Man City 0-1 Man Utd: Paul Scholes – he scores goals

April 17, 2010

They say that football is great because it is so unpredictable, but there’s little in football more predictable than a stoppage time Manchester United winner in a title run-in. It wouldn’t be a Premiership season without one.

United were tactically superior, and they also went onto win the game. It’s tricky to link the two definitively because of the frantic nature of the final ten minutes, when the game was stretched and either side could have scored, but on the balance of play United were probably the better side and created more genuine chances throughout.

City continued as a rough 4-4-2 – Carlos Tevez playing off Emmanuel Adebayor, with Craig Bellamy on the left and Adam Johnson on the right, both looking to cut inside onto their stronger foot.

United’s line-up was also largely as expected, 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 rather than 4-4-2, with Wayne Rooney alone upfront, Antonio Valencia hugging the right touchline with Ryan Giggs drifting in from the left. Paul Scholes played deeper than his two central midfield colleagues, meaning it was a 4-1-4-1 when United didn’t have the ball, and something approaching a 4-1-2-3 when they did.

The opening to the game felt similar to the Tottenham v Arsenal game in midweek. A local derby, a 4th place challenger at home to a title challenger, the home side playing 4-4-2 and the away side playing 4-3-3, the away side having more possession but struggling to create chances.

There were basically two key features of this match. Firstly, Scholes being the free man in the centre of the pitch. Secondly, City’s ‘inverted’ wingers struggled to get balls into the box.

Let’s start with Paul Scholes. Although he made his name as an attacking midfielder, and although his tackling is sometimes atrocious, Sir Alex Ferguson has favoured playing Scholes in a deep-lying midfield position this season, where he has time on the ball and can create from deep. Scholes is one of the few players around at the moment who has both the ability to play excellent long-range passes, and the discipline and patience to knock the ball short when required, and as such he is perfect for this role.

The important thing to note is that Scholes plays this role in a 4-1-4-1, rather than in a 4-2-3-1. By fielding two central midfielders ahead of him (today, it was Darron Gibson and Darren Fletcher), those two effectively occupy the opposition’s central midfield pairing, and allow Scholes to be the free man. Had Fletcher played deeper, in a 4-2-3-1, then it would have allowed Gareth Barry to press higher up the pitch, and Scholes would have found himself closed down much quicker.

Roberto Mancini surprisingly didn’t instruct Carlos Tevez to mark Scholes when City didn’t have the ball. The value of doing this when playing 4-4-2 against United was shown back in January by Birmingham City, when Cameron Jerome and Christian Benitez took it in turns to occupy Scholes when United had the ball, denying him space and making it difficult for United to get the ball to him.

Playing Tevez there would have made it tougher for Scholes both offensively and defensively. Scholes clearly struggled for pace when up against Cesc Fabregas at the Emirates a couple of months ago in the deep position, and that forced Ferguson to switch his midfield around. But Tevez continued to float in front of the United defence, and Scholes dominated the game to the extent that Ferguson named him as his man of the match.

by Guardian Chalkboards

It would be tricky to attribute Scholes’ last-gasp winner to this (since City had changed to a system featuring three central midfielders, and tactics had pretty much gone out of the window by the 93rd minute) but the fact that Scholes headed home – unmarked – was a fitting end to the game when approaching it from a tactical point of view.

And you might be surprised to know that Scholes won 7 of his 9 tackles in the game, and didn’t give away a single free-kick.

City’s second problem was with their wingers. The concept of inverted wingers has been arguably the season’s defining feature tactically (see Jonathan Wilson about it here, and a WSC piece about it here) with sides including Fulham, Aston Villa, and Bayern Munich all enjoying various levels of success by playing wide midfielders on the ‘opposite’ side to which their strongest foot would generally dictate.

This game, however, showed how the tactic can fail, as City struggled to get any kind of crosses into the box. Craig Bellamy was the main culprit, constantly beating Gary Neville for pace before failing with his final ball.

by Guardian Chalkboards

The Chalkboard sums Bellamy’s failings up better than words can – and it was no surprise that he was jeered by some City fans in the second half.

One has to consider factors apart from the fact he was playing on the wrong side, however. Antonio Valencia did an excellent job in tracking back and getting in front of Gary Neville, meaning it was hard to cut back onto his right foot, as Valencia was in attendance. The fact United had a spare player in midfield also enabled them to get a man into that zone to assist Neville and make it difficult for Bellamy to come inside – and credit too should go to Neville himself, for showing the Welshman down the line. Finally, City struggled to get their full-backs forward on the overlap, as both were faced by United wingers high up the pitch.

But one of the main benefits of playing wingers on the opposite side is that they have the ability to switch, and yet Mancini never bothered to attempt this, which surely played into United’s hands.

It could also be said that City were guilty of looking to their widemen too often – Emmanuel Adebayor caused both Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans problems when he had his back to goal and held the ball up, and a better tactic might have been for City to hit Adebayor with long passes, and get Bellamy, Tevez and Johnson supporting him.

As such, a more clearly-defined 4-2-3-1 system surely would have been better for City. It would have (a) got Tevez in Scholes’ face and made life more difficult for him, (b) pushed Bellamy higher up the pitch, where he would be using his pace to get in behind Neville for through balls, rather than running at Neville and looking to cross, and (c) would have made Adebayor more of a focal point for attacks.

An overwhelming tactical victory for Ferguson, even if it was a very tight victory in terms of goals.

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