Sir Alex Ferguson walks off after Manchester United lose 2-1 to Manchester City
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City at home. The last hurrah of an increasingly forgettable season (yes, I know that seems an odd thing to say). With the gap at 15 points before kick off, it was a chance to finish the title race once and for all as well as put the boot into the neighbours and win with some style and confidence. For City, a dream had to be kept alive and they too had pride and bragging rights to play for, particularly after how the game at their place ended. As ever, we welcome comments from both sets of fans.
Giggs in the middle
Having not played started a game for three and a half weeks, Giggs’ inclusion was an obvious one. How and where he’d be used was a bit more of a mystery but the most likely place seemed to be in the middle as part of a three man midfield and with license to drift left. Surprisingly, Fergie opted for four rather than five in the midfield with Giggs partnering Carrick in the centre.
Giggs’ resurgence since mid-winter has coincided with him playing a role that has either seen him play as a winger or drift wide with minimal central responsibilities. His form had been age-defying as his 39 year old legs took him up and down the left hand side of the pitch, beating men and even scoring a couple of goals. There has though been question marks about him as a central player and those doubts were proved correct again last night.
Somehow he played the entire game, left on the pitch when Cleverley’s energy could have been used or Kagawa’s delicacy; Anderson hadn’t even made the bench. Quite simply, Giggs was wasteful – he tried a few classic Gerrard ‘Hollywood passes’, was seldom on the same wavelength as his team-mates, and most memorably he started the move from which City scored their opener. Of all the places on the pitch to try a flicked no-look pass, he picked the wrong one – as he so often does – but this time it was fatal and he gifted City the ball in space and in an area that if he’d have looked, he’d have seen he had few team-mates in.
Had Giggs been a younger player and made that error, it’s one of those that Fergie wouldn’t forget and maybe he’d have made an early substitution, like he did with Rafael at Reading. The boss is excellent at protecting his youngsters particularly when they’re playing badly but with Giggs, despite having an absolute stinker, he stayed on.
Ferguson must take some of the stick for this as he’s the one who selected the team and tactics. There will be games where we can get away with playing Giggs there but in our toughest home league game of the season it was the wrong decision and one that was not addressed during the game.
In truth, expecting Giggs to be substituted was a little optimistic. When Fergie retires and people look back over his highs and lows, the one area that may not read as well as it should is substitutions. Sure, after such a long time in charge he’s got it right on some occasions, his memorable introductions from the bench will stand out and be remembered fondly whereas games like this one will be forgotten. For whatever reason, he’s increasingly reactive rather than proactive with his changes.
Oddly, everyone’s favourite example for this was the Real Madrid game, yet I maintain he actually got that one right. Last night was infuriating though. Rooney looked tired and unfit (he’s only just back in training); Welbeck had done well but once again the team had looked lopsided because there was only one natural winger on the pitch; Young had done his job in terms of shape and balance of the side but United needed a spark; Giggs had been awful. On the bench there were players who can change games – Nani’s trickery, Kagawa’s calmness, Hernandez’s instincts – and yet they remained there.
It took City to score a 79th minute goal for Fergie to decide to do anything. You can argue that United had been relatively comfortable in that City hadn’t really threatened de Gea’s goal but you can also argue that United themselves hadn’t been a threat. Just under ten minutes before Aguero (urgh, that man!) scored, Mancini had taken a gamble to try and win the game. He’d brought Aguero on for Nasri, adding a second striker even if Tevez dropped deeper. If it had backfired, at least City fans could be content that their manager had been positive and gone for all three points. It turned out to be the match winner and by the time Fergie made a change (Valencia of all people on) and another one five minutes later, it was simply too late for the players to have any influence. Even Kagawa only came on because Young picked up an injury.
Now, I don’t agree with everything in this article by Neil Ashton but he’s certainly on the right path: Just think how much United could’ve won if Fergie had Jose’s timing from the bench
Phil Jones fills in
He pulls some seriously odd and funny faces and that no doubt delights the masses of non-United supporters but Jones, who for some reason is seen as something of a circus act, was very good last night.
Credit where it’s due, his header that hit Kompany and went in was an extraordinary miss. It only adds to the character that’s been built up around him but it seemed so perfectly suited to him that he could miss from less than a yard out but still manage to head it against an opponent for an own goal.
On a slightly more serious note, many were probably expecting to see him line up centrally as part of a three man midfield. It’s a role that he’s done well in this season, particularly when tasked with nullifying a specific opposition player and maybe Silva was going to get that treatment. Instead, Fergie’s hand was forced and with Vidic, Evans and Smalling all injured, Jones was played at centre back with Ferdinand. It’s not an often seen combination but actually it had the ingredients to work. When he played at centre back last season, he looked too eager and flustered but this season on the occasions he’s played there he’s done well and in particular shown a real talent for attacking the ball aerially. Thus, if he were to play in a style similar to Vidic’s, his pairing with Ferdinand should be nicely complimentary.
It worked too. City, were generally kept at bay – Milner’s shot was lucky to have deflected off Jones and de Gea with his line-of-sight impeded couldn’t keep it out. Jones made various vital interceptions, tackles and blocks – he threw himself at the ball producing the kind of morphed faces only he can. It’s easy to see why long-term he’ll be a centre back and when other players return to fitness his versatility will no doubt see him used in other roles as often as one at the heart of the defence but it was a very encouraging performance.
Although the goal we scored (well, they scored) wasn’t credited to Jones, he clearly thought it was his when he went off and celebrated. Like at the derby earlier in the season, it was nice to see some raw emotion from him – he’s taken a lot of stick off City fans and clearly has had some pent up anger to release.
The goals have dried up and we’re limping
Two wins from our last six games; two defeats in a row; three goals in our last four games… it’s not how the season was meant to finish. After the heart-threatening comebacks and attacking football that dominated our first half of the season, the finale has been a big come down. So much so that football fans question us and ask if we’re good enough, they suggest our position is a false one. Swap the two halves of the season round and people would be salivating over us – football is a funny game.
It’s certainly a concern that the players seem exhausted physically and mentally – that there is little spark to anything we do on the pitch. It’s over six hours (366 minutes) since Rooney’s deflected shot against Reading and since then United players have failed to score (two own goals).
Van Persie, despite what Fergie says, needs a break as he’s now played nearly 55 hours of football this season. Rooney needs to try and stay injury-free and get some rhythm going in his game again – even he’s played 11 hours fewer than Robin. Welbeck’s played 37 hours but the majority have been out wide and Hernandez has played just 33 hours of football, less than two thirds of Robin’s time. Maybe now is a good opportunity to give the latter two a proper chance?
Behind the strikers Carrick needs help and Fergie, who doesn’t seem to know his best team or system, needs to find a place for Kagawa. We discussed the wingers and their own issues after the Chelsea game – like Rooney, none of them have really been able to get any kind of momentum going this season. It’s not all doom and gloom though, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just been a very disappointing last month. Some will no doubt use this period to pick holes at our team that don’t already exist and the shackle-free swashbuckling football of the first few months of the season will be long forgotten. It’s finding the balance that would be nice.
So it was City who took all the points thanks to a moment of brilliance and poor defending in equal measure from Aguero and United’s defence respectively. What was a 15 point gap has been reduced to 12 and United bottoms may well be twitching a bit now.
From City’s point of view they played a perfect away game – defended well (a doff of the cap once again to the highly impressive Nastasic) and were clinical when they had chances. Although I’m sure their fans would disagree, I’m not sure they were that much better than United on the night although that probably says a lot about how United failed to reach the standard expected in home games.
It had actually been quite an entertaining first half – end to end frantic football with few chances but an open game and two good sides cancelling each other out albeit neither playing to their potential. By the time Aguero scored with ten minutes to go it felt about right although on the balance of play and with expectations removed, maybe a draw would have been hard to argue against too. City can now look ahead to an FA Cup semi final at the weekend and a nice looking run-in whereas United now need to start to pick up wins again to quell any blue hope, starting with a tough looking away game at Stoke this weekend.