Manchester United win a tale of two halves

Posted by James Martin

Matthew Peters/Getty ImagesRobin van Persie scored United's first goal, as the Dutchman continues to lead the way for his teammates.

When Manchester United lost the league title on goal difference last season, people criticized them for not being a "vintage" United team. This time around, from some quarters, the verbal barbs have been sharper -- to the point of saying this could be the worst United team under Ferguson in recent memory. Yet, after defeating Liverpool 2-1 at Old Trafford on Sunday, the Red Devils temporarily went 10 points clear atop the table (City brought the lead back down to seven after defeating Arsenal at the Emirates) and put 24 points between themselves and their archrival 37 miles away in a "rivalry" that has been well one-sided for years now.

What does that say about United? Or the league in general? Good pub discussion, at least.

Sunday's match didn't have the fire and brimstone of yore, or, for that matter, the fireworks of Jonjo Shelvey during this fixture at Anfield in September. Handshakes were quick and polite, with five yellow cards (one for United, four for Liverpool), though Glen Johnson probably deserved a second yellow for his tackle on Antonio Valencia in the second half. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all: there should be no Howard Webb conspiracy theories in favor of United coming out of this match. At least one would think.

Tale of two halves
In the first half, United dominated every facet of the game. Passing, maintaining possession, creating chances -- it was all Sir Alex Ferguson's side. It was so poor that if Brendan Rodgers' men were wearing Sunderland kits you would not have blinked twice, so abject were the Reds for the first 45.

It was, of course, Robin van Persie who gave United the lead after his one-touch finish in the 19th minute after Patrice Evra picked him out. It was the Dutchman's 20th goal for United, his 17th in league play.

With Jose Mourinho watching on in the crowd, cloaked in a hood like a Sith lord, United ran rampant. A sequence in the 45th minute epitomized the half: Rafael stole the ball off Raheem Sterling and passed to Michael Carrick. The in-form midfielder launched an exquisite diagonal to find a lung-busting Rafael on the inside shoulder of Glen Johnson in the box. Rafael couldn't quite control the ball to shoot on goal, so instead passed to RvP, whose backheel was blocked by Martin Skrtel. The danger was eventually cleared, leaving United with a dominant first-half display but, crucially for Liverpool, only one goal up.

You can imagine that was the motivational talk Rodgers gave his troops in the locker room -- "Alright, lads, you were utter @$#$#@ in the first half, but we're only a goal down, we can still make a run here" -- and, indeed, the Reds gave a much better accounting of themselves in the second half. Given that Luis Suarez had virtually no impact in the first half, Rodgers showed his tactical nous by bringing in new acquisition Daniel Sturridge and slotting Suarez just behind. It was a double-edged sword, to be sure: Suarez would get more touches yet the team's best player was farther away from goal.

After a Nemanja Vidic goal from a set piece -- which, on replay, appeared to be as much Evra's goal -- Sturridge scored in the 57th minute. Game on.

From there, United looked nervous, reflected by the relative quiet of the crowd. Whereas they were confident in possession in the first half, they gave the ball away cheaply in the second, including a miscommunication between Carrick and Tom Cleverley that led to Steven Gerrard's shot on goal. It was parried away by David de Gea ... right to Sturridge, whose finish was never in doubt. Could De Gea have done better? It seems the same question is asked after most United matches, doesn't it?

Liverpool fans will be asking themselves why their team didn't show more attacking endeavor in the first half, as the pressure clearly took Ferguson's men out of their game. They'll also be emboldened by the link-up play between Sturridge and Suarez, a partnership that may well bear more fruit in the coming weeks.

Tale of two midfielders
The match was also a microcosm of what’s been happening with Carrick and Joe Allen. Carrick has been quietly having his best season for United; Allen –- after a strong start –- is regressing.

The former Swansea midfielder is struggling in the limelight, his mistakes highlighted in the Liverpool kit. His low, perhaps, was when the Reds played Aston Villa earlier this season and his sloppy one-touch turnover unleashed the opposition for a goal. He struggled mightily against United on Sunday, too, giving the ball away and looking out of his depth. In the 28th minute, he tried to play Suarez into the left channel of the box, but instead carelessly put the ball out of play, killing one of Liverpool's few forays in the attacking third. And it was Daniel Agger who snuffed out the danger after a sloppy Allen pass allowed Danny Welbeck to go on the attack.

Rodgers took Lucas off instead of Allen in the second half -- perhaps because Lucas was on a yellow, or not fully fit -– but the former Swansea manager and former Swansea player need to figure something out in the middle of the park.

Carrick, by contrast, bossed the game. Kind of like a metronome who can lull you to sleep, Carrick -- as he's done so much this season –- kept the attack clicking over. Known as the man who came from Spurs to United to replace the iconic No. 16, Roy Keane, he doesn't exude the Irishman's passion or temper, but he's become just as indispensable to Ferguson.

Carrick did have one black mark on the match (the aforementioned cock-up with Cleverley). And, it should be noted, Liverpool gave him plenty of time and space to work, and in the few moments in the second half when the likes of Gerrard did get up in Carrick's grill, the midfielder was not so nearly self-assured and found himself giving the ball away.

Key stat
In the end, though, perhaps the most glaring stat was this: Suarez had one -- count 'em, one -- shot on goal the entire match. The player Ferguson picked out in his prematch news conference ("I just hope we don't suffer from some of the decisions that went Suarez's way on Sunday,” the manager said in his latest round of mind games) simply didn't have the impact Liverpool needed from him. Suarez caused much more trouble in the second half, getting into those tight spaces in the box and causing more than a few nervy moments.

But the match ended with the same narrative that started it: United will take the win and continue to amaze some people that they're atop the table, while Liverpool will be emboldened that the pieces are starting to come together in Rodgers' "project." As far as how people will view this season’s edition of Manchester United, well, it continues to be summarized by three simple letters that cost the team 24 million pounds: RvP.

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