Manchester United went missing when it mattered most
As bold as Roberto Mancini was starting in David Silva and Samir Nasri, Sir Alex Ferguson’s message was clearly one of containment at the Etihad Stadium last night.
Clearly concerned with Yaya Toure’s power and the prospect of Nasri and Silva getting between the lines, his expected two in midfield; Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes were supplemented by Ryan Giggs.
Ferguson admitted the decision to play Giggs, 38, and Scholes, 37, was that their experience of the big occasion far outweighed all the other individuals on the pitch. However immediately you feared City’s more youthful and vibrant midfield would overwhelm them, and so it came to pass.
The other two surprise selections were Chris Smalling at right-back and Park Ji-Sung. Tellingly Park had not played for six weeks before last night, Smalling four.
It was United on top in the early exchanges as they prevented City from gaining any fluidity from back to front as Silva and Nasri were hardly given time or space to turn. This was suiting Ferguson’s plan perfectly.
United however were offering nothing to trouble Joe Hart, not registering a single shot on target in the first 45 minutes. Wayne Rooney lonely, and frustrated. Nani looked United’s main creative outlet from midfield but often his distribution was awry, completing just 70 per cent of his passes.
But the main problem for United was Giggs and Park. In the case of the former when he had possession he was wasteful (making just 18 passes in the whole half). Park on the other hand quickly became a fading force and the pressing and harrying for which he is famous for disappeared as his fitness levels dropped.
It was not coincidence therefore that City seized control of the game; Zabaleta able to move forward from right-back producing the first shot on goal and making the second highest number of passes in the final third (13), after Nasri (18). There was little goalmouth action to speak of but when City scored, it was very much with the run of play.
Surprisingly Ferguson elected not to make any changes at half-time and United’s shape stayed the same. Zabaleta, who enjoyed an excellent game, in part to Giggs’ lack of protection for Patrice Evra was frequently bombing forward.
The flagging Park was eventually hauled off just before the hour for Danny Welbeck, a ragged Rooney dropping deeper. The change did however open the game up a little more for United.
This was when a desperately poor United side looked their best but as City retreated Ferguson’s side had nothing to give. Rooney had an awful game, his passing poor and completely suffocated by Kompany. But the more attackers (Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young) Ferguson flung on the more disjointed they looked.
As meek as United were, Toure’s energy was infectious. Several times he chased lost causes and the space his fitness allowed saw two late shooting opportunties. How Ferguson could have done with such a player.
Mancini was frustrated they didn’t kill the game off but so bad were United it proved irrelevant.