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United travelled across Manchester to face rivals, Man City in a potentially title-deciding game. A draw or win would be enough for United but a solitary goal from City captain, Vincent Kompany ensured that it would be a blue Monday. Quite incredibly, it was the first game in three years that United failed to have a shot on target whilst City only managed three in what wasn’t quite the all-action game that many had hoped for.
Here we discuss the talking points of the game and invite Man City fans to join in the discussion below.
There’s little question that lining up in a 4-5-1 was the correct decision. Matching city was important, playing two men in the middle would have seen us overrun, especially given who was available. It would be both naive to think we could go and attack – other sides who’ve played well against City have played in a 4-5-1 or a variation of it; the reality is, their personnel are too strong to try and play anything else against.
Of course, lining up cautiously in big games is nothing new for United recently. Most of our rivals play a variation of a one striker system which begs two questions: 1. Why have United not conformed to current trends in having a 4-5-1 type formation as our primary set-up? 2. Why does Fergie not have faith in our 4-4-2 nor been able to sign the right players to make it work in the big games?
The dilemma, and it’s something of a null point, is that if United lose, Fergie and the formation can’t win. Set up cautiously from the start and the criticism is United are too negative; go too attacking and United have badly misjudged their opposition. That said, I’d prefer the latter – attacking football is, after all, the United way.
Having settled on the 4-5-1 system, it needed to be populated with a team that could get a result, a draw being the minimum. Somewhat predictable, Fergie plumped for a combination of experience and tactical discipline. Evans missed out through injury and both Jones and Smalling were selected ahead of Rafael to add a physical presence at the back. The midfield missed Young and Valencia whilst Park was selected to man-mark Yaya Toure with Giggs drifting in from the left. Nani, was used as an out-ball and he’d tirelessly carry the ball into spaces to find minimal support.
It’s easy to be critical of the selection but United were 90 seconds from pulling it off. Kompany’s goal on the stroke of half time forced Fergie into having to change it but for much of that first half, United had been good for a draw – containing pressure. The problem came when in possession – United were just not good enough. Giggs, for all his experience had a passing accuracy of just 74%; Park’s was higher but what he has in accuracy he lacks in creativity; Rooney’s was lower than Giggs’ – a reflection of his isolation and thereby inability to bring others into play well enough. Of the players who started the game on either side, Scholes and Carrick had the best passing accuracy rates but that’s all well as long as there options ahead.
Upon reflection, Fergie was probably too cautious in selecting both Park and Giggs. Valencia or Welbeck should have been starting in place of one of them with potentially Rooney dropping deeper. One can forget all too quickly that Rooney is often one of our most creative players and therefore dropping him deeper and getting him on the ball more is in the interests of the side.
If forced to single out some of the better individual performers, Carrick and Ferdinand would probably be the two. Carrick as ever was reliable, forward thinking and won more tackles than any other player on the pitch – he was United’s best player on a dull night. The overriding issue though is why Fergie moved away from a consistent selection and picked players who’ve not played in so long – Park for example had his last PL start three months ago!
City all too comfy
Defeats, and defeats against City can be accepted as long as United put up a fight. Last night, United lost without fighting, there was so little of the battling spirit that United have shown in the past. Fergie was maybe the only one getting into it as he got irate and into a bust-up with Mancini on the touchline but on the pitch it was all a bit soft.
Failing to have a single shot on target is completely unacceptable – it was way too easy for Man City to be able to sit back and defend having scored. In truth, they hardly tested United either but even so, on the break, the attacked with pace, with numbers and in a direct manner. It’s difficult to pinpoint why there’s been such a lack of fight in the side lately – whether it’s complacency, morale, or just the mentality around the club at the moment, it’s not the United of old.
Mind games and form
It is truly pathetic to look at United’s form in the last four games… just four points won. In a title run-in, that’s a bottle-job. The Wigan result was fair enough – they’re fighting relegation and we were poor; it’s the Everton result that’ll stick out though. Conceding twice late on, throwing away a lead at home is unthinkable. The poor form though coincides with something else too – mind games.
It’s debatable how much mind games really matter, they make the headlines and whether players take note of them or not is somewhat unknown. However, since Mancini’s been claiming that United will win the league his team have been playing a care-free brand of football, as if the pressure was off them – four wins in a row, thirteen goals scored with one goal conceded. By comparison, over the same period, United have just one win, have scored eight, failed to score twice, conceded six with just one clean sheet. Coincidence or not, it would seem that on one hand, the pressure has got to United whilst on the other, it’s taken it off City. Maybe Mr Mancini isn’t quite as foolish as we once thought – that said, even after last night he claims United will win the league bizarrely.
With just two games left to play, one has to wonder if the title is over. Admittedly, United’s points total given the injuries is impressive but having been behind and then not only clawed it back but gone ahead of City on both points and goal difference, it’s sickening to see the hard work thrown away. United’s attitude this season can be summed up by the side’s happiness to accept a win rather than push for more goals – QPR at home for example – goal difference is now seemingly going to be important.
As for what’s to come, United host Swansea and travel to Sunderland – two sides with nothing to play for so it’s feasible to presume maximum points will be taken. City meanwhile travel to Newcastle who are chasing a Champions League spot and host QPR who are battling against relegation. Whilst it would be great to think that one of Newcastle or QPR could take points off City, that seems unlikely – they have momentum now and seem on course to win a first Premier League title. More to the point, relying on another team to slip up in order to win a title seems flawed.
City regained the lead at the top of the table, albeit on goal difference as a Kompany header on half time was enough for a 1-0 win. Somewhat strangely, it came from a corner – a set piece. Whether the system or the personnel were wrong becomes irrelevant really when a goal is conceded in such a manner.
United’s failure to test Joe Hart will be what most United fans remember – a lack of fight and seemingly, spirit, summed up the past few months and to some extent the past few years even. The United way is to attack and go down trying but Fergie did probably set up in the right way yesterday just with the wrong personnel. He was too conservative in that respect and the players who were selected were only good enough to contain – when United needed a goal City were able to sit back and defend with ease.
All isn’t quite lost yet, with two games to go there could yet be another twist although that seems unlikely. A first trophyless season in eight years is likely to be around the corner – hopefully it’ll be followed by a summer of rebuilding and a couple of signings. City meanwhile have a good team and will no doubt strengthen and further set the pace for other sides to match. The manner of defeat yesterday and recent performances will linger long in the minds of United fans as they wonder what could have been.