Going into the FA Cup clash with our Manchester City, serious questions were asked of Sir Alex his Red Devils. Following two consecutive losses at the hands of Blackburn and Newcastle, and with the 6-1 slaughtering still fresh in mind, this game was made for a Manchester United comeback. The press did not seem to think so, putting City as bang-on favourites, some even expecting a repeat of the horrible experience in October. After all, United are a club in severe crisis! It was not to be though, with United dominant in every aspect and putting out a team that would not only stop City, but punish them to maximum effect.
It was obvious Sir Alex had learnt from his mistakes earlier this season, and made the changes necessary to beat City. Not only from the start, but as the game went on as well. What exactly were those changes?
The game on Sunday can be divided into three parts. The first was from kick off until Kompany got sent off, the second from that point on until half time, and finally the last part for the whole of the second half. United started off incredibly defensive, but with an aggressive approach giving the City players very little time on the ball. With Adam Johnson and Nasri on the wings it was obvious they were not going to get many chances from crosses, so forcing them wide was vital. It looked very much like a 5 man defence in this period, with Jones forcing himself centrally and Valencia occupying the right full-back position. Rooney, who team-sheets before the game placed as a striker, was never more than 5 metres away from David Silva, man marking the space around him to great effect. This, together with Carrick and Giggsy being placed defensively in midfield, forced City wide time and time again, without giving results. Nani stayed rather high up the pitch, thus giving Richards very little room to expose himself offensively. One against one, Evra won most challenges with Adam Johnson despite giving a few fouls away during the game.
With City getting so high up the pitch, they were bound to give space away defensively. Following 10 minutes of City dominating possession, although not creating any chances, United did what they were supposed to do and countered in the first goal of the game. Welbeck made a run between Lescott and Kolarov, forcing the latter more central to cover, giving Valencia just enough room to swing in a cross for Rooney to score. This was one of very few times during the whole game that Rooney found himself in the opposition box, and thankfully for United he made full use of it. Rooney has been playing very deep this season, but on Sunday he looked more like an attacking midfielder than anything else. In the first half, he stopped City from getting many balls to Silva, and the little Spaniard went off at half time after a very quiet first half. Defensively a United had a backline of 5, and a central midfield of 3, City did not get to many chances.
Then came the red card to Kompany, and it changed the game. However, unlike common opinion, this sending off did not ruin the game for City. It did make it more difficult for them, but forcing Manchester City into a more defensive approach is making them stronger. Despite having some of the best attacking players in the world, it is much harder to contain a City side that is set out to counter, rather than one who dominates. Their forward movement is too individually based to even come close to Barcelona, and without Dzeko their wide-game severely suffers and solid defending forcing them wide makes them prone to counter attacks. They have one of the most solid defences in the League, and coupled with Yaya Toure and Barry often working as the third or fourth centre backs, it is incredibly difficult to break them down. Mancini though, decided to keep on attacking throughout the half. Putting Milner at right back, they only had De Jong as a defensive midfielder, giving United countless crossing opportunities. Evra got the freedom to overlap, which ended in a goal for Welbeck, and our young English striker nearly got another when he failed to get a proper connection with the ball from Valencia’s cross just after Rooney’s second of the day. City’s offensive approach lost a lot by losing Milner to defence, but the main problem for them was containing Rooney who did an incredible job for United man-marking Silva out of the game.
Rio Ferdinand has gotten a lot of stick by United fans for some very inconsistent performances this season, but he looked the deal against City. The experienced defender was back to his “new” left-central defender position, with Smalling on the right, and the two combined incredibly well as to who would meet, and who would cover. It is something that made the Vidic-Ferdinand partnership so strong, and if Smalling can continue this partnership with Rio it will serve United to great effect. City’s game was made for them though. Despite Aguero being incredible technically and strontg like a bull, City’s approach is nothing like Newcastle’s. Most balls up to the Argentinian came low, and both defenders did well to cut them out. Playing a low line, Aguero would never be able to use his pace to get in behind, and with both defenders sticking to him like glue he would never be able to come close to goal without someone making a serious mistake. Had City decided to use his physical strength better, like Newcastle did in midweek, Rio may have suffered more as he seems a lot weaker in those areas this season. But as said, this game was made for him and City did not get a sniff in the first half.
Mancini made a drastic change at half time, putting on two defenders for Silva and Johnson. It may have looked to some like damage limitation, but it is the kind of approach that Mancini seems to revel from. Going for an attacking approach cost them after Kompany’s red card, making the same mistake as United did in the 6-1 mauling, getting outnumbered in critical areas time and time again. Mancini knew what he did though, applying the same tactic that has worked in other big games. It earned him 6 goals at Old Trafford, a win against Arsenal, and they were only a clearance off the line away from snatching an unlikely 2-1 victory at Anfield earlier this season. An extremely defensive catenaccio approach has become their forte, as it totally neutralizes opponent attacks. Having players like Silva, Aguero, Balotelli and Nasri up front also means they do not have to rely on team-play offensively, but rather individual magic, and it rarely takes more than two players for them to come up with a goal. Three centre backs, two wing-backs, two extremely defensive midfielders, and only one striker left Nasri to press, and try and force United into mistakes.
Welbeck saw very little of the ball in the second half, and was rightfully subbed. Instead of attacking, United just decided to play ball. Every mistake would be punished, hence the two goals conceded. One counter attack leading to a free-kick, and a soft pass from Scholes gifted them some goals, making it look like City had forced their way back rather than United gifting it to them. Scholesy’s inclusion may have raised a few eyebrows, but after 15 minutes of watching City stay in their own penalty area, double marking every United player close to the box, Sir Alex decided enough was enough and making City chase shadows was it. Scholesy was put on in place of Nani, a definite defensive approach, but one that would win us the game. Scholesy made 71 passes, more than any City player throughout the game, only avoiding the intended target 3% of the time. Despite Phil Jones being clumsy and running the ball out of play a few times, United totally dominated without creating anything, in fear of losing the ball and giving City their equaliser. Even Rooney, the one player intended to be our striker, spent more time outside the area on the left wing rather than inside City’s box. Practically no chances in the second half, but United having a total of 81% possession for the last 45 minutes speaks for itself. Sir Alex had learnt from his mistakes, trying to attack a City team with 7 men inside their own area would be suicidal, and having the lead no risks had to be taken. Cruise control, and City had no answer.
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