The clash of the top two was the high scoring affair many feared it wouldn’t be, however if your colour is red then it was one gloomy afternoon. United lined up in a bold 4-4-2 without captain Vidic and were matching City on the pitch until Jonny Evans was sent off early in the second half. City went on to win and thrash United 6-1, not that the scoreline truly reflects the pattern of the game. Here we discuss the talking points from the match and invite both United and City fans to join in the discussion.
Beaten by a very good team:
First thing’s first. Before fingers are pointed and criticisms thrown out, we were beaten by a very good side today. Mancini got his set-up spot on with Barry and Toure protecting City’s defence and not allowing Fletcher or Anderson any space. Aguero and Balotelli worked hard up front running the channels but the key to City’s ability to play so well was Milner’s hard work on both sides freeing up Silva for a free role.
Chalkboard 1. Milner and Silva passing
David Silva really is a wonderful footballer. His touch, balance and vision are on a level with Iniesta and Xavi right now. He ran the show for City today providing a stunning assist for Dzeko’s second goal and generally playing the key passes in their best moves and other goals. His performance – aided by a United red card that allowed him space and time, was one of the best I’ve seen from an opposition player at Old Trafford, maybe since the infamous Ronaldo hat-trick.
Some excuses will be made and some are valid but nothing should be taken away from City and an excellent team performance. Even at half time they were on the way to a classic away showing – not having the balance of play but defending superbly and taking their one real chance. It’s a far cry from Mancini’s early negative set-ups in big games, aided by a huge transfer kitty he has built an excellent squad and the competition for places appears to be bringing out the best from the likes of Barry and Milner. For all his early doubters, the man has done a wonderful job there.
Now time for the United interrogation…
Fergie will probably regret playing just the two (Anderson and Fletcher) in centre midfield against a City side who pride themselves on controlling the middle third. Despite Rooney’s and Welbeck’s best efforts to assist in the centre, it is the first time in 3 seasons that Fergie has not elected to go with three specialised central midfielders against our Manchester rivals. Further, it was a genuine puzzle to see Anderson take a starting birth here at the expense of the much improved Michael Carrick, and United’s man of the match on Tuesday night in Romania. Carrick’s screening of the back four worked well in this fixture last season as he ensured that Silva et al had a relatively quiet game. Anderson’s workrate and possession game has been a worry for at least the past 5 games, and though it is foolhardy to question Sir Alex’s motives and vastly superior tactical appreciation of the game, you cant help but wonder whether the Brazilian’s early substitution was a sure-fire sign of the manager’s displeasure at both the performance and his selection today. At present, United’s midfield personnel are neither good enough nor in good enough form to play in a two against a three, let alone a good three. This has happened before, notably against Liverpool when Fergie’s admirable but mis-directed belief in his midfield has been found out. It seems criminal not to have started with Carrick in the ‘protector’ role, rather than trying to play with two up front.
Chalkboard 2. United tackles vs. City passing
Given that City played most of their passes in the central strip of the pitch (50%) it’s baffling that United were only making 42% of their tackles in that area. United should have been working extremely hard to ensure that City weren’t able to completely dominate in this area of the field. That’s not to say that against every team who play with three men in the middle, United should match them; simply that against a well-drilled City side with title aspirations (and a certain little Spaniard) it is better to keep it tight and ‘boring’ than take risks and gift Mancini’s men space from the start.
Fullbacks: Domination vs. Desolation
The modern-day fullback holds tantamount importance to its teams ambition, and this was always going to be a game where the importance of the fullback position came to the fore. There was speculation before the game about whether Mancini would select both Richards and Clichy given that the duo are considerably more attack-minded than Zabeleta and Kolarov, with question marks still hanging over their collective defensive discipline (despite Richards’ fantastic progression in the last 12 months); Mancini does seem to prefer the former pairing in the league but up against Young and Nani respectively it was a bold call from the manager, and boy did it reap rewards. Instead of the drive and ambition coming from the home side’s pairing in Evra and Smalling, it was the City pairing that executed a game-plan to perfection. Young had clearly targeted Richards in the first 20 minutes as a weak-link, and despite the fact that two fouls were conceded in quick succession, Richards stayed firm and neither Young nor Evra were able to capitalise. United’s attacks quickly became predictable, and this had a knock-on effect to Nani’s game. Unable to put a foot on the ball and attack Clichy, Nani became frustrated and was unable to focus on his game, and far too often hit the first man when delivering his crosses.In City’s first real attack down United’s right side, Nani was caught sleeping as Clichy ghosted past him, linked perfectly with Milner who delivered the ball on a plate for Balotelli to open the scoring with an astute side-foot finish.
Chalkboard 3. Silva and Clichy passing
Both Clichy and Richards worked tirelessly down the flanks, constantly probing and seeking to push their United counter-parts as far back as possible. The problem was, the United fullbacks were nowhere to be seen as both Evra and Smalling were caught far too high up the field at times, and often (sacrilegiously) at the same time leaving 4 v 2 on many an occasion on the counter. City couldnt believe their luck, with 4 of the goals coming from a simple overlap from wide, often leaving only a tap-in at the far post with United’s defence disjointed and in disarray. In Silva, Balotelli, Aguero and Milner, City’s fullbacks had the perfect out-ball every time in the final third (not assisted by United’s midfield incompetence it has to be said); whether that was Silva’s sublime volleyed through ball for Dzeko, Milner’s timely overlapping runs on the outside, Balotelli’s deft flick in the lead up to the 4th goal or Aguero’s fantastic first-time pass to Balotelli which led to the game-changing incident when Evans pulled on the Italian’s shirt. In complete contrast to United’s fullbacks, City’s were strong, disciplined, ambitious and authoritative – and in a game where width was always going to prove pivotal, it was their dazzling displays which enabled Mancini to inflict United’s first home defeat in 18 months, and Fergie’s worst ever as United boss.
Up until half-time it had been a pretty even game. United were in possession for long spells but struggling to carve out any good chances – sadly the best one fell to Jonny Evans’ standing leg. The problem with United’s approach play was that, though diligent and patient, it was met by a City-coloured wall every time, with United looking vulnerable on the break every time City went forward.
A few minutes after half time Evans was sent off, a very straightforward refereeing decision by Clattenburg who actually had a great game. Evans was foolish to pull Balotelli back but he had to do something, as allowing Mario to waltz through one on one would surely have meant a 2-0 deficit and certain defeat. Some will say he should never have been out-paced or out-muscled off the ball but the Ulster-man’s true crime was allowing the Italian the extra couple of metres in the first place as he pulled away from the young defender too easily – Balotelli was faster and stronger than Evans; there’s little doubt that Ferdinand and maybe Vidic would have been turned similarly. Still, it has already prompted Daniel Taylor in the Guardian to question Evans’ future at the club. Many will overlook that he’s probably been United’s best player in September and October and was a shoe-in for both todays game and last week’s at Anfield – he’d actually had a very good first half too.
It is important to note that even with 10 men, United remained competitive for long spells, only the last three minutes provided the scoreline with some gloss (as United committed numbers forward). Some thrashings reflect how a game went (8-2 vs. Arsenal) others aren’t quite so representative, and 3-1 would have been quite fair.
There’s a long list of players that individually didn’t play like fans come to expect. It’s almost easier to list those who looked like they gave a toss: De Gea, Rooney, Welbeck, and Fletcher. Was intriguing to see Rooney screaming at Ferdinand as City’s fifth goal went in.
Anderson was maybe the biggest culprit; too ambitious in possession and far too slow to get back, lucky not to be booked early on for a poor tackle on Silva and ultimately the game passed him by. It is possible to have some sympathy with him mind you, he didn’t choose to play in a two-man midfield against Silva, Barry and Toure.
Also disappointing in midfield was Nani. He played with a swagger, inviting City players on to him and it didn’t seem to work. He seemed determined to try and take two men on before crossing the ball and was reluctant to use the overlapping Smalling. He, like Anderson was rightfully taken off in the second half. He’s a quality footballer but thinks a lot of himself, sometimes too much and today was one of those days.
I don’t even know where to begin with the defence but my rational inclination is to look at it two ways. Firstly, they were solid in the first half with some particularly strong pieces of defending from Rio, Evans and Smalling. The second way is to consider that going down to ten men coupled with little protection from the midfield exposed all sorts of gaps that Ferdinand, Smalling, Evra and make-shift right back Fletcher couldn’t deal with.
That said it doesn’t excuse the sluggish marking, the inability to cope with runners and general switched-off play from experienced players like Ferdinand and Evra. United need some consistency at the back, regular selection of personnel. It doesn’t necessarily matter which back four is selected as each has the talent in their own right, but it is clear that United’s performances have stuttered since our rotation in key positions at the back. Vidic was clearly not fit to return for today’s encounter given the performance midweek, but the captain’s return to the side, and form, can’t come soon enough.
It was just the one game
After such a damning result it would be very easy to go overboard with criticism. Freak results occur and whilst a defeat or lesson has been on the cards it doesn’t change the fact that United have a good squad. When Chelsea first got bought and spent millions there was a new challenge as United looked to rebuild; now City are the challengers and United are starting a new cycle with young players and have plenty of talented kids (Morrison, Pogba, Tunnicliffe, Thorpe, W Keane, Cole etc) who are maybe 12-18 months short of being worthy of serious inclusion.
The key thing to remember is when it was 11 vs 11, the game was tight and close, City weren’t running away with it. However, ultimately it all comes back to the same question of why the midfield wasn’t addressed in the summer with more vigour. Fergie tried to sign Nasri and Sneijder yet came up short for one reason or another. The issue still remains – who to buy and when to buy given that in Tunnicliffe, Pogba and Morrison there are three talents getting closer every week to the first team.
United don’t become a bad team over night and this result shouldn’t change how fans should view the club or squad or players. Our next league fixtures are generally tasty and largely winnable – playing catch-up is something United do well and that has to start away to Everton next weekend. City have the bragging rights for now and deserved their win, but the season is in its infancy, and the manager, the team and its fans simply have to move on from today.
United concede 6 – first time since October 1996
Manchester United last conceded six goals in the autumn of 1996, when the English Champions went down 6-3 to Southampton, with Matthew Le Tissier chipping Peter Schmeichel in the process. United had been humiliated at St James Park a week earlier in the 5-0 defeat to Newcastle and were expected to bounce back at the Dell six days later. However, a strong United side – consisting of Cantona, Keane, Pallister and Beckham – were humbled on the south coast.
United would go on to lose to Chelsea 2-1 at home, with the forever bald Gianluca Vialli getting on the scoresheet – which would mark thirteen goals in three games conceded by United. The rut would eventually end when United beat Arsenal 1-0 at home through a Nigel Winterburn own goal. United would not lose another game in the league until the 2-1 defeat away at Sunderland in March 97 (following a European Cup tie). United ended the season as Champions, lifting their fourth title in five years.
This defeat hurt, of that there is no doubt. Fergie’s first words after the game were ’embarrassment’, and right he was as United were unable to cope with City’s movement for the majority of the game, and certainly after Evans had been sent from the field. Despite starting the game the stronger, the home-side failed to find consistency and tempo in their passing game and kept a deep-line at the back, and thus were unable to stamp any kind of authority on the game.
Mancini’s tactics worked a treat, ensuring 9 men were behind the ball for every United attack in the first 30 minutes, and attacking with gusto and precision when given the rare chance to go forward in the first half. Silva dominated in the final third, consistently pulling away from Fletcher and Anderson in the centre, working horizontally and dictating the tempo of the game. City’s fullbacks worked in harmony, and chose when to venture forward with intelligence. Balotelli proved why he was considered to be worth such a vast amount of money, showing strength and vision on the ball at every opportunity; and Milner gave us a glimpse of the player he was at Aston Villa, and the reason his services too were procured, working tirelessly up and down the flank, creating and destroying in equal measure.
Fergie will not take the defeat lying down, and if there is one saving grace it is the vast over-reaction from the global media, who seem to have essentially handed City the title in October. The game – and result – was always going to be the more important for Manchester City and it will be up to Sir Alex to ensure that the damage is 3 points and nothing more enduring in psychological terms. ‘Symbolic’ victories can only be decreed as such if the victory is indeed pivotal to success in the form of a league title come May. With seven months of the season to go, a first taste of defeat at home in 18 months is not a crisis by any stretch of the imagination. City have had the easier start of the 3 title-challengers, and there will be more trying days ahead for the Italian for sure. For United, it is essential that they use today’s ’embarrassment’ to respond in the best possible manner.