Manchester United entered Saturday's contest at Anfield atop the Premier League in both total points and goals scored, making United boss Sir Alex Ferguson's conservative lineup decisions all the more perplexing.
Wayne Rooney may have anger management issues, but Ferguson's declaration that Rooney wasn't mentally ready to face Liverpool after his foolish red card for England doesn?t add up. If Rooney was too mentally distracted to play from the start, how does 70 minutes viewing from the bench magically make him focused enough to play?
Regardless of his decision to bench Rooney, Ferguson's selection of Danny Welbeck to play as a lone striker in his first Merseyside derby proved to be a mistake. The quick Welbeck normally excels as part of a striking partnership, allowing him to float into the channels and use his pace to exploit open areas. As a lone striker on Saturday, Welbeck registered two shots, none on target, and generally failed to provide a menace to Liverpool's back four.
Part of the cause of Welbeck's struggles was the lack of quality service from midfield, and this was caused directly from Ferguson's lineup decisions. With Tom Cleverley still working back to full fitness, one would have expected Anderson, one of United's best passers, to earn a starting berth in a three man midfield that hides his defensive shortcomings. Instead, Ferguson elected to give Ryan Giggs his first start of the year, and the veteran playmaker's lack of match practice was apparent in an anonymous display highlighted only by his breaking of the wall to allow Steven Gerrard's goal.
Besides preferring Giggs to Anderson, Ferguson's decision to play Phil Jones in midfield, for the first time in his United career, was a remarkably negative choice for a side at the top of the table. Jones executed his defensive responsibilities with no fuss, but left United shorthanded when attempting to breakdown Liverpool's midfield.
The lack of creativity in the center of the park was compounded by Ferguson's decision to start Ji-Sung Park in the place of Nani. Park is a tremendously intelligent player and hard worker, having earned himself a reputation as a "big game" player over the course of his United career. Like Jones, Park executed the role asked of him by largely containing Liverpool left back Jose Enrique, who still managed to escape for a few runs. While Nani is positionally undisciplined, and something of a "me first" player, he is without question one of the most talented attackers on the planet. With converted central defender Chris Smalling playing right back, Nani's direct running and pinpoint crossing were sorely missed as United's right flank lacked any real offensive thrust.
Overall, Ferguson's decisions hinted at a desire to take a point from Anfield, which his side managed to do through substitute Javier Hernandez. Jones and Park did the jobs asked of them, with Welbeck's quiet performance from open play more an indicator of his side's conservative approach than his own shortcomings. Meanwhile, Ryan Giggs proved to be the worst of the inclusions, adding little in the passing game while contributing to Liverpool's lone goal. Ferguson's negativity, as indicated by his selection, was extremely surprising in light of his squad's form and contributed to a choppy match with little imagination.