly to exploit the defensive nature of Javier Mascherano and Lucas through neat and quick passing. However this writer felt this backfired on United as Mascherano and Lucas possessed that much needed energy and drive of central midfielders who were desperate to win the ball back and do anything for the cause. Lucas and Mascherano were regularly close to Scholes and Carrick, pressurising the pair so their wonderful passing could not hurt the Liverpool back line. This is the pressure and desire which Liverpool have been missing in their games, however the duo showed potential and real quality against a heavily experienced United midfield. Benayoun was another play to put in an impressive performance against the champions. The Israeli seemed to have an almost free role in the Liverpool midfield, popping up in different positions to link up the play with the strikers and midfield, the combination seemed to work fantastically well as Benayoun was not picked up several times and could drive at the United back line.
Two stats of the afternoon showed how Liverpool had changed their mentality going into the game to sustain pressure and give their side that added mentality of aggression and toughness. Liverpool committed 20 fouls compared to Manchester United’s 13, showing how the Liverpool players wanted to get in and around United and give the fans a feeling of fighting spirit to get out of the dreadful run which has plagued them in recent weeks. The other stat was Liverpool’s territorial advantage of 50.6% compared to United’s 49.4%. Although it was only a small percentage, it reveals how Liverpool’s midfield was much better in gaining territory and hounding the United players across the pitch showing that desire to go on and eventually win the game.
Manchester United were very poor all game with their only real chance falling to Antonio Valencia. However Sir Alex Ferguson will have no doubt drummed it into his players that they need to show more to guarantee another Premier League title. Liverpool will be feeling very positive after a pivotal result for them in a season which has been full of disappointments. However the optimism should be back at Anfield, a wonderful performance against one of their arch enemies and the imminent comebacks of Steven Gerrard and Alberto Aquilani should see the Reds climb the table.
Premier League analysis
Week 1 – August 15/16, 2009
Week 2 – August 18/19, 2009
Week 3 – August 22/23, 2009
Week 4 – August 29/30, 2009
Week 5 – September 12/13, 2009
Week 6 – September 19/20, 2009
Week 7 – September 26/27, 2009
Week 8 – October 3/4, 2009
Week 9 – October 17/18, 2009
Week 10 – October 24/25, 2009