If league titles are the bread and butter of champions then Manchester United may have just dropped their latest slice of silverware on the floor.
This season may not yet be completely spoiled, yet after peeling their twentieth league win up off the gritty kitchen lino, any remaining glory surely can’t taste the same. Hungry fans will of course claim that a little dirt never hurt anyone as they cram another trophy into their greedy maws – debris, filth, pet hairs and all – yet who can tell what bugs and viruses may have come along with the ride? Title-winning indigestion is the last thing this United team need as they limp towards the finishing line and the prospect of another hard fought campaign after the summer.
Provincial powerhouse Brian Clough once claimed “I would gladly go out of the European Cup, the Football League Cup, and the FA Cup tomorrow if you could guarantee me winning the Football League.” In contrast, United appear to have fled into a self-pitying indifference towards all other competitions since their red card exit in the Champions League against Real Madrid. Without the throbbing history of a third European crown, or an unlikely second treble, the enthusiasm has drained from their game; their early season swagger replaced by a sullen gloom, as if preoccupied with the imperfections of their season rather the potential grandeur that remains to be won.
If Sir Alex Ferguson was hoping to keep things tight following last year’s 6-1 defeat, he instead made his side meek. Though not as negative as his tactical retreat in the 1-0 away loss that followed that massacre, his approach was far too reactive and lacked the ideas and thrust to push the initiative and United’s home advantage. In fact, it was City who not only looked like the home team, but also the side comfortably on top of the league, keeping things focused and professional as if looking to finish the job with minimal fuss. Worryingly, they looked like the team carrying the momentum, even if the odds and numbers are severely stacked against another comeback from collapse.
While United headed into the Manchester derby on a seven match winning streak, the nature of their recent victories have been a study in diminishing returns. Individual form has dropped off with Van Persie seemingly unable to score, Rooney lost in a bloated mid-career crisis and the club’s overstocked winger roster failing to contribute to the cause. The team’s system too has regressed.
Gone is the fizzing adventure and goal-scoring verve of the early season, replaced by a hazy lethargy that creaks rather than drives forwards. The lack of Tom Cleverley from the derby line-up sapped energy from the midfield, as Ryan Giggs looked off the pace. Carrick returned to being the most overworked and under-supported player on the pitch without a more physical presence to compliment his stately skills.
Counter-intuitive as ever, Roberto Mancini publicly questioned the quality and strength of his squad before the match, bemoaning the lack of high-calibre transfer window reinforcements. Whether through spite or genuine motivation, City appeared switched on and committed to the cause through the game, fighting for the ball and closing holes across the field. Pressing high and pinning back United into their own half for most of the first half, they camped out around De Gea’s area, looking for a way in. Around the 25th minute the possession stats read 70-30 in favour of City.
In response, United’s gameplan was to sit deep and look to break out wide, where City’s narrow 4-2-3-1 can be vulnerable. Without direct competition on the flanks, Young and Welbeck could also look to tuck-in and support the team’s spine, as Rafael and Evra burst forward – the former’s one-on-one battles with Pablo Zabaletta became a regular feature of the game.
However, their transitions from defence to attack were too slow, with the pitch seeming to grow an extra six yards as United tried to counter. The final ball was often insufficient too, with the sheer pace of Welbeck and Young, along with the quartet’s ability to find space, offering up chances to beat flat-footed defenders and run through pockets within City’s lines unable to be capitalised upon due to poor decision making and scruffy passes.
In the second half, United did try and free themselves of the pressure from City’s high defensive line strangle, and succeeded in forcing more of the game up field and away from their box. They looked more dangerous once given the opportunity to try and play through their opponent’s defence with short, probing passes and one-two’s, but again the key balls lacked the required clinical edge.
Though less than in the first 45 minutes, City were still able to find the time to orbit De Gea’s goal, and James Milner opened the scoring with a deflected shot from just outsides the box in the 51st minute. It may have been helped in my the touch of a defender, but it was far from against the run of play.
United responded five minutes later through a wicked Robin van Persie freekick. Part shot, part cross, it cannoned toward Joe Hart’s goal, meeting the head of Phil Jones before being knocked in by Vincent Kompany’s neck. The jubilation of Jones’ celebration, and those of his team mates was exaggerated by relief, and the team did appear to be more assured following the equaliser, but a brittleness remained.
City responded by switching Nasri out for Sergio Aguero, their title-winning goal scorer, who immediately made a nuisance of United’s defensive plans. Earlier in the game, Tevez had used his tenacious work rate to sit between Ferdinand and Jones, hounding them for scraps. With Aguero on the field, Tevez dropped deeper, allowing his fellow Argentine to occupy the minds of United’s backline.
Although he disappeared from much of the on-screen action, Tevez’s retreat between the attacking line gave City greater purchase on the game. Yaya Toure sat in midfield alongside Gareth Barry throughout the match, either unable or directed not to charge forward on one of his characteristically box-to-box runs. With Tevez now working as an industrious link-man between the attack and the midfield, Mancini’s men were better able to direct the closing chapters of the game.
The winner came in the 78th minute from a piece of individual quality from Aguero. Dribbling past three defenders towards the right post of the United goal, he blasted a shot into the roof of the net. In a deflated and disappointing derby that could still be largely inconsequential to the title race itself, it was the best moment of skill of the game and a fitting decider.
Rather than appeal to crowd noise as he did against Madrid, Sir Alex immediately replaced Welbeck with Valencia, hoping to make the most City’s narrowness in the final minutes. Even the later introduction of Hernandez on for Rooney did little to offer inroads to round things off for a last minute draw. The grip on the game just wasn’t there to feed a poacher or, with Kompany and Nastasic on form in the air, take advantage of any crosses from the wings. Satisfied with their lead, City shut up shop, first replacing Silva for Lescott and Javi Garcia for Tevez as the clock ran down.
In a substandard performance, Phil Jones stood out for Manchester United. His apprenticeship in midfield and at right back appear to have added some much needed composure to his game that still thrives on his energy and enthusiasm. For City, Aguero was the difference, and the probably man of the match due to his individual, winning effort.
Where does this leave Manchester United, the title race and the Premier League? Due to its place on the fixture calendar, this should have been the show stopping title decider. Instead, undermined by United’s 15 point performance, the game seemed to be struck by the same malaise as the home side – a detachment that City took full advantage of. It can’t be healthy for a league’s runaway winners to slow up and slip through the last few games of the season in an unconvincing half-sleep. Even with potentially tricky games ahead against Arsenal and Chelsea, United have probably done enough, but this sickness cannot carry on into next season. With Mourinho potentially returning to Chelsea and City aiming to build a platform for future success through a strong league finish, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men may not have the luxury of complacency next year.
On a night when United needed to show heart and produce a performance they went for the safe option and suffered. Last spring’s collapse and the pedestrian slide into mediocrity since the disappointment of the Real Madrid game suggest this Manchester United team suffers from a fragile ego and short attention span. There is much work to be done over the summer to ensure the rot is stopped before it brings down a squad that showed so much potential earlier on this year.