Liverpool lined up in a fluid 4-4-1-1/4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1, with a tandem of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres playing in the central attacking roles, in contrast with the rigid and narrow 4-4-2 used by Roy Hodgson. Sir Alex Ferguson, meanwhile, put United out in an orthodox 4-4-2 with Luis Nani and Ryan Giggs playing as out-and-out wingers in a more progressive side than normally selected in so-called big four games.
The game itself was very scrappy and decided by two refereeing decisions, a penalty given to United in the first minute and a red card for Gerrard later, which changed the complexion of the game within the first half. Liverpool were forced to try and play a more reactive game than the proactive one they originally tried to implement.
Before the red card, the evident difference in Liverpool was how they changed the dynamics of the way they attacked with Torres playing as a lone forward with a fluid three rotating behind. An emphasis was also placed on trying to push the team higher up the pitch and press the United midfield, with a deeper tandem of Lucas and Raul Meireles also taking turns pushing forward and pressing the ball high up the pitch. United played with a deep lying central midfield pair of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher and emphasised getting the ball wide earlier to try and capitalise when Liverpool’s wingers had pushed forward, but never really had to push too hard after taking the lead so early.
The first 30 minutes of the game were lacking in quality with neither side able to maintain any dominance over the other. Liverpool struggled to build from deep with Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov regularly closing down the centre-backs when Pepe Reina had the ball, forcing the Spaniard to play long to Torres and Gerrard, while United found themselves stifled in the final third as Carrick and Fletcher rarely pushed forward.
After the red card United settled into a rhythm of retaining possession, stretching the 10 men of Liverpool and wearing them down. Giggs and Nani stayed tight to their respective touchlines high up the pitch, forcing Liverpool to either leave them one-on-one with the full-backs or having Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt play deep, thus isolating Torres up front. It was generally the latter that happened.
With Liverpool needing a goal in the second half, Dalglish put on Ryan Babel, whose direct play and ability to go past players, coupled with a good performance from youngster Jonjo Shelvey suggested a late Liverpool revival, one that was not to be realised. In the end it was a game where United rarely had to get out of first gear while Liverpool will maintain that the important lift of spirit around the club has not been dampened, but will be left wondering what would have happened had Gerrard not foolishly gotten himself red carded.