Ferguson sets his stall out to defend; City on the offensive
Five thoughts from Saturday's action in the
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.
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.
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.
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.