It’s often pointed out before a clash between rivals that the two teams generally have more in common with each other than any differences between them, and for today’s Manchester derby it looked as if coaches Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson had extended this to their strategies.
Both sides lined up in something resembling a 4-2-3-1 and started the game pressing high, but reluctant to put their feet in, aiming to shepherd the opposition instead. Although both sides were focusing on possession, it was particularly noticeable with City. This was helped by Adam Johnson and David Silva’s tendency to tuck in rather than staying wide, which often resulted in a free man in the centre of the pitch as United’s full-backs didn’t want to follow them into midfield.
However, two good chances in quick succession for United seemed to startle City, who backed off more and attempted to get into a rigid shape rather than press. All this really did was give Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes more time and space to dictate the play and, unsurprisingly, United gained control. Nani also took advantage of this with several dribbles, although Pablo Zabaleta was doing a very good job against him.
A barracking from Mancini ensured City began to press again, and they started to once again exert some control over United. Pressing higher also pretty much killed Dimitar Berbatov’s influence on the match as he didn’t have the pace to run in behind City’s defence and his trickery had less effect so far from goal. His lack of energy also meant Ji-Sung Park was having to do more pressing on City’s central defenders, which also added to the space in the centre of midfield, although he did appear to be struggling slightly with an injury.
The game continued in this vein into the second half, where some City pressure resulted in a goal. First a rushed clearance from Edwin van der Sar then a misplaced pass from Carrick came as a result of City’s pressing, allowing Yaya Toure to give City the lead.
Once again, City were able to focus on keeping possession, tiring out United. This allowed Mario Balotelli to show his good side, he dropped deep like Carlos Tevez does so well and his pace let him exploit United’s high line as Berbatov couldn’t against City’s; there were still some stupid choices but also signs he’s starting to regain form.
With City now dominating and a goal crucial, Ferguson brought on Javier Hernandez for Antonio Valencia – Park going left while Nani moved right and the Mexican joined . Valencia was quiet but, since his main attribute is his crossing, it was understandable against a high line, especially so soon after returning from his horrific injury. Hernandez, on the other hand, suits the high line perfectly, quick enough to get behind the defence. Hernandez’s introduction did however mean switching to a 4-4-2 and allowing City even more men in the centre, worsened by Schole’s sending off soon after.
Off went Berbatov and on came Anderson and United continued to try to pass their way through, made harder be their often being two or three free men for City in the centre of midfield. Job done, Mancini brought on Shaun Wright-Phillips to swing in crosses for Toure and Balotelli and Patrick Vieira to add another midfielder to the mix, leaving United to try to attack City.
City did well to recover from the thrashing at the hands of Liverpool, returning to a similar system to the one they used to great effect earlier in the season, while United’s treble dreams died. They may still win other trophies this season but City’s win highlighted several of United problems, particularly in midfield, that must be addressed at the end of the season if they are to keep to their high standard. Thankfully it was an exciting match for the neutral too, despite the congested midfield.