Sir Alex Ferguson is no stranger to an unconventional squad selection, and the decision to leave Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Nani on the bench for the start of the clash with arch rivals Liverpool at the weekend is one of the most contentious moves he has ever made. The starting line-up Manchester United fielded – featuring Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung in a defensive-minded midfield – was far from their strongest available eleven.
The selection brought much criticism and doubt over Ferguson’s tactics before the game, and after Steven Gerrard had put Liverpool ahead it seemed that the Glaswegian would be made to pay for his gamble by managerial nemesis Kenny Dalglish. In typical Ferguson fashion, though, the 69-year-old unleashed all three of his big-name substitutes in the second half and Hernandez nodded the equaliser from a Nani corner late on.
There was much debate after the match, and on several TV shows including Match of the Day, over the reasons for Ferguson’s selection. The speculation that he was being deliberately disrespectful, though, seems way wide of the mark. Over his 25 years at Old Trafford Liverpool are the one team Ferguson has never let out of his sights; there is no game the veteran manager is more fired up for than the trip to Anfield. If this were a trip to the struggling Arsenal, or even local upstarts Manchester City, there might be more credence to the disrespect argument – but not on this occasion.
Another theory circulating around the Twittersphere was that Ferguson was rotating his squad ahead of two crucial fixtures the Red Devils will play this week – they travel to unknown Romanian side Otelul Galati in a must-win Champions’ League tie on Tuesday, before hosting Manchester City on Sunday in another massive Premier League showdown. It is unlikely that United fans will see a full-strength line-up in Romania, so it seems improbable that Ferguson rested players against an opposition of Liverpool’s calibre ahead of such a game on Tuesday.
Based on the history Ferguson has with picking surprising line-ups for major games, perhaps we shouldn’t be raising any eyebrows at the team United fielded on Saturday. The tactician has a habit of selecting a team based specifically on what he wants to achieve in a certain game, and his clear intention at Anfield was to limit the attacking intentions of the home side. On this occasion, that element of the grand plan didn’t work – but overall United came away with a result that Ferguson will be happy with.
Whatever the reasons behind the team he sent out on Saturday, the historical pattern of Ferguson’s Old Trafford career is that he is rarely made to regret a selection decision. In order to give full analysis of the team he picked to face Liverpool on Saturday, perhaps it would serve certain critics well to watch United in action on Tuesday and Sunday to get a feel for the old master’s grand plan.