For “Collymore closing in…” in 1996, you can read “It’s Michael Owen…” in 2009. Both games were littered with brilliant goals, pathetic defending and some of the most exciting football the Premier League has seen. Now though, two days on from “The Greatest Manchester Derby in the History of Anything Anytime Ever”, it is surely the time to look back on it with a more tactical eye. The time has come to peer reluctantly into the wreckage.
Looking at the two formations on show, it was clearly a battle between United’s 4-4-2 against a City 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1 depending on your outlook on life). Following Rooney’s early goal – caused by a Micah Richards error, not to be the last – City, after a nervous five or ten minutes, and especially following Barry’s equaliser, started to establish control: De Jong was by far and away the best player in the first half, on either side, and dominated the midfield with his smooth, unerring passing complementing his strong, robust tackling. He was helped a lot by United’s eagerness to play the ball towards their two front men rather than using the flanks – one of the major problems with a 4-4-2 is its requirement to play the ball out wide and minimize the numerical disadvantage left in the centre of midfield – and De Jong could therefore just mop up any loose balls from the front. From there he could either give it to either Stephen Ireland or Gareth Barry; if Darren Fletcher and Anderson were blocking that route, he had the time and space to pick out a ball to Carlos Tevez, Craig Bellamy or Shaun Wright Phillips, whose job it was to create havoc. Even with Park Ji-Sung doing his customary harrying, there was still an easy ball to Wayne Bridge on offer if all else failed.
When City had the ball in United’s half, City’s mobile forwards were interchanging effectively, coming short and running in behind, leaving United’s undermanned back six (defenders, and central midfielders) stretched and leaving the centre halves and middle two too far apart, creating space for Bellamy, Barry et al to pick up the ball in space. Carlos Tevez, whose return to Old Trafford was typically hard working (creating Barry’s equaliser by pouncing on Foster’s indecision), was guilty of not further making use of City’s dominance by missing a guilt edge chance just before half time.
With City dominant and United picking out the wrong passes, the last thing they needed was a goalkeeping error from Ben Foster, whose position as United’s Number 2 has started to come into question: His handling from crosses – once a major problem – now rarely seems to raise its ugly head, but his lapses in concentration and poor judgement cost his team twice yesterday. It is too early to make a sure judgement, but he may join Tim Howard, Fabien Barthez and Massimo Taibi on the “Talented Keeper, Not Great at United” list. A further issue for the Champions was the Park/O’Shea combination on the right flank – Park is an excellent defensive option on tough away trips, but at home, and especially in a 4-4-2, the onus is on the flanks (either the wingers or the full backs) to create another option rather than straight down the middle, and Park doesn’t offer the attacking threat of a Valencia or a Nani. This coupled with John O’Shea’s at times comical crossing ability means that while Patrice Evra and Ryan Giggs were running riot down one wing, it was not until Valencia came on until there were three attacking options (right, left, centre), and City’s defence was truly stretched.
Giggs himself was unbelievable. After a poor first half where he saw little of the ball, he was given more possession in more attacking areas. Linking with his fullback beautifully, he gave a lesson in rounded left wing play: When Evra bombed on he would not be afraid to cut inside and create a third man in midfield; when Evra stayed back he would dance past all and sundry, jinking, nutmegging, crossing with calculated genius. United’s Left Wing Delta Force forced Wright Phillips to almost abandon attacking duty – if the same had been true on the other side, perhaps Bellamy would not have had the space, nor the chance to score his brilliant first goal – and forced City to defend crosses, a quality for which they are not famed: Berbatov was good without being great, but even he was having headed chance after chance from Giggs’ crosses. And after The Other Welshman seemed to have had the last laugh, it was Giggs’ calm, cool, precise pass that gave Michael Owen his moment of glory. Darren Fletcher’s willingness to put his head on the end of two Giggs’ crosses showed just how much that United’s channelling of play down the flanks in the second half made City’s central, numerical advantage almost negligible.
This was partly down to United’s exploitation of Giggs’ genius, but also down to City suddenly starting to sense something special in the offing. Like so many clubs who come to Old Trafford, and are within striking distance of a result, they started to retreat: Their dominance in the middle in the first half was negated, as De Jong, Barry and Ireland would only receive the ball in their own third, and so could not risk a short ball to a team mate in case of interception. They went long up to their front three, and with Tevez, Bellamy and Wright Phillips (i.e. three very small guys) up there, they kept losing it cheaply; so United could give the ball to Giggs, who, much further upfield, could work his magic again, and again, and again. City just couldn’t cope. If City could’ve held their nerve, and held their backline at a reasonable height, then there would not have been such a level on intense pressure on the backline.
Intense pressure took its toll on Micah Richards, who had an awful game, and was put under duress time and again by Giggs and Evra. He still is young enough to recover from such poor games, but he has to work on his defending before he can ever think about being involved in Fabio Capello’s England set up. He was backing off a 35 year old (admittedly playing superbly), allowing him time and space to cross, before then closing down Evra, who would whizz on by. It was a remarkable display, for all the wrong reasons.
On a positive note for City was the second half performance of Shay Given, whose really good saves seemed to have gained a point after Craig Bellamy’s goals. Both of which were brilliant. His first, a cut in and shot from nearly 30 yards, could have been prevented by O’Shea either a) learning how to defend, or b) remembering that the Welshman is weaker on his left foot and showing him that side, instead of just letting him have the space do what he pleased. It still took some finishing however, and he did with unerring accuracy and incredible power for such a small man. His second goal was a similar story – this time it was Rio Ferdinand’s mistake – the Englishman didn’t look fully fit at all on Sunday, and questions may need to be asked if he either breaks down again or puts in a similarly lacklustre performance after getting some more match practice – and Bellamy again finished with deadly accuracy, especially with such a tight angle to work with.
Unfortunately for him and City, the whole world caved in from that moment: Owen scored coolly in the 96th minute (forget the timing issue for a moment, where was the marking?) and he appeared to push a detained fan in the face, after he (the fan) had run on the pitch afterwards. The former moment was about no defence, the latter, allegedly, about self defence. What a strange day.