Manchester United's defence
Firstly this morning, I need to issue an apology to Manchester City fans. After the Arsenal defeat, I had ruled City out of contention for the league and lauded Manchester United in such a fashion it makes me feel sick even contemplating it. Last night’s win over Manchester United puts City ahead of United on goal difference, never has a league been this closely contested.
For Manchester City, anything but a win was not good enough. To rely on Manchester United dropping points in their final two matches would have been too much to ask. City started would their best attacking quartet of: Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Samir Nasri. Yaya Toure was playing behind those four alongside Gareth Barry as an additional holding midfielder, but no way in hell was Yaya Toure ever going to sit in midfield, his job was to bomb forward and support City’s attacking quartet.
As I’ve seen Manchester United do so often when playing opposition with an inclination to pass and move, they started with ball hoarders and energy rather than attacking threat. Naming Park Ji-Sung, Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in the same midfield, along with Nani, was a statement of containment as the teams were released before kick-off. Manchester United’s ambition went as far as keeping a deep defensive line and playing on the counter-attack.
As you can see from that pretty little picture, Manchester United were very happy to sit back and let Manchester City come at them. Just look at how deep Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling are compared to Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany.
I’ve seen Manchester United stifle Arsenal so often that you can predict pass for pass what is going to happen in a match and maybe this style of energy and determination is wearing thin? If you said the manager of Manchester United was Italian then you wouldn’t be surprised.
It was noted that in Sir Alex Ferguson’s early days as a manager at East Stirlingshire in Scotland, Ferguson liked to buy young players with plenty of energy, valuing physical traits and a strong mentality over technical abilities and skill. Don’t get me wrong, Ferguson knows a flair player when he sees one, but the basis for many of his teams over the years has been energy and a strong will to win.
Again, don’t get me wrong, I refuse to knock that as it’s won Manchester United so many titles I’m bright green with envy, but it does but certain limitations on a side. Manchester City can match United defensively and throughout the match it never looked as if United would score and it’s no surprise to me that United didn’t land a shot on target all match.
After a tepid ten minutes, Manchester City controlled the first half, probing and prodding Manchester United’s defence, searching for an opening goal which they so desperately needed. There came a point where Samir Nasri was in possession on the edge of United’s area, shifting the ball about, looking for an opening, only to see every avenue of possibility to him denied, so Nasri had to go sideways and Niall Quinn on commentary duty for Sky Sports noted that he’d counted nine Manchester United players behind the ball.
Such was the extent of United’s enthusiasm to defend, I expected to see Mike Phelan and Manchester United’s medical staff form their own ‘Atlantic Wall’ (see top picture) in order to repel the repetitive blue waves of Manchester City shirts.
Manchester City scoring was only a matter of time and their solitary goal of the evening came courtesy of Vincent Kompany’s prominent forehead. Kompany lost Chris Smalling in a melee of players and then over-powered the former Maidstone United defender to head past a helpless David De Gea. There was nothing De Gea could do once Kompany had met the ball with that forehead of his and City were a goal up.
Towards the end of the match, Sky commentators were to say that Chris Smalling’s moment of weakness was to potentially cost Manchester United the title to their deadly rivals and that it was essentially the fault of Smalling. Firstly, I must say what utter bollocks that is. Chris Smalling was never meant to figure in this match, it was only until Johnny Evans was ruled out midweek that Smalling was drafted in to the starting line-up. This meant that Chris Smalling, a player with 34 Manchester United appearances to his name, was to play in Manchester United’s biggest match of the season. Smalling was under-prepared for last night and in one moment, was over-powered and out-classed by a world-class defender enjoying his best match of the season, something that a young, inexperienced Chris Smalling can’t be held accountable for. Last night was not a reflection on Smalling’s true quality as he simply is not ready for these matches yet.
In the second half, Manchester United were to enjoy the more of the ball and it was City’s turn to play on the counter-attack. Whereas City looked equally as threatening when playing on the counter or playing possession football, Manchester United never looked comfortable with either and failed to break down a solid Manchester City defence.
Late on, Manchester City could have grabbed a second through Samir Nasri, but the French international couldn’t get the ball out of his feet when just a few yards from goal and his chance was eventually denied him as Rio Ferdinand dispossessed the Frenchman.
Nasri slammed the sodden turf with his hand, Roberto Mancini exploded and David Platt looked as if he could eat Nasri alive and it was no surprise when Nasri was withdrawn to be replaced by James Milner for the final few minutes.
Not only was it Nasri’s missed chance the City bench were angry with, but the fact it took Nasri an age to get to his feet again and thus a tired-looking Nasri was taken off as Mancini looked to solidify in midfield with renewed energy.
What did we learn from last night?
First and foremost, we’ve learned that Manchester United need to address the absence of a creative midfielder. Sir Alex Ferguson had ample opportunity to sign Samir Nasri in the summer, a player who was keen on joining United, but failed to do so. Nasri was one of City’s better players last night and whilst Nasri has had a quiet season, you do have to consider he’s playing a team where he’s no longer a leading light of creativity, rather just another light. Five goals and nine assists so far this season is good for what has been a ‘quiet season’ from Nasri and surely Sir Alex Ferguson must feel he missed out when he watched Nasri toy with the football last night?
Three Manchester City players also confirmed their place in the starting XI for England over the summer. Joe Hart is a world class goalkeeper, no doubt about it and whilst he had nothing to do all evening, his organisation and commandeering of his team was to expert proportions. Similarly, Joleon Lescott was as imperious as he has been all season and it’s now a question of who partners the former Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers defender for England this summer. Gareth Barry, though unassuming and ‘quiet’ last night was very influential on how City controlled the game. Barry is capable of joining attacks and defending them when needed and for me, is a Chameleon of a player in that he is adaptable to most situations. For me, Barry is another started for England at Euro 2012.
It’s agreed that England are under-going a transition period, correct? Fabio Capello layed the foundations for new talent joining the England squad and was doing a good job in blooding through Jack Wilshere etc into the England set-up. For me, Capello was one of England’s better managers. Even though his World Cup campaign with us was a complete and utter disaster, his vision for the future will serve us well and in the full knowledge we require change, I thank Capello for what he did.
Roy Hodgson is the perfect man to continue that transition. Tactically, Hodgson is miles ahead of Harry Redknapp. Redknapp is a man-motivator. In a recent interview, John Hartson described Redknapp’s philosophy as simple and the way in which Tottenham Hotspur have imploded toward the end of this season pays tribute to that.
Tactically, Hodgson will get the best out of England and I’m fully supportive of his employment by the FA. I think it’s a brave choice considering the overwhelming popularity held for Redknapp, but the right choice nonetheless.
Looking at Euro 2012 rationally, I don’t think we’ll win it, though I will convince myself otherwise for the tournament. I’m excited as to what Hodgson can bring to the England set-up for the future not necessarily for the ‘now’.
That’s me done for today, I’ll see you tomorrow!