6 points on Manchester City 2-3 Manchester Utd
The stereotypical game of two halves…
1. Roberto Mancini went with a midfield triangle featuring Nigel de Jong at the base, with James Milner and Samir Nasri ahead. This is a change from the usual system City play, which features two deeper midfielders with a more creative player at the tip. A major reason for that was the unavailability of both Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry, and Mancini clearly feels de Jong is better as a sole holding player, rather than in a double pivot – a judgement difficult to argue with.
The effect of this move, however, was to make City much less compact. Milner and Nasri played high up the pitch and combined with the two wide players, but were often slow to retreat and left a large space between them and the defence, with only de Jong covering that zone. He didn’t have a good game in the first half, with Rooney outfoxing him to get space for his first goal – the Dutchman never seemed to know where Rooney was. De Jong was excellent for City last year but probably needs a bit more protection and help in his zone – Barry and Mark van Bommel assist him at club and international level, and he missed that support here.
2. United were outpassed in the opening minutes, but they still exerted some level of control on the game. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs are not physical defensive midfielders, but both defend intelligently by occupying the zone in front of the back four, shutting off passing angles and making interceptions. When they won the ball, they distributed it forward to the attackers quickly and neatly.
Giggs did this well – he picked up a loose ball in the centre of midfield and sent it to Rooney for the first goal, and made a well-judged interception before playing it to Nani for the incident which resulted in Vincent Kompany getting sent off – the two moves putting United firmly in charge.
Even though City dominated possession, United’s midfield two were in a more comfortable position than they were against Newcastle – when they saw more of the ball, but couldn’t compete physically.
3. Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling doesn’t appear to be a natural centre-back combination – the two are very similar, with Smalling generally seen as Ferdinand’s replacement. Both would probably prefer a more physical centre-back alongside them – Nemanja Vidic if he wasn’t fit, or Phil Jones when he has more experience and becomes more dominant in the air.
For this game, though, it worked reasonably well against the movement of Sergio Aguero upfront alone. With that centre-back partnership, United probably would have chosen to play against an intelligent player based around movement rather, than a more physical target man (although, of course, they wouldn’t have chosen someone as good as Aguero). Against a classic number nine, they might have struggled.
4. The only problem at the back was the positioning of Ferdinand. As against Newcastle in midweek, he dropped into ludicrously deep positions at times – most obviously in the 92nd minute when he fouled Micah Richards. In that instance, he was so far behind the rest of his teammates that he was off the television camera’s picture.
Ferdinand doesn’t seem to have any confidence in his pace, so drops deeper and deeper to save himself. Nemanja Vidic is often guilty of the same thing – it’s difficult to imagine that those two will be able to rekindle their once-brilliant partnership at the back. This isn’t a new revelation, but this game underlined the point that Ferdinand is no longer a dependable covering defender.
5. Mancini’s changes at half time were excellent, pushing City to a 3-4-1-1 system which featured a spare man at the back, an equal number of players, and enough attacking threat to cause United problems on the break.
The energy of the wing-backs made up for the numerical disadvantage, and the freedom of the outside centre-backs to come forward with the ball worked well too – particularly with Richards’ run forward for the free-kick which resulted in the first goal. (I’ve written more about City’s tactics at half time over at the Guardian.)
6. United were quite purposeful with their passing at the start of the second half, as if they wanted more goals to complete a thrashing, rather than to preserve the lead by keeping the ball and wasting time. With City shifting to a five-man defence, it would have been easy for United to cool the tempo, but they were too forward-thinking and gave City a chance to win the ball and then break.
This was probably why Paul Scholes was used so early on (despite his understandable lack of match fitness), and although he gave the ball away for the second goal, he did a decent job in calming United.