By the end, Sir Alex Ferguson had reverted to type. He had introduced attacker after attacker, seen Manchester United score the latest in a long line of late goals and witnessed and withstood an eventful finale. Quintessential Ferguson?
Perhaps, but earlier he had illustrated he is the oldest chameleon in the business. The advocate of experience doubles up as a champion of youth, the apostle of all-out attack venturing into the realms of the defensive strategist. United, the side with 14 goals in three previous games against title rivals, opted for Operation Stifle.
To use a term the watching Tom Werner would understand, Ferguson threw a curveball. The teamsheet was the talking point. Flair, flamboyance and finishing were discarded, solidity and size selected. It was as though he took the decision to dispense with stars and emphasise the collective. Four players who are central defenders by trade started; think of a Scottish manager employing that tactic and George Graham, rather than Ferguson, springs to mind.
“It wasn’t a surprise but I think it was a compliment,” said Kenny Dalglish, the other participant in a Glaswegian stand-off. It is not often Ferguson shows an inferiority complex, but there were hints of it here. The hat-trick of defeats at Anfield seemed to weigh on his mind in a radical rethink from a manager whose side were plundering goals galore.
Not content with omitting last season’s Premier League’s leading scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, from the matchday 18, his counterpart in the current campaign, Wayne Rooney, was only on the bench for 68 minutes. Javier Hernandez spent still longer among the substitutes, emerging with intent to equalise five minutes after his introduction.
This was Plan B. Send on the impact substitutes. All of them; Rooney, Nani and Hernandez. Plan A consisted of trying to erect a blue wall either side of Luis Suarez, their March tormentor. The irony in its undoing was that a faulty wall prompted the restoration of the attacking ideals. With Ryan Giggs jumping out of the way, the free kick Steven Gerrard intended to direct over the United barrier actually went through it. “Bad defensive play,” noted Ferguson.
On the sidelines for six months with a groin injury, this was a fine comeback. “It’s fantastic for him that he has crowned his first start for a while by scoring,” Dalglish added.The execution was imperfect, but the award was contentious. Already cautioned, Rio Ferdinand was deemed to have tripped Charlie Adam.
“There was the slightest contact but I don’t think enough to make a fella who is 12 or 13 stone fall to the floor,” argued the United defender. There was not enough to prompt Andre Marriner to reach for the yellow card again, either, which he could have done.
Rooney and Nani, already warming up in preparation for a smash-and-grab raid, came on for a salvage job instead, the former greeted with chants of “who’s the Scouser in the wig?” United are no strangers to hair-raising moments when chasing games, but levelled when the third arrival,
Hernandez, applied the final touch after Danny Welbeck had diverted Nani’s corner into his path. “His record of goalscoring is outstanding,” said Ferguson, who had rewarded the Mexican with a five-year contract earlier in the week and who noted the striker’s elusiveness in evading Martin Skrtel’s attentions.
What followed, however, indicated why Ferguson had adopted his initial approach. In the final 10 minutes, with United playing 4-4-2, Liverpool had three opportunities to clinch the points. Dirk Kuyt and Jordan Henderson were thwarted by De Gea while the latter was narrowly off target with an injury-time header. Drama had arrived with Ferguson’s reinforcements.
But his pre-match comments may have been more instructive than his post-match analysis. They had, he conceded, been too open. Hence Phil Jones’ appearance in a three-man central midfield of different generations – the 28-year-old Darren Fletcher was flanked by Jones, 19, and Giggs, 37 – attempting a job the Scot struggled with last season, halting Adam.
Hence, too, the appearance of Ji-sung Park instead of Nani. His duel with Jose Enrique was defensive winger against attacking full-back; it was fitting the South Korean fashioned his only chance with a tackle; it summed up his game, even if the resulting shot did fly wide. At that stage, the craft-graft equation was tilted in favour of all-out industry. But when a goal went in, United had a more adventurous alternative.
Enter the cavalry. Enter the cavaliers.MAN OF THE MATCH: David de Gea – Hernandez may have won the point, but the goalkeeper secured it. His save from Kuyt, in particular, was outstanding. “I thought the press said the boy was struggling,” said a deadpan Dalglish. “He never struggled today because he made two or three fantastic saves.”
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: They were marginally the superior side on the day, although, with the onus on them to attack, they created little in the first hour, save for a Suarez shot De Gea saved, and the Uruguayan was isolated at times when the midfield was gridlocked.
Gerrard represented the major bonus for them; his first start for seven months suggested his powers remain undiminished, while Jordan Henderson exerted an influence in his cameo. Whether Dalglish will persist with three central midfielders and only one striker against weaker opposition will be intriguing.