Before a frantic final half hour, Saturday's North-West Derby between Liverpool and Manchester United plodded along with very few genuine scoring chances from either side, something largely due to a tactical shift from Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
So far this season, United has steamrolled opponents using an aggressive 4-4-2 formation, with Ferguson granting his players tremendous freedom to roam across the pitch as they please. Assist-master Nani and fellow winger Ashley Young have terrorized opposing full backs. Meanwhile, both Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck have been effective when paired with the very much in-form Wayne Rooney. Whether Ferguson was fearful over the fitness of several players coming off international duty or had last year's 3-1 thrashing in the back of his mind, he clearly prioritized defensive solidarity and midfield possession for Saturday's match.
When United visited Liverpool last season, the Reds tore through United's 4-4-2 by constantly pressing and closing down United's midfield pairing of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, taking United out of the center of the park. With that in mind, Ferguson's decision to switch to a 4-5-1, exchanging a striker for an extra man in the center of the park, seemed like a sound tactical adjustment to counter Liverpool's midfield energy.
With a midfield trio of Phil Jones, Darren Fletcher, and Ryan Giggs, Ferguson succeeded in clogging up the center of the pitch. Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish also favored a three man midfield with Steven Gerrard returning, at the expense of target man Andy Carroll, to join Charlie Adam and Lucas in the center. For the most part, the two midfields matched up perfectly and energetically closed down their corresponding counterpart whenever they received the ball.
The effect of having two three-man midfields mark each other out of the match was seen through the stilted play of the first 65 minutes. After Gerrard's free-kick goal, United brought on Rooney, Hernandez, and Nani, opening up the center of the pitch and allowing the game to breathe. Ferguson gambled by bringing Hernandez on for Jones and will be happy with the end result. Hernandez scored the equalizer, meanwhile Liverpool exploited the space in midfield caused by Jones's departure, but were unable to capitalize on their string of last minute scoring chances.