Man Utd 1-6 Man City – The Fallout: 6 Talking Points….
So, what did we learn following Man City’s unprecedented 6-1 victory over United at Old Trafford? For me, the main things to be said about the Manchester Derby and what it means for this season are as follows:
1) Fergie picked the wrong team
What exactly Alex Ferguson was playing at picking Johnny Evans for the biggest Manchester derby in over 20 years, against a City team who are amongst the best in Europe, is beyond me. No-one has more admiration for Fergie than me – and I actually think if it wasn’t for a fortunate Gerrard free kick at Anfield last week his selection against Liverpool would have been a tactical masterstroke – but you simply can’t pick Johnny Evans to face Man City. Now I quite like Evans on the whole and think his critics are overly harsh, and I admire the faith Ferguson puts in all of his players to deliver when it matters (his selection against Arsenal in the FA Cup last year, anyone?) but that doesn’t justify leaving Phil Jones and Nemanja Vidic out of such a monumental game. It would have even been preferable to play Smalling as a centre back and play one of the twins or even Valencia at full back, but Evans, with his propensity for mistakes and lapses in concentration, against Aguero and Balotelli – not to mention David Silva – was a disaster waiting to happen.
Further up the pitch, Danny Welbeck may well be a great prospect and good enough to play against lesser opposition, but a side in which he is first choice striker in the biggest games is a side not good enough to win the Premier League. If two strikers was the plan, Hernandez had to play, simply because of the goal threat he carries. Welbeck was never going have the capabilities to break down such a compact and defence-orientated team as Man City. Finally, playing 4-4-2 was always going to sacrifice control of the midfield, or at least sacrifice the ability to successfully manage Silva, Balotelli and Aguero. Again, a midfield of Fletcher, Anderson, Young and Nani might be good enough to swamp most teams with pace, drive and attacking talent – but they were not good enough to dominate against the power Man City possess.
2) Mancini picked the right team
Mancini on the other hand, got his team absolutely right. A steady, experienced back four who are used to playing together; a strong, powerful midfield to control the game; and creativity upfront with a threatening triumvirate of Balotelli, Aguero and Silva, not to mention the excellent James Milner. Whilst the score may suggest otherwise, Mancini’s line-up was not overly attacking: it was pragmatic – an example of which was the decision to pick the workmanlike and diligent Milner – but had more than enough attacking threat to carry the game to Man United if possible. Whilst United had the better of the opening 20 minutes and played some excellent football, it was City who had the cutting edge.
United attacks came up against a well drilled, organised and experienced back 6; City attacks came up against a disorganised, error prone and cavalier back 4, and often a back 2 or 3 as United threw caution to the wind with 10 men. Even with a man advantage and goals there for the taking, City remained disciplined and difficult to break down, with Joe Hart not seriously called into action once, and only beaten by a fabulous strike from outside the box with the game already dead and buried. The choice to play Balotelli was also excellent: he may divide opinion and blow hot and cold but he does seem to have got his head right and is in a rich vein of form. Overall, whilst I do believe Man United were to blame for their own downfall to a large degree, even a Man United team firing on all cylinders with 11 men on the pitch would have found that Man City team today an extremely difficult proposition.
3) Tom Cleverly, anyone?
A month ago we were watching an exciting, cavalier, all out attack minded Manchester United score 3 goals against Man City and Chelsea, 5 against Bolton and an incredible 8 against Arsenal. Teams were being put to the sword week after week, and whilst a defence lacking Ferdinand and Vidic still looked alarmingly open at times, United’s fantastic attacking play over-rode any defensive frailty. Why not now? Obviously no team can score hatfuls of goals in every game (although their Noisy Neighbours aren’t doing a bad job of it) but United have looked lacklustre and bereft of ideas going forward of late. So what has changed?
Aside from the form of Wayne Rooney, the only thing United have lost since those heady early season days has been Tom Cleverly. On paper, not a particularly important loss, and I admit I did not think him particularly essential to United’s success this season. However he was excellent in every game, and was a vital cog in the slick passing, fast and direct attacking style United employed so successfully in the early games of the season. He is a player capable of putting his foot on the ball and picking out sensible, creative passes at speed, a player capable of orchestrating wonderful, flowing attacking moves – as seen for The Red Devils’ second goal in The Community Shield. Anderson and Fletcher, whilst both have their virtues, do not offer the same playmaking ability.
4) Carlos Tevez, anyone?
If anyone had said a year ago, or even in May, that Man City could be top of the league, scoring goals for fun, and not be playing Carlos Tevez, they would have been giving a one way ticket to the nearest Loony Bin. And yet here we are in October, and City fans would rightly say they have not missed him one iota, and even before the Bayern Munich debacle he wasn’t exactly the focal point – indeed, he was barely featuring if at all. And in that, perhaps, lies the crux of the matter. City no longer have one focal point – rather they have 3 or 4 creative players on the pitch at any one time, who play well together and at any moment can come up with a defence splitting pass or wonderful piece of skill. They are no longer looking to Tevez as their talisman, and they are looking so much the better for it. Without him last season they looked clueless and lost; without him this season they are tearing up the Premier League. I am not looking to discuss the Tevez saga, however on the pitch it does seem to be helping rather than hurting Man City to not always be looking to Tevez to make something happen. And bringing in Sergio Aguero along with having a rejuvenated Balotelli and Dzeko might have helped a bit, too.
5) What does this mean for United?
So, a 6-1 defeat, at home, against your biggest rivals – not only for bragging rights but for silverware too. Does this mean United’s title challenge is over? In a word, no. In a couple of words: anyone over the age of 5 who writes Manchester United off, at any stage, should know better. There is no team better at picking themselves up and scrapping their way back into form and contention than Fergie’s team. Witness their 4-1 mauling, at Old Trafford again, at the hands of perhaps their ultimate rivals (and title contenders that season) Liverpool in 2009. Who won the league that year? United did. And there have been countless other times where United have seemed down and out, and like as not they’ve come back with a vengeance. Nevertheless, one cannot simply write off a 6-1 defeat at home, and United have a lot of questions to answer. The first, and most obvious, is their defence.
Has a United team ever looked quite as porous as this one? Not a title-winning one at least, and as much of a fan as I and most of the country are of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, you have to ask – if these players are so good, why are United conceding so many chances, if not goals? Many things come into it: lack of consistency in personnel at the back, lack of experience, lack of a defensive shield, and perhaps a tendency for Jones and Evra especially to get caught up in the gung-ho spirit of this season and negate their defensive duties. Whatever, it needs sorting out, and fast, or United will be suffering more humiliating defeats, especially considering they still have to play all the big boys – except Liverpool – away from home. Second, what formation, and if Fergie is set on 4-4-2, what strike partner for Rooney? It seems Welbeck is preferred for most games at the moment, but as I said earlier, a title winning team does not have Danny Welbeck as a first choice striker.
Hernandez has to play, especially given his fantastic understanding with Rooney. Speaking of Rooney, he was extremely poor on Sunday, and was left out against Liverpool last week, so he does not seem to be himself of late. United have the players to make up for a misfiring Rooney, but a United team which needs to contend with Man City for the title needs all of its big players playing well. Finally, a midfield like the one United have been persisting with this season looks too lightweight for tough games, and unless Tom Cleverly is secretly a combination of Xavi and Michael Essien in disguise, bringing him back into the team won’t prevent them being overpowered by the likes of Man City, or even tough away games like Everton, who United have this weekend. Basically, don’t write Man United off, but they have a lot of questions to answer, and the way Man City are playing, not a lot of time to answer them before City, and the title, are out of sight.
6) What does this mean for City?
And now for the Blue half of Manchester. The finality and sheer nature of this victory could lead many to get just as carried away with Man City plaudits as with Man United criticisms. Again, this is crazy. Seasons are not down to one game, they are down to 38, and we are not even a quarter way through yet. Whilst the game on Sunday was a statement of intent, and then some, the fact remains that this was City’s first big test. Yes, they passed with flying colours, but they still have to play Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal home and away, and have not even been tested with tough away games at places like Stoke, Newcastle or Everton.
United have played all of the big boys now, albeit at home, and Man City will have tougher tests than today, starting with when United come to Eastlands later in the season. And judging by the way Bayern Munich put them to the sword they are far from the finished article yet. Even on Sunday, United were the better side for most of the 1st half and were unfortunate to go in behind. After Evans’ dismissal, obviously all bets were off, but I’m still not convinced by this Man City team’s ability to break down tough defences. David Silva is the player of the season so far, but he has been given a lot of space in a lot of games in which to work his magic.
This season in the Premier League has seen a refreshing emphasis on attack, but any team in the division watching City on Sunday will surely think twice now before playing any expansive football against them. I’ve said since the start of the season that City still don’t have the look of a team that I would trust with my life to win the important games, and one victory against a shambolic 10 man Manchester United does not make me alter that opinion. City are favourites for the title now, about that there is no doubt, but Chelsea were sweeping all before them in the early stages of last season, and this season there are a lot of teams who look very impressive. City will have to take on all of them at some stage, and that is why this title race is certainly far from a foregone conclusion.
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