The biggest and most important Manchester derby of recent times brought with it disappointment and begrudging acceptance that the opposition deserved the win and were the better side for Manchester United fans. For some disappointment led to anger and frustration even. For others there was shock. We have never known it like this before. We have seen United claw back deficits to win titles before but we have never seen United claw back a deficit, establish a healthy lead with only a handful of games left to go and then relinquish the lead. Never ever! The closest compared to what we are experiencing now is having our own lead clawed back but that was when United were leading the title race; 1991-92,1994-95,1997-98.
It has been hours since the end of the game but the scenes of joy in the stands at the Etihad Stadium that accompanied the final whistle; the party atmosphere in the said stadium was too difficult and painful to watch. It gave me a big problem resuming my sleep again and I am thinking that as a fan if I can’t sleep after watching the defeat to Manchester City and the performance that led to it, no way should any of the players, manager or coaching staff be having an easy sleep having contributed to our sleepless night or nights that follow. The pain will not go away in a day or two but the players owe us two massive performances now on two consecutive Sundays to make up for this horror but the truth is, it might not be enough.
In my pre-match preview, I had voiced my concern that United might be too casual because they know that they could do with a draw and do not need to win whereas for City it was a must-win game for them. Regardless of the words of the players and manager in their pre-match interviews on the fact that United always played to win, my worst fears were realized as the match wore on. United started brightly in the early exchanges of the match for at least 15 minutes as they closed down City and forced them to make mistakes, we were in the ascendancy. Thereafter, City just built its momentum and got better as we started throwing possession away by putting in long hopeful balls for Wayne Rooney which were easily dealt with by City’s centre back pair of Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott. City looked dangerous on the attack as they took on United and ran at the United backline however their threats were well dealt with and United made it difficult for them to fashion anything in terms of a clear-cut chance at goal. One moment of slack defending from a corner allowed Kompany to power in a header from a few yards out off a good corner delivery and City took the deserved lead near the end of the first half.
In the second half, many reckoned that United would up their tempo and play with more urgency as they look to score at least one goal but nothing changed as United continued their patient game without much urgency or verve in their attack. Most of the United play was in front of the City defence and there was no-one to trouble them by running at their defence or looking to make runs behind their defence. As United got forward, there were gaps at the back as City countered and they looked the more likely of the two sides to score the next goal. City came close on a few occasions but with United offering very little going forward, City had an easy time of it and saw out a 1-0 win to the delirium of the partisan home crowd which included famous faces such as Diego Maradona and Liam Gallagher. City were deserved winners and the hungrier of the two sides.
It is easy with hindsight to criticize the manager for the decisions he made in terms of the starting eleven that was put out but the manager has been preparing the side for the past week for this tie and only he knows best why he made certain selections. I am sure there was some logical thinking behind it and he is human after all. He can make mistakes like all of us do. It just so happened that his mistake was in the biggest match of the season. A change at right back was foreseen after the defensive debacle of letting in 4 goals against Everton in the last match. In my preview, I had stated my preference for Chris Smalling to start at right back instead of Phil Jones but in reality both started as the in-form Jonny Evans was not fit enough to start. Phil Jones, as I have said many times, has gone off the boil. He didn’t do anything bad defensively but his worst work was when he went forward. Gone are his swashbuckling runs. He only attempted it once and was out-muscled by Yaya Toure, losing the ball for City to launch a counter-attack. His use of the ball and crossing was also poor. Smalling, who hasn’t played much recently due to the good form of Evans at centre back and his own injury woes, had a good, solid game but the one mistake he made proved costly as he let Kompany go free for the corner. It was harsh on the youngster but if he is made of stronger character, he will learn from it and bounce back stronger.
In midfield, Sir Alex chose to leave Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young on the bench in favour of Ryan Giggs and Park Ji Sung. Rooney was playing on his own up front and from the looks of it, it looked like a cautious team sent out to play for the draw but capable of getting goals on the break if the plan was well implemented. It was the kind of line-up and formation that United favoured to use in European matches. It was apparent that on such a big occasion, he was relying on the big-game experience of Giggs and Park but the plan backfired. Both Giggs and Park have not seen much action in recent weeks and perhaps the lack of game time in their legs were a telling factor as neither produced incisive runs behind the City defence or took them on. Park especially had trouble keeping possession of the ball while Giggs played cautiously. Nani was another chosen to support the lone striker and his recent performances merited his inclusion but he produced little of the magic that we know he is capable of. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes who have been doing a great job in central midfield couldn’t find outlets on the wings and were forced to play square passes among themselves, keeping ball without making much inroads. Rooney, who was well shackled by City’s central defenders, was starved of any meaningful possession.
The substitutions that Sir Alex brought on with the exception of Danny Welbeck were too late; too late to make a difference to the game. Welbeck who has had a blossoming partnership with Rooney was one sacrificed for more bodies in central midfield. Sir Alex went against the formation that he has been using in recent weeks and that has seen us roar our way back to the top of the table and stay there ahead of such a crucial game. If we had got the result we wanted and/or United had played well and won, everyone would praise him for his tactical genius but since things didn’t work out well, he is being blamed for tinkering with the formation and players. Tough luck but the manager with his experience is well aware that football, football fans and the media are fickle. On the positive side, I feel Sir Alex would know a little better of his squad now especially the older players and that would help in the summer as some might be sold and reinforcements brought in to replace them.
As much as Sir Alex would take the stick today for his choices, I feel the players are equally to be blamed. Sir Alex fielded an experienced side that has won many trophies together which would suggest they had the wherewithal to see the game out and produce a performance but that was not the case. Overall, with the game going against us and needing to pull ourselves together to get a result, a leader who can drag us by the scruff of the neck was missing. A star player who could produce something magical and special was missing. One would look at Rio Ferdinand to be a potential leader. He did his defensive duties well but couldn’t quite spur the team on. Patrice Evra, the stand-in skipper, couldn’t do likewise. I have never felt the Frenchman had quite the same leadership quality of Ferdinand or the injured Nemanja Vidic to lead the side. He has experience but not quite the leadership required. The same can be said of a demure character like Carrick and the quiet Scholes. Giggs could lead by example but he hasn’t played in a long while, being overshadowed by Scholes in central midfield and by younger, faster wingers in the shape of Young and Nani. Park was another with experience and although he has captained South Korea in international tournaments, he wasn’t big enough as a character to lead the side. Rooney, our star player, was found wanting again. It has been a somewhat strange season for him. He has scored lots of goals for us but his recent performances have not been great and many times this season when we have needed a massive performance from our star man, he has been missing. His performances for United have been similar to what he produces for England in international tournaments and that doesn’t bode well for him where previously a Cristiano Ronaldo could get us a goal out of the blue or produce a performance of his own to salvage something, Rooney has not met that mark yet since his departure.
Another player who started and was capable of producing something magical was Nani and he was also missing yesterday. To be fair to the Portuguese, he has spent a lot of time on the sidelines due to injuries in the second half of the season and he was only just returning. Jones, who was praised to the high waters at the start of the season, has looked a very poor shadow of himself in the second half of the season. I am not sure what his dip in form can be attributed to but if he doesn’t recover it in next season, he might just find himself being a bit part player in the team or even sold. It might be harsh because he is still young and has age on his side but that is the harsh reality of playing for a club like Manchester United. A lot of talk in the post-match comments among fans has already shifted to players to be bought in the summer. However, the fact is that United are in transition this season. We have lost a lot of experience at the end of last season and that is difficult to replace especially since the players replacing them are youngsters so time and patience is needed. We did it in 1996 because there was a persona like Eric Cantona who could win games on his own and dragged the team on when things weren’t going right. Such a persona is missing in this team.
The fact that we are relying on 37-year-old Paul Scholes for his creativity, spells trouble as we lack the creative spark from someone younger and sprightlier. Scholes has done very well since he came out of retirement but due to his age, in big matches, Sir Alex recognizes that he needs greater protection which is why he needs to sacrifice a striker for an extra midfielder. Add to that the presence of Giggs, another who has a sharp mind but slower legs and Carrick who was never known for his speed and sprightliness to begin with and bring it against a powerful and nifty midfield, there is a potential of the opposition running riot over the United midfield as it has been exposed many times in Europe this season. Young Tom Cleverley who started the season so promisingly and seemed to have the creativity to unlock defences has been curtailed by injuries as has his energetic Brazilian partner, Anderson. There is also the unfortunate absence of the energetic Darren Fletcher, who if rumours are to be believed, would retire at the end of this season due to his illness. Park Ji Sung has surprisingly looked very poor the entire season. He has looked out of his depth and could be one that would be asked to move on at the end of the season. We have the energetic, bursting talent of Paul Pogba but if reports are to be believed, he has chosen to sign with Juventus instead of choosing to continue for us and if that is true, we will miss a great talent who could have made his breakthrough next season.
Antonio Valencia, who for me, has been the best United player in the entire season was sorely missed from the start. Ashley Young, for all his diving misdemeanours recently was another miss as he could deliver good crosses and score great goals. In the transfer mills, we have been linked with Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa and Lille’s Eden Hazard. Both players are small, nifty and creative but they are both young. We could do with one of the two but we still need players who are approaching their prime or at their prime to produce the goods consistently for the present of United.
Coming back to the present and the ongoing title race, I believe that if we win it, we deserve it and if City win it, they deserve it. If the season ended today, I feel it would be a fair reflection as United and City have had seasons of equal value; both have been breath-taking, inconsistent and with their own troubles this season however City would shade it as the goal difference deems it as such as they have defended better and scored more than us. But the season doesn’t end today. There are still two more games to go. Realistically, we need a big favour from Newcastle United on Sunday; at the very least hold City to a draw and we got to do our own job of winning our last two games to bring the season to a dramatic end. As it is, it is out of our hands now with so little games left to play. The season has been dramatic maybe there could be one last dramatic twist in our favour yet. Maybe. We can only hope and the players can only do their best till the end.