Hungry Owen exposes United's lost appetite

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The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson appeared to be suppressing a sigh, or maybe it was a cry of anguish.

He said that the meaning of yesterday's 3-1 defeat against Liverpool at Anfield ran deeper than any catalogue of defensive mistakes, which Michael Owen exploited as effortlessly as some affluent browsing shopper at a knockdown sale.

The deficiency might just be as profound as a loss of appetite for the glory which has been so relentlessly accumulated at Old Trafford for more than a decade. It was a problem, he said, which just had to be addressed.

In fact, he had made the first step in that direction 14 minutes from the end of this hugely impressive statement by Liverpool that they have indeed become serious players in a Premiership which is increasingly resembling a genuine competition. He pulled off David Beckham, who was this day a symbol of lost passion and ambition if there ever was one.

Beckham, the hero of England who was so highly acclaimed for taking the vital World Cup qualifier with Greece by the 'scruff of the neck', was ironically enough United's scorer – and at the utterly pivotal moment in the second minute of the second half.

The irony could not have been more thickly applied as John Arne Riise, whose volcanic 28-yard, 65mph free-kick had given Liverpool a 2-0 lead before the interval, fired a clearance against Beckham's body, then watched him scrape a left-footed shot past Jerzy Dudek. Beckham never had produced such an insipid body of work in a match of such importance, and it is hard not to believe that the dichotomy between Beckham's massively explicit commitment for England and some of his recent displays for United formed not the least of Ferguson's angst.

But if the United manager was plainly right to be concerned by his team's pallid efforts to counter the vibrant work ethic of Liverpool, he will also know that the reconstruction of United's season will require rather more than a new call to arms. United were indeed short of the kind of raging involvement in midfield which made the England claims of Danny Murphy, damned in the past, as no more than the most willing of workhorses, suddenly seem a lot more than mere over-reaching ambition, but the killing weakness of the champions was to be found not in the heart but the brain. United, frankly, defended like headless men. Owen, naturally, closed down the game with a magnificently adroit finish in the first half and a spring-heeled leap above Mickaël Silvestre in the second.

It was a clinically administered reminder that without proper defence any football team, however gifted collectively, is doomed. Without the mistakes which let in Liverpool in the first half, United's reversion to a 4-4-2 formation might just have eased the gathering sense of a team losing its way. But Owen, who, astoundingly, was scoring his 24th and 25th goals in his last 24 appearances for Liverpool and England, was able to make such speculation worthless.

What we were left with was fresh evidence that the wounded but yesterday elated Gérard Houllier has indeed created the foundation for sustained success. His pre-match message to his currently inspired assistant Phil Thompson could scarcely have been more prophetic. He told Thompson to remind the players that possession was not everything, and that against a team like United they might find themselves playing without the ball. But what mattered was what you did when you gained possession, how certain you were about the priorities of your game. What Liverpool did was nudge functionalism in the direction of a football art form. Owen, of course, has been at this work for quite some time but yesterday he was superbly abetted by the industry of Murphy and Dietmar Hamann, particularly, and Emile Heskey's almost completely unchallenged mastery in the air.

For United, the pain only intensified after Owen, having wiped away the impact of Beckham's goal, left the field tired but triumphant again after his recent hamstring injury, in the 68th minute.

Juan Sebastian Veron never stopped attempting to thread passes through the thickets of red Liverpool shirts but long before the end he must have felt like somebody in desperate need of a chocolate fix feeding an empty vending machine.

Meanwhile, Liverpool's touch, their understanding of what they were about, had never looked more assured.

Said Thompson: "I've called the fella at home and he is extremely pleased.'' As well, he might have been. Gérard Houllier has paid a heavy price for his passionate commitment to rebuilding Liverpool, but no one could say that he had wasted a moment of his time. He has built a real team, full of hunger and bite.

Ferguson was quick enough to remark on that element of hunger, and he had every reason to seize on this important difference between the teams. Liverpool seemed to have so much before them, and their appetite to achieve it at times glowed on the cold, grey afternoon.

As Ferguson said, United looked a long way from such a frame of mind. But then, psychology apart, there is other work to do at Old Trafford. The most important of it concerns a return to the oldest truth in football. It is that success must always begin with secure defence. It is the basis of everything, and if yesterday United were short of passion they were also denuded of the very basics of a winning team.

Old Trafford is going to be a reflective place in the next few days. This was more than a wake-up call. This was a statement that they are on the wrong road.

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