The answer to how United coped has to be simply that they did not. However, while the conclusion that the absence of two of their best players caused this may be correct, it is worth examining the conventional wisdom this implies. Chris Smalling may still have much to learn, and Wes Brown may be a slightly inferior defender to either of the aformentioned duo, but is it their fault that Liverpool appeared to run riot at stages en route to a thoroughly deserved victory?
United have often laboured to results more often than dismantle the opposition this season and it has become apparent to many that playing through them has become somewhat more straightforward than it ever was. Some United fans point to the loss of the match-winning contribution provided by Cristiano Ronaldo as the day United’s fortunes took a retrograde step. It would appear, however, the club has much greater problems in the centre of the pitch. Throughout their chain of great sides, a powerful and tenacious midfield player has underpinned United’s drive toward success and helped to drag the team through difficult engagements like the stern test that Anfield was always going to bring them today.
A late-period Brian Robson, Paul Ince and Roy Keane have provided that steel in front of the central defence and helped to stop the threat of opposing players breaking between the lines. Of course Owen Hargreaves was signed to fulfil this purpose and it is perhaps ironic that in the week where injury appeared to have ended his top-level career, the requirement of his team for his type of player was illuminated so brightly. Luis Suarez was indeed a force of nature on the day, but the way he was allowed to pick up the ball in holes and hurt United was a self-inflicted wound on the visitor’s part.
Dealing with this threat is not Smalling or Brown’s job, and the Carrick-Scholes partnership feels like a marriage between two identikit players that ultimately fails under pressure. Neither man is a natural defender, and while Scholes’ range of passing remains imperious, the contribution of Carrick within the team framework is open to question. What does he add that Scholes cannot? And if the answer is very little then is United not better served employing a grafter and leaving the carrot-haired maestro to do the legwork?
Of course United missed Vidic and Ferdinand terribly, but perhaps this is only because they are so good they hide the structural deficiencies. Whether their fans agree with this analysis or not, they will know that the return of two of their best players cannot come soon enough.