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Manchester United: Dropping Your Best Players Isn't All Bad

In today's Sardines From The Trawler, we explain why Alex Ferguson is smarter than you are

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On December 16, 2007, Manchester United defeated Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield. Carlos Tevez scored the game's only goal as United managed just three shots on target. Liverpool had 61 percent of the possession as United sat on their lead in the second half. Cristiano Ronaldo and Owen Hargreaves played 90 minutes. Until Saturday, this was the last time that Manchester United did anything but lose at Anfield.

By now, you probably know how Saturday's game turned out. United managed a 1-1 draw despite creating considerably less chances than their opposition. They sat in a defensive shell for much of the game and didn't create too much going forward until Wayne Rooney, Nani and Javier Hernandez entered as substitutes.

When Ferguson's lineup came out, football fans were in disbelief. Many pointed out - correctly - that anyone but Ferguson would be absolutely roasted for the lineup he fielded. Here is that lineup, for reference.

4-3-3: David De Gea; Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Johnny Evans, Chris Smalling; Phil Jones, Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs; Park Ji-Sung, Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young

The aforementioned three stars, Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick, Anderson and Andres Lindegaard made up the bench. There are legitimate arguments to be made for the inclusion of those latter three outfield players ahead of who started as well, not just for the three who eventually came into the game. And this lineup, incredibly, would be fielded at Anfield against Liverpool.

From the start, it was obvious that the Northwest Derby wasn't going to be the most open of games. United set out to keep a clean sheet from the beginning. However, having Wayne Rooney in the side and attempting to keep a clean sheet above all other goals are not mutually exclusive choices.

Rooney's fitness and work rate are fantastic, and he was known earlier in his career as a player who came deep into the midfield to try and win the ball. Additionally, Rooney's presence in the lineup would keep Liverpool honest and stop them from pushing everyone in their midfield forward. He's United's best player, but he also fit into what Ferguson wanted to do on the afternoon. Not only was Sir Alex being negative, he was also being arrogant.

It took until the 68th minute for Liverpool to find a goal, and they didn't get it from open play. Steven Gerrard finished with a very good free kick, but the series of events that led to that opportunity had nothing to do with either Gerrard's quality of Ferguson's tactics.

First, Charlie Adam dived to win the free kick. Whether or not Rio Ferdinand actually committed a foul or whether or not Adam is wrong for diving is a completely different discussion for another time; this is simply a statement of a fact. Adam heavily embellished the contact that was made with him in order to win a free kick. Whatever contact Ferdinand made with him did not cause him to fall in the manner which he fell. 

On the free kick itself, Ryan Giggs - a veteran of 949 competitive professional matches - stepped away from Manchester United's wall, providing an easy lane for Gerrard's free kick to go through the wall and into the back of the net at De Gea's near post. To this point, this was be far and away the best opportunity that Liverpool created. 

Read that again. The best opportunity that Liverpool was able to create in 68 minutes of play, at home, with players like Gerrard and Luis Suarez in the team, was a direct free kick from between 20 and 25 yards out, won by a dive.

Forget the fact that Liverpool created better opportunities late in the game, after United had made changes. Forget that Manchester United needed to bring in their big guns to get an equalizer. That above statement is a serious piece of evidence in support of Ferguson's decision to both keep his stars on the bench and play a defensive style. If that game were to be played five times over, Liverpool would only score in one or two of the five games. Ferguson got his tactics right, and he was extremely close to a shutout.

Liverpool probably should have been shut out against a Manchester United team that started a midfield with Jones and Giggs in it while resting Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney. This is as clear of an indicator as any that Liverpool simply isn't very good. Their best team is similar to the Manchester United B+ team. Ferguson knew this going into the match, and he proved it.

Simply put, he has bigger fish to fry than Liverpool. United has just two points from two matches in UEFA Champions League and is in need of a win over Otelul Galati in Romania this week. The following Sunday, they host Manchester City in the Manchester Derby. These two games, coming in quick succession after an international break and a Northwest Derby, are much more important to Manchester United and their ambitions for this season than a match against Liverpool.

Otelul probably won't see United's first team either. It wouldn't be stunning to see one or two of Rooney, Nani and Hernandez start the game on the bench again. The Romanian champions don't have the quality of Benfica or Basel, and it would be surprising if they were able to score from the run of play, even at home against another United B+ team. If they do, Ferguson will probably have a plan to counter them.

Rio Ferdinand won't be making the trip to Romania, even though he's not injured. Dimitar Berbatov is expected to travel with the team, meaning one of Hernandez or Danny Welbeck could stay at home with him. Rafael da Silva and Tom Cleverley are back to training, but are also being left at home. Otelul will probably get a slightly stronger team and a much more ambitious style thrown at them, but it still won't be United's best.

That is, of course, because United's best is being saved for the Manchester Derby on Sunday. If City's results in the Premier League and last year's Manchester Derbies are any indication, it will be the most important match of the season for United until the Champions League knockout stages. It might be the most important league match until April's return fixture at Eastlands. While the Northwest Derby was once the biggest in England, it has that status no longer. City have become relevant - much more relevant than Liverpool - and the Manchester Derby is quickly becoming the biggest proper derby (in footballing significance, not cultural significance) contested between two cross-city rivals in the entire world.

Alex Ferguson knows what he's doing. The Champions League and the Manchester Derby are more relevant than Liverpool, and his makeshift defensive team's performance proved that on Saturday.