Premier League Ponderings – Manchester Is Red

It’s actually been ages since United last beat City, no kidding. The Sky Blues have had the jump for a few years now, winning four derbies in a row. Sir Alex Ferguson was manager when MUFC last triumphed in this fixture, so there ya go. A lot has changed since then.

Heck, a lot has changed in the last couple weeks. City were tied for top at New Years, United were getting wins but weren’t playing terribly cohesively, to say the least. Rolling into their toughest stretch of the season, a potentially decisive few weeks where United faced Spurs, Liverpool, City and Chelsea (with poor Aston Villa in between), questions were being asked. But then everything seemed to click at once in 30 minutes against Tottenham. Chase that with wins against Liverpool and Villa, and now this. While City have not at all coped well with the back end of the season. Just four league wins in twelve and they’ve tumbled from challenging for their title back down to potentially having to fight off Liverpool, Southampton and Spurs for fourth place.

Louis Van Gaal has copped a fair bit for his fabled philosophy but it’s really paying off now. He’s got the right guys in form and he’s figured out how to use the options that he has. Michael Carrick’s fitness has allowed Rooney to return to the top, Ashley Young’s resurgence has spared a not-yet-settled Angel Di Maria, Juan Mata’s found a home as a drifting winger and Mary Fellaini is revolutionising the game as a deep lying target man. This team picks itself these days, the only change from Villa being the return of Chris Smalling from illness.

As for City, they went into combat mode. James Milner finally getting some love from Pellegrini, he started on the left, but frequently switched with Silva, no doubt with designs on pressuring Carrick. Kompany and Demichelis formed an experienced centre back duo. Aguero up front alone, the usuals filling the others.

You wouldn’t know it from the headlines, but City started this game going straight for the knockout. They played with such pace and aggression that United were left cowering on the ropes. Smalling and Jones looked nervous, Carrick couldn’t find his outlets. The fullbacks were getting slaughtered and City were flooding forward with menacing glee. Jesus Navas blew one chance, drawing a smart save from De Gea, but it hardly seemed to matter. It was a ruthless dismantling of recent form for ten minutes… but then they scored.

A nice goal from Aguero too, Milner picking out Silva, who picked out the Argentine who picked out the back of the net. Fine stuff, the boisterous Old Trafford crowd in shock at how this game was turning out.

Except that was it. Once they scored, City appeared to run out of steam. They’d begun with so much intensity, that it was never sustainable and United held them off, albeit for the loss of a goal. Given what City offered at the back once their defence became exposed, that was far from insurmountable. Seriously, Gael Clichy is a broken man, Zabaleta looked like he left the mouldies in instead of the metal sprigs despite the wet Manchester weather and Vincent Kompany… he was just odd. (Demichelis did fine, but he’s limited). More on Kompany later, but yeah… odd.

Fellaini is the target every time De Gea gets the ball. Lump it into that general area and the way he’s being used, Fellaini is usually up against a fullback or midfielder. Few of them ever stand a chance. And while Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia can get caught out at the back sometimes, especially by speed, they are outstanding at getting forward. Mata on the right will usually drift inside, which means an extra midfield option to link in with Herrera/Carrick, but his absence on the flank is almost always covered by a marauding Valencia. Young and Blind play more tightly together on the left, though Young’s penchant for cutting inside nicely complements Blinds preference for getting to the goal line.

Six minutes after going behind, United were level. Ashley Young bundling it in on the second effort, the ball conveniently falling in his path after Clichy’s initial block, but it came from a lovely run to the near post and a great cross from Blind. A step back, it all began with a DDG ball to Fellaini, who absolutely bossed Zabaleta. PZ falling to the floor like a baby deer on ice.

Then in the 27th minute, Young and Blind put Zabaleta and Navas on skates again, with Fellaini taking up a spot at the far post. Ashley Young has rightly gotten plenty of criticism the last couple seasons but one thing that has never faltered in his game has been his crossing. He picked out the ent at the far post, Clichy looking like a small child trying to get to that ball, Hart with no hope at that distance.

It was incredible how the game swung. United were having all of the possession and City were struggling to combat it. Wayne Rooney said afterwards that they looked to target a few City players who tend to be lazy in getting back. You don’t need to think too long to know Yaya Toure is one of those guys. He’s a wonderful player all the same but, damn, he’s gotta work harder sometimes. Fernandinho does his bit, he makes plenty of tackles yet once he gets the ball he’s like a fish outta water. Francis Coquelin of Arsenal is a bit of the same, but he’s surrounded by players who all want the ball and will find positions where they can get it.

Man Utd’s players, on the other hand, were playing for each other. They have a set formation and they know who to cover and where to be. That’s one of the plusses of having so many guys who have had to earn their place in the team, they won’t take anything for granted. Here, City get on the break, Valencia is out of place. So Smalling comes wide and Carrick sits in. Herrera comes to pressure and close, Milner’s pass is picked off easily by Carrick stepping up.

Then compare that to United’s third goal. Juan Mata starts by drifting wide for an option, the ball is pushed forward to Fellaini instead. Demichelis wins the tackle but doesn’t regather possession, all at the same tie Mata is making a run from almost halfway and Blind hits the loose ball past him to Rooney. By the time Rooney flicks it inside (taking a touch too many), Mata’s been overlooked three times on the same run. Demichelis has been sucked wide to Fellaini, Zabaleta is distracted by Young on the sideline. Meanwhile Yaya Toure just stands there as Mata sprints by him, no attempt to even step across him, maybe adjust his path. It’s Mangala isolated against Rooney and Mata in acres of paddock, he had no hope. Mata waited just long enough to get Joe Hart committed before slipping it under him.

He was offside, granted. But only because Rooney took three touches where he only needed two. For City to fall back on that is only to plaster over the cracks, they’d been sliced and diced in that passage of play.

Speaking of stupid defence, Mangala’s playing everyone on for the fourth goal was criminal. He’s a good young defender who needs plenty of time to learn a few key things about his position. Compare him to Smalling and Jones, both who have had several ups and downs and plenty of detractors, and are nonetheless showing everyone how good they can be. Some will say ‘finally’, however that pair are 25 and 23 years old. Eliaquim Mangala is 24 and at a new club. Defenders take a long time to mature, theirs is a position where the slightest mistake will be punished. John Terry has been one of the best players in the League this season at age 34. Most defenders hit their peak around 28-32. Give them all time.

Which brings us to Vincent Kompany. He was lucky not to be sent off for his tackle on Blind before half time (correct decision, though), seeming to be holding his thigh as he slid in. He was then subbed off at the break. Was he injured? Or is he just that far out of form? City will never be a better team with Kompany on the bench, but there are serious issues with their captain right now. Maybe he just needs a nice long rest. Maybe he needs not to have to carry this team’s defence in entirety. As soon as Mangala came on for Kompany, you knew it was gonna mean trouble. Incredibly for a team that’s spend £470m on players in the last five years, City are so skint at the back. There’s no balance to their squad and their manager seems too grim to bother fixing it.

Man of the Match goes to Mary Fellaini in these parts, but Ashley Young got his manager’s approval. "I think Ashley Young was the man of the match. He did his job as a left winger." So says Van Gaal, and hence Angel Di Maria is back to battling off the bench. His game on attack is superior to Young’s but ADM too often shuns his defensive duties, too often gives the ball away in dangerous positions and too often tries to do too much at the expense of his teammates. He’ll learn, it’s a tough adjustment to make, coming from Spain to England – in all aspects. Some time out of the spotlight is the best thing for him. Falcao not so much since he’s only in Manchester on loan for now.

So many of United’s early issues came from Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao being off the pace, neither has really recovered either. RVP has one more season on his deal, though don’t be surprised if he doesn’t last that long. At any rate, he’ll probably leave on a free after that. He was a short term signing and he’s paid back every cent in worth already. It’s funny because people thought LVG would really lean on his Netherlands striker when he too over, instead he’s pushed him half out the door.

Dead Man Walking on the (Sky Blue) Mile

This is worth its own segment. Nothing has changed in the last few weeks, there was zero faith in Pellegrini then and zero now. All the last few losses have done is confirm that Pellegrini is out of ideas and his team has lost all inspiration. There’s now even talk that he may be sacked before the end of the season should their Champions League ambitions come under serious threat.

City are wisely playing it slow with Pell, there are bound to be people criticising them when they dump a manager that won the Premier League in his first season and took them on their best ever Champions League run. But it’s a very different league now, even only 12 months later. Mourinho’s got his squad how he likes it, Van Gaal is getting cooking, Arsene has his most talented (and balanced) Arsenal squad in years and Liverpool, Spurs and Southampton are all hanging around. The fact is, if he ain’t the right man moving forward then he ain’t the right man. He’ll be gone at the end of the season.

The best theory out there is that they want him for another campaign so they can wait out Pep Guardiola’s contract. What an unbelievable coup that would be for the EPL, Mourinho, Van Gaal and Pep all together! Please, please, please make it happen.

Of course the flipside is A) does Pep wanna bother with challenging himself in England? B) what do they do next season, bring in a year-long caretaker? There’s no guarantee Guardiola’s even available. More money, more problems, aye?