The Manchester derby is a game that has traditionally been entrenched in cross town rivalry for supremacy of Manchester. This time, however, the stakes were even higher. United sat in third position one point above their rivals and the result of the match could go a long way in deciding how the clubs finished in 6 weeks’ time.
For the last three seasons, City had won this fixture, including an embarrassing 6-1 battering in 2011-12 season that Sir Alex Ferguson described as ‘possibly his worst defeat ever’. For three years City had visited Old Trafford with confidence sky high but this time things were different. United were on a winning streak of 5 fixtures. City on the other hand were going through a slump that has seen them slip from second to fourth in the league table and get knocked out of the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona. The stage was set for an exciting clash.
The game started in fine fettle and the visitors wrested the initiative when David Silva ran onto a Milner cross in space before passing to an unmarked Aguero inside the box, the latter promptly slotting home to open the scoring. Old Trafford faithful may have had flashbacks of previous years but Rooney and Co. had different ideas. The early goal lead woke up United and 6 minutes later Ashley Young equalised for United. In the 27th minute Fellaini nodded home a cross from Young at close range to give United a lead that they would not relinquish for the duration of the match, winning the fixture 4-2 on the back of 2 more goals from Mata and Smalling. Aguero’s late second goal was hollow consolation for a game where the visitors had been outclassed and out-muscled. THT reviews what we learnt from this clash.
1. LvG’s philosophy seems to be clicking into place
United’s top four candidacy seemed a false one ever since they broke into the top four in November. Most critics looked toward a tough run of fixtures beginning in March that would see United play Spurs, Everton, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal in the space of 8 weeks. United are now through half of these fixtures – the two big games against Chelsea and Arsenal still remaining. They have won 6 games on the trot now and are sitting in 3rd place – a point behind Arsenal and four ahead of champions Manchester City. LvG tinkered with his formation throughout the season playing the 3-5-2, a 4-4-2 diamond and even a 4-3-3. His hand was forced by injuries throughout but the injury to Robin van Persie and Angel di Maria’s suspension caused him to play a 4-2-3-1 formation that has reaped rich dividends in the last few games. United already have more points than what they scored all of last season and they have the best head to head record amongst the top 5 in the Premier League. Something has clicked into place. A year ago, when City opened the scoring in the same fixture, United simply folded up and played out a pathetic game with City scoring almost at will. This time around, when City opened the scoring, it was almost like they awoke a sleeping beast as United rolled them over in a sparkling display of attacking football.
2. Young and Fellaini are becoming indispensable for United
Not a year ago, most people had written off Ashley Young and Marouanne Fellaini and it was widely expected that they would be off loaded during the summer. Things did not go down that way and United and their supporters would be secretly happy they didn’t. Ashley Young had been a confounding signing even when Sir Alex had brought him over from Villa Park. His quality was undoubted but it looked like he would be a squad player at best. He had a few moments of brilliance but overall his stay for the last three years had been disappointing, reaching its nadir under Moyes last year. He was a winger who was afraid to dribble, to cross, to take on opponents and to take shots at goal. Not anymore though. Ashley Young has been practically unplayable in his new role this season. His finish off a fumbled stop at close range and then his two assists in the game against City testify to this complete turnaround.
Fellaini arrived at Old Trafford with his manager and was immediately consigned to the rubbish heap after a string of abject performances. But for an injury that made him less lucrative to his suitors, the big Belgian would not have even been at Old Trafford right now. As luck would have it, he is still around and he seems to be back in the form he was in that tormented United when they played Everton. In a free roaming role, Fellaini is a destroyer, and enforcer and a target man all in one.
It is a testament to the resurgence of these two men that they are keeping players of the quality of Angel di Maria and Falcao on the bench.
3. Manchester United still have defensive issues
While they reveled in attack, United still have a major hole in their armour, that of defense. The first goal from Aguero left Smalling up field and Jones standing aimlessly in his own box caught ball watching. Aguero’s second too came when Lampard’s pass left the entire defensive line flat footed. United will need to pull up their defensive socks if they hope to be able to compete for the title or in Europe next season. The clear lack of a regular right back may also come back to bite them while Luke Shaw has disappeared from the scene, his left back spot being filled in by Daley Blind, who has looked a much better player than the former. United’s improved performance this season would mean that LvG might get another big transfer window and he would do well to shore up defensively, maybe even chase someone of Varane’s caliber.
4. This City side is done and dusted
Manchester City assembled a side of match winners that has brought them 2 titles in the last 3 seasons. Manuel Pellegrini who heads the champions now obliged with a title win in his first season at the Etihad. Those days however seem past now. The core of this team – Aguero, Silva, Yaya Toure, Kompany, Hart – all seem to be past their prime or just about over the hill. Silva has not been the player he was for the last 18 months following a major injury at that time. Aguero understandably struggles without supply and is no good for recovering the ball. Each passing match exposes Toure’s defensive inadequacies. Even in the United game, Toure failed to impose himself on the game because he was too distracted by Fellaini, not knowing whether to chase the Belgian or hold his position and recover the ball when the latter peeled off the full backs to make runs into the box. Kompany has been shaky throughout this season and was in fact lucky not to see red against United when a horrid challenge right at the end of the first half left Blind in a heap on the pitch. City seriously miss a right back too. Zabaleta was given such a torrid time by Young that he failed to even come out of his half until way later. The option Kolarov is known to setup more goals than he stops. The Mangala experiment would go down as a failure, a very expensive one. It is one thing to be inexperienced and not be able to read the game and quite another not to be able to position yourself relative to your colleagues. Mangala played Smalling onside for the latter’s goal but even before that he was a spectator for most of the second half after being subbed in for his captain Kompany. Demichelis too was disappointing when he did not take up defensive leadership after Kompany was taken off, leaving defense in disarray. This summer should be expected to be a summer of rebuilding as the club’s wealthy owners will loosen their purse-strings to bring in fresh blood, starting with the manager.
5. Pellegrini is equally to be blamed for City’s slump
Pellegrini has been inexplicably stubborn about not giving Milner a start. Against United the versatile Englishman did get a rare start and his quality was visible from the go when he picked out Silva’s run to setup City’s first goal. United however quickly readjusted and Herrera went deeper to keep Milner off the ball. The ploy worked and United managed to play Milner out of the game for the remainder. With Milner taken out of the equation, City looked toothless in attack till the late arrival of Lampard. Not only did City not have a Plan B, they failed to adjust to in-game changes as well. This has been a running theme this season for City. They approach each game with the same strategy of all out attack. If the opponent manages to block out Toure or Fernandinho or any of their colleagues in midfield, City look around clueless. Their over dependence on Aguero for scoring goals has not helped matters and it does seem like the front six are no longer playing for their manager.
6. Herrera may be the all round midfielder United have been looking for
Ander Herrera is finally coming good for United. He links up well with Fellaini, Mata, Valencia, Young and Rooney ahead of him, controls the game in midfield, tackles well to recover the ball when United lose possession and occasionally even pops up in the box to score for his side. At the cost of probably jinxing it, it does seem like United may have finally found a long-term replacement for Paul Scholes. The Ginger Prince, as he was commonly known, built a career on his doggedness to not lose the ball and pick out a mean cross with deadly accuracy when the need arises. Herrera may have shown only glimpses of the latter skill but he possesses the former in bundles. Against City, Herrera gave Clichy and Fernandinho a torrid time not allowing them a moment of comfort on the ball. His seminal piece was probably a quick shift of feet that left Fernandinho literally on the seat of his pants.