The missing link for Manchester United

I enjoyed the Manchester derby. It was a tight game, which was ultimately decided by one mistake. It was a contest, between two fairly evenly matched teams played at a high tempo and with all the traditions of a classic Premier League encounter, but for me there was one thing that stood out beyond everything else and that was the difference in midfield.

City lined up with their usual shape, a 4-2-3-1 system, with as the main striker Aguero and Tevez in behind him, interchanging with Nasri and Silva who although nominally lined up as wide players often came inside allowing the fullbacks to push on. Yaya Toure was sat deeper with Barry anchoring the midfield.

United changed from their usual 4-4-2 and played an extra man in midfield in a 4-5-1, dropping Valencia and Welbeck to the bench and bringing in Park and Giggs to try and stop City controlling the midfield, leaving Rooney to operate alone up front.

The game was tight, in fact it was extra tight, it was a latex suit that you needed serious amounts of talcum powder in order to squeeze into. Both teams worked exceptionally hard to deny the other space. Rooney, often isolated as a lone front man was marked impeccably, he was forced to lay the ball off first time and when he did try and turn he was dispossessed which was clearly frustrating him.

The difference was in midfield, this is what allowed City to open up space and create chances in the way that United didn’t manage to do. In Nasri, Silva and Toure, City had three players who were all happy in possession in a central area. They are all technically accomplished, have a burst of pace and are capable of taking people out of the game with strong running and the ability to dribble past an opponent, they are all far more dynamic than their United counterparts.

In contrast, Nani only received the ball in wide areas. Scholes usually controls the tempo with his passing, but he was put under pressure and couldn’t manufacture space by beating an opposing player like his City rivals. Giggs was slightly more successful, at one point drawing a foul from Toure, but doesn’t have the legs of old that would have allowed him to take players out of the game and often resorted to playing aimless long balls. Park looked like a man who hadn’t played much football and had very little impact in an attacking sense, it was a negative selection.

This ability to create space allowed City to control the ball far more in United’s third, this in turn let the fullbacks get forward and offer width and options. United coped reasonably well with this, but the chances City did create usually stemmed from Toure, Silva or Nasri beating a man, getting their head up and driving forward opening up space.

Whereas Barry and Carrick did similar jobs, Barry’s life was made much easier by the players around him taking a bad pass and making it into a good one by beating their marker. In contrast, Carrick consistently fed the ball to Rooney who was tightly marked and couldn’t turn, to Nani who was often isolated so when he did carry the ball forward he lacked support, or to Park, Giggs or Scholes who were usually forced to simply give it straight back. Such was the work-rate of City, coupled with the inability of United players to open up space by beating a man.

With the introduction of Welbeck this changed slightly, with another option United were able to look longer, stretching the game. Welback immediately won headers and linked the play, opening up space, causing City to retreat, giving Scholes more time on the ball to pick a pass, they looked more effective using their normal system which wasn’t a surprise. However even with the extra time and space, City’s defence was exemplary. Only once was a runner not tracked and on that occasion Phil Jones couldn’t deliver a cross to punish the mistake. Mancini brought on De Jong for Tevez and once again the space was gone.

To me, this game points to what many were saying before the start of the season. That United needed to sign a new central / attacking midfielder, they were linked with Wesley Sneijder but the deal never happened. Ferguson likes to play Rooney off Welbeck in the hole and in a 4-4-2 with Valencia and Young / Nani wide. They are a threat going forward because they stretch the game with width as they proved against Everton. The trouble is in that system they are vulnerable in the middle and in transition, again as they proved against Everton.

United don’t have a Yaya Toure, someone who is strong in possession and can carry the ball from deep in transition in a central area, who has the legs to get from box to box. I think United looked best going forward at the start of the season with Anderson and Cleverley in the middle and both were missing for this game. Anderson is a box to box type of player, but he’s not in Toure’s class. Cleverley is somewhere between Anderson and Carrick and although I’m excited by his potential, Yaya Toure he is not.

Eden Hazard would offer something different for United.

What United also lack is a David Silva / Samir Nasri. A clever player who finds space and comes in from the flank. Nani, Ashley Young and especially Antonio Valencia are all much happier in wide areas. Although Young and Nani often cut inside and link up, neither of them look comfortable starting from a central position. Juan Mata does it exceptionally well for Chelsea, he is a player who can play the intricate reverse pass in the final third that can unlock a top notch defence in a tight game and I’m not sure any of United’s men fit that description.

I’m not surprised I’ve read stories linking United with Cheik Tiote as he would certainly add something in line with Toure and I’m even less surprised to see Ferguson taking an interest in Eden Hazard, just take a look at this video. City are now the real deal and if United want to stay with them, they are going to need reinforcements with the rumours that Darren Fletcher is set to retire and replacements for the likes of Giggs and Scholes, because they aren’t getting any younger.

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