It’s Manchester United who go through to the FA Cup fourth round on a day where the talking points ranged from Paul Scholes to a questionable red card to five goals. Here are Sam Thompson’s observations…
No Joe Hart in goal: Both Toure brothers were unavailable due to their commitments with the Ivory Coast ahead of the African Cup of Nations, so the surprise withdrawal from the Manchester City first team was Joe Hart who was replaced in goal by Costel Pantilimon. Sergio Aguero was given a lone strikers role up front, due largely to the unavailability of Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli. Elsewhere there were starts for Samir Nasri and Adam Johnson.
Welbeck gets a start: Ferguson decided that Manchester United would stick with a 4-4-2 formation, despite the obvious risk of being out run in the middle of the park by Manchester City’s three central players. Anders Lindegaard started his second game in a row and Chris Smalling came in at centre back. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs were again United’s central midfield pair with Valencia and Nani out wide, and Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck upfront.
4-4-1-1 vs. 4-4-1-1
When out of possession, both sides could be described as deploying a 4-4-1-1 formation. Wayne Rooney certainly played much deeper than Welbeck, and at times even deeper than Carrick and Giggs (more on that later). City also lined up as 4-4-1-1 when defending. David Silva drifted to the left and Samir Nasri was allowed to play off Aguero. When in possession though, City were far less rigid. At times Samir Nasri dropped deep, Silva played in central midfield and James Milner played as a supporting striker, giving United’s defence a tough job in terms of who was marking who. City’s bombarding and fluid style meant that United struggled to keep the ball early on – their only answer was to sit deep and ask City to break them down.
Kolarov looks to attack
Arguably City’s most attacking player for most of the match, certainly when 11 v 11, was Aleksandar Kolarov. At times he played like a winger and was clearly given license to push up early, even before City had built up attacks. On a number of occasions he was so far forward that when he received the ball he was level with Phil Jones at right back in United’s third of the pitch.
United score from their first attack
United were very clearly playing on the counter attack. They had pace in attack with Welbeck, Valencia and Nani and defended deep, refusing to close down Manchester City until in their own half. With their first attack United scored. Rooney was given space to pick up the ball in a central area after dropping off the City defence. The striker spread the play to Valencia, who as shown in the diagram below was given too much space to attack into as Kolarov was too narrow defensively. Valencia’s first time cross was met by an excellent Rooney header and after 10 minutes United were 1-0 up against the run of play.
Kompany red card
In the 12th minute Kompany was questionably sent off for a two footed challenge, despite winning the ball and not looking particularly dangerous. Mancini rejigged his side by putting Micah Richards at centre back and moving James Milner to right back. Nasri moved slightly deeper in a central midfield role alongside Nigel De Jong and David Silva stayed nearer to the left hand side of midfield than he would usually. The red card meant that City sat a lot deeper in a basic 4-4-1 shape with Aguero typically just inside his own half. City became more patient in possession and were nearly rewarded when Aguero saw a curling effort well saved by Anders Lindegaard. Kolarov remained an attacking threat from the left hand side.
Rooney and the ‘false 10’
Initially Rooney played just off Welbeck and would close down laterally either side of him just in front of Carrick and Giggs. However, after the sending off he played as more of a ‘false 10’, meaning he didn’t just come off the striker but came deep, more so than Carrick and Giggs, to get on the ball and start attacks. The excellent Jonathan Wilson recently wrote that the ‘false 10’ is a player who moves deep: “playing off a front man as an orthodox 10 would but coming deep to help win possession” and this is what Rooney did. Sometimes he even played as the ball-winner allowing Carrick to move slightly further forward and Ryan Giggs to make late runs from deep into the box.
Welbeck gets United’s second
Despite the man advantage Aguero came close to equalizing after an error by Rio Ferdinand. Against the run of play, it was 2-0 after 30 minutes as Nani sucked in City defenders before playing Patrice Evra behind the City defence. The left back dragged a cross into the area and after a block Welbeck managed to swivel round and volley into the net – similar to Demba Ba’s goal against United a few days ago.
Man City switch to 3-5-1 when in possession
When City were given time to build up attacks their formation morphed into a 3-5-1. Milner, Richards and Joleon Lescott became a back three with Johnson and Kolarov acting as wingbacks. Nigel De Jong and Samir Nasri played as central midfielders with David Silva trying to link up with Aguero. Mancini would ideally have liked to have had the option of Mario Balotelli or Edin Dzeko to bring on, as despite his fantastic work rate all game, Aguero isn’t powerful enough to be a focal point for City attacks by holding up the ball. Another problem Mancini has was there was no one available to close down Carrick and therefore stop him controlling the tempo of the game which Newcastle did so successfully. City went in at half-time 3-1 down after Rooney missed an initial penalty but scored with the follow up.
Mancini continued to use wing backs in the second half as Pablo Zabaleta and Stefan Savic replaced Johnson and Silva. Richards, Savic and Lescott were a back three with Zabaleta and Kolarov acting as wingbacks. Milner and De Jong played as very deep central midfielders and Samir Nasri was given the incredibly difficult task of linking up play with Aguero – despite the distance between the Argentinian and his two central midfielders being around 40-50 yards. An excellent Kolarov free kick gave City a lifeline just after half-time but as the game continued it became clear that Nasri and Aguero were too isolated when City attacked as they moved the ball at too slow a tempo.
Scholes gets punished
Paul Scholes not only made a surprise appearance on the bench but came on for Nani with half an hour to go. United were denied what looked like a clear penalty when Valencia went down from a challenge by Kolarov and City went straight up the other end and after a sloppy pass from Scholes from a throw-in Milner nicked the ball and drove down the line. His low cross found Aguero whose clever movement lost his marker and after his first shot was spilled by Lindegaard, he scored the rebound.
Occasionally one of City’s back three would push forward to close down a United midfielder, requiring the wingbacks to tuck in and create a back four. On 75 minutes Anderson replaced Welbeck and United changed to a 4-5-1 and sat deep. Soon after Owen Hargreaves came on for Nasri, pushing Milner further forward. Mancini’s side can feel hard done by after a possible penalty shout for a handball by Phil Jones but after a nervous final ten minutes United held on for a 3-2 win.
United needed to utilise fullbacks
Manchester City should get plaudits for winning the second half 2-0 despite having ten men. Their second half performance was built on a solid defensive structure, as well as patience with and without the ball. Mancini should also be praised for his use of wingbacks, but despite the belief that he has the best squad in the country, his bench looked light of attacking and creative talent to come on and change the game. United needed to use the space their full backs had (as shown below), to their advantage more by creating overlaps out wide in an attempt to try and stretch the three/five man defence, just as they did with their first goal when Richards had gone forward from defence creating a back three.