The first league meeting of the Manchester clubs this season produced another game full of incidents which concluded with Manchester Utd departing with all three points. A scenario which would have seemed highly unlikely in the opening and closing 10minutes of the match.
Whilst there was a degree of certainty over the system Mancini would use, there was an element of debate over the starting line up. In total, the Italian made five changes from the side which drew at home to Everton with the most surprising being the inclusion of Mario Balotelli at the expenses of Carlos Tevez.
Dzeko, Tevez, Kolarov, Maicon and Lescott all dropped out of the team to be replaced by Zabaleta, Nastasic, Aguero, Clichy and Balotelli.
It was the customary 4-2-3-1 from Manchester City, a formation which has served them well in the past but now appears to be encountering some difficulties.
The discussion from the red half of the city focused on what system Man Utd would use in light of their meek capitulation against their rivals during their last league visit to the Etihad. Would Manchester Utd again go with a more defensive formation or would they use the diamond in midfield that Ferguson has used on occasion this season?
In the end it was a straightforward 4-4-2 with both Van Persie and Rooney deployed high up the pitch.
There were just three changes from the side which defeated Reading away. Lindegaard, Fletcher and Anderson were replaced by De Gea, Cleverly and Valencia.
The Key Battle – Narrow vs Wide and Manchester City’s Problem
This was a game where the key battle was about shape. Man City were narrow and overloaded the central midfield area whilst Man Utd sought to use width with Young and, particularly, Valencia wide.
Man City were the dominant side, as you would expect being at home, in the opening period of the game. They moved the ball well and with pace and intent.
A key aspect of Man City ’s game is the use of inverted wingers and the desire to control the centre of the field. Although appearing to be a 4-2-3-1, both wide players cut infield to flood the centre of the pitch giving Man City numerical superiority here. Further back, Yaya Toure pushes upfield from his deep starting position leaving Gareth Barry as the sole defensive midfield presence. It leaves Man City with something along the lines of a 4-2-2-2. Very string centrally but vulnerable in wide areas.
The mobility and interchange of the attacking trio behind the central striker is a key feature of their play. Silva, in particular, moves laterally, drifting into pockets of space. It becomes difficult for opponents to mark him. As the attacking trident also operate very narrowly, it is incumbent upon City’s full backs to provide width and push forward.
The key problem that Man City face is their inability to get back into position quickly during the transition from attack to defence. When Man City lose possession, too many players are caught high up the pitch. Whilst the counter attack is a problem for any team to an extent, Man City really seem to struggle to regroup defensively.
When City lose the ball Silva and Nasri are slow to move back into position whilst Barry is the deepest midfielder and also the least mobile. He wants to stay central despite the problems often being on the wings because the full backs are attacking.
It was an area that Man Utd exploited ruthlessly with the Man City left side attacked continually during the game.
Manchester United Take The Lead
The opening goal was Man Utd’s first real attack of the game and yet, it succinctly captured many of the problems which Man City face.
Van Persie drops deep and drags Kompany out of position. With Zabaleta already upfield, when Young spins and turns he can break into space. Toure is ahead of the ball in the centre and Barry is trying to get back into position. Neither Kompany or Zabaleta can recover and tackle Young as he cuts inward and passes to Rooney.
Rooney’s scuffed shot eventually trundled into the corner of the net for the opening goal.
The second goal again highlights the inability of Man city to recover their defensive shape. In the graphic below, the ball is played to Rafael on the right wing who has Valencia ahead of him. Already Barry and Silva are behind play and trying to catch up leaving Man Utd with a 2 on 1 situation against Clichy.
Rafael reaches the goal line and cuts back for Rooney to slot home. Man Utd had taken a two goal lead from two simple moves exploiting the space which Man City were leaving vacant.
In the 34th minute Man City were caught out by a Man Utd counter attack. Although the move slowed down, when the ball was played right to Valencia, he was closed down by Barry. Despite having time to recover, Clichy had remained in the centre of the defence and failed to take up his correct position.
Next Page: Manchester City Respond, The Winning Goal & Conclusions – Click here to read or click on the page 2 button below…
Manchester City Respond
City began the second half in a more positive fashion but the real catalyst for change was the withdrawal of the ineffective Balotelli with Carlos Tevez being the replacement. Perhaps the withdrawal was harsh on Balotelli considering that Nasri was offering no product either offensively or defensively and could also have been substitued.
Tevez provided greater mobility and effort for the Man City attack and was involved in the equaliser with a driving run towards the Man Utd penalty area. Yaya Toure eventually scored following a great double save from De Gea.
So often problematic for Man Utd this season, the Old Trafford side again conceded from a corner but this time not via a header. A Man City corner was cleared to the edge of the penalty area where Zabaleta was free and in space to move onto the ball and drill it low into the net. No Man Utd player was anywhere near him as they had all congregated around the six yard box. A simple goal yet executed with great technique by the Argentinean.
At this juncture, Man City was clearly in the ascendency and probably looked more likely to press for the winning goal. Yet the failings which had enabled Man Utd to take a two goal lead resurfaced.
The Winning Goal
Although the problems with the Man City system have been highlighted, there is little that can be done regarding individual errors. The winning goal from Robin Van Persie was the culmination of individual errors. Even allowing for the problems of the system, the goal should have been prevented.
Firstly, Clichy has possession of the ball. Although being pressed, he has options to either pass the ball back to Hart in goal or clear the ball upfield. He chose instead to try and retain possession and beat his opponent thus conceding possession to Wellbeck. When Rafael receives the ball, he is free with no marker. As he cuts diagonally inside, Tevez crosses his path and trips him. With no width to their play, Tevez is forced to move from inside towards the wing as he tracks Rafael. Yet as highlighted, Tevez is slow to recover his position in the defensive phase and allows Rafael to get ahead of him.
Finally, when the free kick is struck, the positioning and attempted block by Nasri is woeful and led to Mancini stating that the defensive wall contained “two and a half” players. It would be easy to suggest that Mancini is being kind with the reference to a half given Nasri tucked in behind Dzeko.
The end of a bad week for Mancini’s side with a European exit compounded by falling six points behind their title rivals. Prizes are not awarded in December however and the manner in which the title was won last season should be lesson enough that there is still a considerable way to go.
Problems will remain for City until Mancini can resolve the struggle between flooding the centre of the pitch in attacking movements whilst regaining shape and structure during transitions to defence especially the lack of support to the full backs. Man City may control possession but they cannot control space. Until tis is reconciled, problems will persist.
For Ferguson and Man Utd, it’s an excellent three points and provides a degree of comfort as the midway point of the season approaches. Ferguson acknowledged that the lack of European football in the latter part of the season could be a blessing for Man City with fewer games clogging up their schedule. This could become a pivotal moment in the season.