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United travelled the short distance to Man City today in an eagerly anticipated FA Cup 3rd Round game. Having lost two games in a row and conceded six goals in the process; fans, staff and players were hoping for an improvement and change of fortunes. City were defending the trophy they won last year.
We invite both City and United fans to discuss the game below.
Team selections and formations
Both teams were missing key players, City with the absentees of Balotelli, Barry and Toure, with Mancini electing to rest Hart and Clichy; United were still missing Vidic, Cleverley, Young, Evans and Fletcher – all due to injury or illness.
United set up in somewhat of a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Rooney starting in a deeper position than his normal ‘number 10’ role, with Welbeck selected in a lone striker role. Carrick dropped slightly deeper than we have been used to of late, with Rooney and Giggs just ahead, Nani left and Valencia right. At the back Smalling replaced Jones at centre half with the latter pushed over to right back.
City were set up in something of a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Nasri playing a floating role off Aguero, Johnson and Silva wide right and left respectively, De Jong and Milner in central midfield. At the back, Kolarov came in for Clichy, whilst the remaining three players remained unchanged.
Who won the tactical battle?
This is a tough one to answer, because although United ran out 3-2 winners, and could quite easily have gone on to score six or seven (Welbeck missed a glorious chance at 3-0), Mancini responded to the sending off astutely and allowed City to gain a foothold in the game. In the immediate aftermath of the red card, Richards played at centre half with Lescott and Milner was asked to slot in at right back, with Nasri coming deeper into the midfield. But it was at half time that he replaced Johnson and Silva with Savic and Zabaleta; and although it did look suspiciously like Mancini had resigned to defeat and wanting to save his star player (Silva was lively always seeking to release Aguero in the first half, Nasri was certainly more innocuous), his switch to 3-4-2 — with Savic, Lescott and Richards at the back, with Zabaleta and Kolarov flanking a middle three of Milner, De Jong and Nasri — worked a treat and City somehow found themselves back in the game.
Whereas United sought to soak up pressure in the first half and hit City on the break with some fantastic interplay in the middle third, often with the ball zipped out wide with pace (Evra and Jones were ambitious in attack), City responded in kind with a similar approach in the second. Zabaleta and Kolarov pushed high on Nani and Valencia, trying to force the error and then getting up in support of Aguero, with Nasri in behind. But overall it was clear that – in the most important area of the field, the centre (and an area where United are typically weaker than their Manchester counter-parts) – United out-fought and out-thought their opponent, with Fergie quick to capitalise on the loss of the excellent paring of Toure and Barry. With Rooney and Giggs close together, Carrick dropped very deep at times (astutely cutting up the play as ever), which subsequently allowed Jones and Evra to push very high and support the counter-attacks. The first two goals came from top quality wide-play from Valencia and Evra respectively, and Giggs was instrumental in the first and third goals from the centre.
Rooney and Giggs link up play superb
Fergie kept faith with the pair despite a poor showing in Newcastle midweek, but his gamble paid off. With the advantage he had from starting from a deeper position than usual, Rooney was able to benefit from being closer to Giggs (who started ahead of Anderson and Park) and Carrick, and the resulting link-up play, especially in the final third was the key to this result. Albeit helped by the loss of City’s regular holding two central midfielders in Toure and Barry (both have been superb this term), Rooney was able to constantly exploit the space between the lines, sitting on De Jong when without the ball, and moving away from him when in possession. (In fact, De Jong’s vertical movement and lack of overall midfield finesse is probably the reason he has struggled this season, especially in a midfield two, and Barry simply offers more variety in there.)
The first goal was a classic United goal, with Giggs picking up the ball deep and finding Rooney unmarked, the ball was slipped out wide to the oncoming Valencia who returned the ball with great precision (and yet another assist for the flying Ecuadorian) as Rooney was able to finish with his head in off the bar – a goal similar in style to the Scholes winner here two seasons ago. Giggs was also heavily involved in the third; finding Rooney again after a poor clearance from Pantimillon, then having received the ball again on the edge of the area, played a cute through ball into Welbeck’s stride which inevitably drew the penalty. Rooney missed, but then headed home the rebound for 3-0, and essentially game over.
It was a timely return for Smalling who has been suffering from tonsillitis recently, and with United’s struggles at centre half in recent outings his performance alongside Ferdinand was commanding, and important to the outcome of the game. Smalling had to contend with some fantastic movement from Aguero who played somewhat of a false nine role, but the youngster dealt with him in much the same way as he did Tevez last season at Old Trafford, marshalling him away from goal; putting his foot in early; showing him out wide and generally winning anything that came his way in the air. The last minute of the game typified his performance, as he was first to react to another Lindegaard spill, twenty seconds later, rising high again to head the ball clear as Kolarov launched one final effort into the box. With Jones having played relatively poor in such a pivotal position of late (we have one won in the last six he has started at centre half), Smalling’s return will bolster the back line, and the former Blackburn man will seek to continue his education at right back (as well as perhaps enjoy an occasional outing in central midfield).
Red Card and Penalty Claims
Kompany’s red card, on the face of it, with some confusing commentary and analysis from ITV today, was a little harsh. However, by the laws of the game, Foy has to send the Belgian off for the challenge on Nani. He may well have led with one foot, but his trailing foot performs a scissor movement, and on the follow-through it is clear that both feet leave the ground, with studs showing. Harsh yes, given that Nani had pulled away and the directive has only been introduced in recent years, but other than that Mancini can have no real complaints when he sees it again. As we have seen recently with the Spearing tackle at Fulham for example, it is not about whether the ball was won or not, but the ‘endangering an opponent’ by conducting a tackle in this way. Referee’s must air on safety, and the law, every time.
In the second half there were two penalty claims. Firstly we had Kolarov’s challenge on Valencia just inside the penalty area, then we had a City claim for a Jones handball. Replays show that Valencia was beyond the defender before being brought down, and City were lucky to avoid conceding a second penalty with the score at 1-3. At the other end, Jones’ ‘natural’ position of his hand saved him from a potential spot-kick decision.
There is no hiding away from the fact that Scholes’ return to the set up is somewhat worrying given our recent failed attempts to strengthen this area of the field in the transfer market (Nasri and Sneijder notably). It is clear that Scholes isn’t the answer to our midfield conundrum, but at the same time we must look at the move in the fuller context. Fergie has confirmed that it was Scholes who approached the club about a potential return, not the other way round, and has apparently been training daily since his emotional bow-out at Old Trafford in the summer. Fergie will know too well that – as per last season – Scholes’ use will have to be sporadic, and used in games such as today to ‘see the match out’. He has come back in with a passion that has seemingly not left him, at a time when Cleverley and Anderson have been out for lengthy bouts, and forays into the transfer market have failed to prosper – yet. United continue to search for the elusive answer in such a vital compartment on the field (no you can’t just name a decent mid-table midfielder and claim that he would ‘fit the bill’), and there are positive signs that the club are working hard behind the scenes. Some may say the move smacks of desperation, but it could also be a sign of the very opposite: not being forced into a signing that doesn’t make sense for either the club or player. The hope then is that big investment is on the way; surely, with or without Scholes, it can only be a matter of time.
United needed to give a high calibre performance today, and for the most part they did. As ever in these fixtures, the first goal is of vital importance, and United took advantage of some slack midfield play by City, allowing Valencia and Rooney to combine so well. Mancini did miss the ever-emerging influence of Balotelli, but he especially missed the midfield duo of Barry and Toure – not only for their individual talents but also their combination play, which has been so crucial to their success thus far. Rooney and Giggs in particular were able to capitalise, and the performances of Welbeck, Evra, Valencia and Smalling were also encouraging given the recent ‘crisis’.
Fergie wasn’t happy with the cautious approach of his side in the second half, but you also couldn’t blame them given the 6-1 defeat and the fact that our relentless ambition then allowed City to open us up at the back so easily. De Gea will be wanting a swift return to the side after another edgy performance from the Dane and Nani is yet to re-find his mojo (the failed flick which ultimately led to the second City goal must have angered Ferguson). But United will look to respond now in the league having taken this psychological scalp, and Fergie will surely want to win the F.A. Cup this season given his love for competition and for the fact it has been a while. Next up, Liverpool away at Anfield.