Tuesday, May 1, 2012

City in driver's seat after 'fair result'

Manchester City is in the driver's seat right now in the pursuit of an English Premier League title, and earned that with a fair result in yesterday's Manchester derby versus Manchester United.

Yesterday's derby had all the feelings that were evoked awaiting a big Mike Tyson prize fight when he was in his prime - everyone tuned in, and awaited the sight of something special.  An estimated 650 million television viewers tuned in to see this heavyweight bout - in comparison, 167 million people watched the Super Bowl this year.  The game was being billed as 'the greatest EPL match in history'.

The 1-0 City victory was decided in first half injury time when captain Vincent Kompany headed home the eventual game-winner, but to fair, United was never really threatening in the match.

Where City started their same lineup they had used in previous matches - including the attacking arsenal of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, David Silva and Samir Nasri - Sir Alex Ferguson went with an alignment to absorb City's pressure.  His 4-5-1 alignment included Wayne Rooney as the center forward, and Park Ji-Sung deployed as a central midfielder to combat and blot out City's box-to-box Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure.  United has played in this fashion in the past in matches where they may have been overwhelmed (Barcelona in 2009 & 2011 UEFA Champions League final), and despite having few attacking options because of the numbers used behind the ball, the hope was to break out on the counter attack - figuring Nani versus Clichy on United's right flank might be the way to catch City.

Unfortunately, the combination of City's pressure and ability to retain the ball for long stretches - coupled with United being forced to chase and get disconnected once they won the ball - left the defending champions searching for answers after Kompany's goal at the late stages of the first half.

The following questions came up in the first half, and Ferguson tried to answer them with substitutions in the second half-

* Rooney as the #9 - Roon is at his best when he plays underneath a central striker and is allowed to play in a free role; on his own as the lone striker, he tended to drift deep into midfield or out into the channels.  This didn't trouble City at all, as they had extra cover at the back with Lescott.  It really negated the things that Rooney likes to do on the field (and which is why I always get testy when offered the idea of Rooney playing that role for England - he is a #10, and not a #9).  Sir Alex brought on Welbeck in the second half and enabled Rooney to play in his more traditional role.

*  Giggs on left/Park in central midfield - I was not surprised to see Park included, as he has played in virtually every big match United has been in over his career; Sir Alex has a tremendous amount of trust in him, and rightfully so - the guy can run all day, and if you tacked a paint brush to his back, he would paint the whole field.  Unfortunately, that, coupled with deploying Giggs on the left flank, left Antonio Valencia on the bench.  Valencia has been United's most dangerous player not named Rooney over the second half of the season, and could have helped United in a territorial battle - pushing City's back line deeper into their own half of the field as he would have threatened to penetrate.  You can see the instant respect that Mancini had for Valencia - Mancini was obviously nervous about the threat of Valencia, and brought on Micah Richards for Silva (Kompany shuffling across slightly, Lescott becoming a left-centre-back/left-back, and Clichy becoming a left-back/left-wing-back. Clichy stuck tight to Valencia, and Lescott offered support behind).

The match was a very different game to the 6-1 thrashing earlier in the season, but United was not very threatening at any point in the match.  Even when Ferguson tried to bring players on to create more dangerous opportunities, Mancini responded by countering his chess moves. City didn’t concede a single shot on target, even with United trailing for 45 minutes, and whether that be due to City's staunch defending or United's inability to grab onto the ball and create dangerous chances on the break, the scoreline proved to be a fair result.
United might not have lost if they’d defended that corner better, but in the end of the day, they didn't deserve 3 points.

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