Five points on United 1-6 City
City’s new fluidity…
Manchester City played much of last season in a clearly-defined 4-2-3-1, with Yaya Toure playing just off a forward of choice and Nigel De Jong and Gareth Barry holding. With Toure and De Jong both midfielders who made their name in the defensive role, and Barry recently reinvented into a deep-lying holder, the interpretation of the formation was fairly defensive.
This year, however, with the introduction of Sergio Aguero, City have moved into a much harder to define formation. It could be described as a 4-4-2, but perhaps a 4-2-3-1 or even a 4-2-2-2 would be more accurate. Sergio Aguero drops off the front in order to receive the ball in space, and David Silva and (in this case) James Milner swap around with him behind the striker. This lends City new unpredictability and flair, and makes them far harder to defend against. The removal of one of the three defensive midfielders from last season’s regulars also improves City on the ball, giving them more zip and flair in attack.
…and United’s lack of it
On the other hand, Manchester United started this season with a whole new outlook. Their 4-2-3-1/4-4-2ish formation gave four versatile attackers room to switch and drift. This fluidity made them unpredictable and offered their greatest threat, Wayne Rooney, an escape route from close marking.
In this match, however, things were disappointingly stolid. Ashley Young and Nani kept mostly to their flanks, pressed up against their opposing full-backs, and Rooney and Danny Welbeck stayed central and struggled to find space to work in. In direct contrast to City, United’s players all seemed to have specific roles to perform, and when one was prevented from performing his, they didn’t seem to have the licence to improvise.
United’s unbalanced midfield pairing
United’s central midfield pairings for the majority of last season were odd, but extremely successful. In modern general football terms, a team usually has at least one pure destroyer, someone who breaks up opposition attacks and wins the ball back for his team. Such a defensive anchor can be invaluable when a side is under pressure, and plays an important role for any team wishing to play on the counter. Last season, United had no players whatsoever who could realistically be termed ‘pure destroyers’. Darren Fletcher perhaps has the attributes for it, but Alex Ferguson prefers playing him as a box-to-box player, nominally defensive but by no means an anchor man.
United’s midfield partnership last season, then, was not the traditional passer/creator axis. Rather, they ended up with a more unusual ‘passer/runner’ pairing. Whilst this is hardly new – Andrea Pirlo (passer) and Gennaro Gattuso (runner) were perhaps the greatest exponents of it before the introduction of Massimo Ambrosini in place of the more attacking Clarence Seedorf turned their holding axis into a trio – it takes a more rounded pair of footballers to pull off. The passer is the more static of the two, receiving the ball and being creative with its distribution to the flanks and to the front players. The runner both protects the defence, and in the attack phase uses his energy to link with the attacking band of four. Both midfielders need to be at least accomplished in their defensive skills, particularly positionally. It was their excellent positioning and reading of the game that allowed Michael Carrick and Anderson, two players who aren’t known for their tackling ability, to successfully shield their defence.
In this game, Anderson (runner) was paired with Fletcher (runner) to disastrous consequences. With Rooney subdued by City’s deep-lying midfielders, United were in need of another creative outlet to replace him. Anderson and Fletcher both worked hard, but neither possesses the technique and vision required to unlock a defence from deep. As a result, United’s creativity was stifled.
The value of a workhorse
Park Ji-Sung is possibly the world’s best-known ‘Big game player’. A trusted lieutenant of Ferguson’s, his indomitable spirit and hard work make him invaluable in a tight game, and his ability to play anywhere in midfield makes it easy to slot him into a team when needed. Though he wasn’t fielded this game, City proved they had their very own version of him in their own ranks.
James Milner had arguably his best game in a sky blue shirt. Fielded on the right of the City midfield, he was given just as much license to roam across the field as his left wing counterpart, David Silva. Milner was one of the game’s most dangerous players, providing two assists, but the whole point of fielding him isn’t that he is consistently threatening. When Milner plays, his work rate and energy ensures that he can effectively nullify his direct opponent. In this case, Milner tied down an entire flank by himself on the right, marking his former teammate Young and testing an off-colour Patrice Evra with dribbling.
Silva and Milner were clever in their movement, often both drifting to the same flank in order to work two-on-one situations. In this case, two goals were created after their combination overwhelmed the opposition full-back.
City dominate flanks
With Wayne Rooney being occupied by Toure and Barry and a lack of creativity inherent in the United midfield, the one remaining threat were their wingers. Young and Nani are both tricky, pacey wingers, with Nani in particular a flair player who can make something out of nothing. The way City dealt with them owed fairly little to tactics, however, and a good deal to the excellent games of their full-backs.
Whilst right-back Micah Richards often had Milner tracking Young and Evra to aid him, he won an impressive 8 out of 13 duels by himself, and found time to maraud deep into the United half, bagging himself an assist. Gael Clichy, the City left-back, had an even greater task before him. With Chris Smalling having no direct opponent, the United right-back was able to get forward to try and overload Clichy, but the former Arsenal man coped well. Though his tackling rate was far less impressive than Richards’, he still kept Nani as one of the game’s peripheral figures. Nani ended up with 53 touches, 15 less than his opposite number James Milner.