Devils May Laugh

Ashey “Young God” Young. Enough said.

Is anyone surprised? Because we’ve seen that coming. It took 45 seconds for Manchester City centre-backs to make a first error in mutual communication, allowing a through ball inside the penalty area. Joe Hart was prepared and alert, as he made a good save before Young collected that pass – yet we all got a sign of things to come. It didn’t even matter that few minutes later, Jesús Navas found himself in a one-on-one situation with De Gea and Agüero even scored a tap-in after a decent buildup down the left wing. We all knew that the rot has already settled in MC’s lineup and the disasters against Burnley and Crystal Palace weren’t accidental. Defensively, Citizens were constantly in shambles this season, lacking aggression and cooperation, messing up the tackles just like Kompany messed it up badly on Sunday, against Daley Blind. Barcelona turned their backline into a smoldering ruin, crashing through with excellent wingplay and dribbles. But let’s be serious: it doesn’t take this sophisticated means to outplay Millionares from Ettihad in their own third. If anything, City’s derby rivals have proven this fact fair and square, as Red Devils don’t even have any particularly special attacking skill to offer. And yet, United managed to bag four goals – the most they’ve scored in a single game since September 14th, 2014 and MU’s home win over QPR.

The image of Gaël Clichy (1.76 m above the Mother Earth) trying to mark Marouane Fellaini (1.94 m, plus the haircut) will be forever engraved in my mind. Yes, it was this simple: just like many more other Premier League teams, Pellegrini’s boys fell victim to crosses in the penalty area. Having Michael Carrick back in physical shape and Ander Herrera confirming his terrific form in recent games, Louis van Gaal finally gave up on his Dutch 5-1-2-2 experiments and reassigned Daley Blind to a left-back spot. This allowed him to deploy Ashley Young as a winger – and all these changes had a devastating effect on MC’s right flank. Zabaleta, who’s been underperforming for many weeks already, had way too much things to deal with even if he was in a top form – and it didn’t take long for two goals to come after deliveries from his area. The Young-Blind duo had an excellent time – so much depended on their crossing skills that MU’s right flank literally did not exist offensively in the first half. But that tactical tidbit doesn’t explain everything! A good cross may be a good cross, but it always need a person on the end of it, a person who’s normally going to be marked tightly and in front of the ball. It all looked as if City players could not care less for that. They’ve conceded two goals in the first half, and visitors’ players were late and outmuscled on both occasions.

If first half was a painful demonstration of MC’s lack of organization and focus, then the second 45 minutes explained how they had zero chance of getting anything from this game once they found themselves a goal down. The attacking play was just so uninspired, so slow, so tedious to watch that many Championship backlines wouldn’t be fooled by it – let alone one of the best defensive fours in England. How different it was from a 2013-14 campaign! One year ago, every single touch Yaya Touré took on the ball was a potential goal and fouling City players in front of your own penalty area was an equivalent to a sporting suicide. David Silva, the primary playmaker of the team in front of opposition’s box – he was able to set up good chances for in-form Agüero through short passes and intricate teamwork. Today, all that’s left from those assets is Kun – isolated, tracked back carefully by physically stronger defenders, devoid of a proper link with partners. Yesterday, he scored twice, finishing two good, ground crosses played from a close range. Too bad that no other City player had any real ability to strike the ball and force De Gea to at least make an effort. Touré, Silva and absolutely useless Jesús Navas all tried to emulate their Argentinian fellow – and they all failed or got blocked in the nick of time.

 The performances of leading visitors’ actors in Theatre of Dreams were mediocre, true – but what’s to be said about the supporting staff? James Milner, the beloved “English Lad” has turned out to be the worst player on the pitch. He constantly burned his legs by pressurizing MU players high up, but without much help from anyone else, he was just wasting energy which was needed to be spent on accurate passes and creative play – something he’s not really good at anyway. Vincent Kompany, the man who’s been considered so essential to this team, he was named it’s captain – he was a bystander too. Wayne Rooney’s subtle control over the events in front of Hart’s goal remained uncontested for the majority of the game – and though Wazza did not score this time, his movements were too intelligent for the Belgian to trace. Kompany saved himself some misery by coming off injured in the half time, after sustaining minor damage to his right thigh. Sidelined, he watched how his apprentice, Eliaquim Mangala (31.8 million worth of pounds) marks the wrong man while United increase their lead to 4-1. The Frenchman, distracted by the presence of Fellaini and Carrick on the far post, ripped the line of his teams’ offside trap, allowing Smalling to come through the middle and score an awkward header from close range. Yep. That’s your money for you.

 MC’s manager chose to bring Samir Nasri for the final half of an hour and then to aid him with his super-sub, Frank Lampard. Not that it made any kind of difference, though – they both barely even got a sniff. City’s ball retention remained poor all through the game, the players kept knocking passes to their Spanish wingers, expecting them to do something on their own. Against new 4-1-4-1 approach from United, Navas and Silva had very little hope at getting through the flanks doubled with defensively competent players. In the middle, things looked equally grim, as Fernandinho and Touré were forced to endure a persistent pressure from their MU counterparts. If we compare Carrick’s impact (33 years old with 73 touches on ball and 92% pass accuracy) with Touré’s (31 years old, 55 touches and 85% pass accuracy) – we’ll get the answer who was on top this weekend. This also explains nearly 60% total possession for the home side: from start to finish they were the team that was confident to control the game and the early conceded goal only cemented the team’s excellent performance. The Citizens were basically forced into a defensive/counterattacking posture for over an hour – and they didn’t have enough fitness and motivation to counter their rivals. They simply needed more pace. And they simply didn’t have any more pace to offer.

 

It’s hard to figure out what Pellegrini was thinking. Before the game, one could easily guess that MU will be on the top of their physical shape while City might feel tired – they’ve had a lot of Champions League football this season and Yaya Touré participated in Africa Cup of Nations too. The visitors either needed to compensate for that disadvantage by playing Edin Džeko and holding on to the ball while attacking – or by stringing many passes in the middle of the park in order to kill the tempo of the proceedings. The Chilean boss surely had some plan in mind – unfortunately, whatever it was, it could not really be noticed by a neutral football fan. The only consistent element of MC’s play were drill crosses from the channels between MU’s centre-backs and full-backs: the only area where Red Devils were fairly vulnerable. There were no attempts through the middle, no counterattacking finesse, not even a normal Clichy’s presence upfront (he might’ve been too devastated with his previous mistakes to bother). What’s worse, there were no instructions from the sidelines! While van Gaal and Giggs kept moving, gesturing, consulting and shouting at their team in unrest, Pellegrini just stood there, looking at the pitch like a devastated, old man he is. Personally, I very much doubt that he still has the players standing behind him.

Struggling: all Pellegrini’s concerns are literally written on his face.

While the odds for City manager’s unemployment are rising, Louis van Gaal is celebrating his unlikely, yet deserved success. Three months ago, he worked with a team with Daley Blind playing as a DM, Robin van Persie doing nothing as the number 9 and injury-plagued, horrendous backline blundering goal after goal – most of which were saved by the sensational David De Gea anyway. But that has all changed – drastically. With just three defeats in 27 games in the span of five months, MU climbed one step above the level of Tottenham and Liverpool, joining the battle for EPL’s silver medals. The performances particularly skyrocketed after Ángel Di María’s red card against Arsenal and a subsequent criticism for diving in his otherwise dreadful performance, which provided van Gaal a good alibi to bench his supposed “star” permanently. In truth, ex-Real Madrid player was one of the poorest fits to Devils’ team in years, suffering one bad game after another. Old Trafford certainly won’t cry when the Argentinian departs for PSG or some other club this summer. The fans already have another hero. Juan Mata, lost in the labyrinths of 5-1-2-2 strategy, is finding back his old Chelsea form – and, with it, the net. His goal against Joe Hart might’ve been offside and awkward – but trust me, on Sunday, he’s done much more good than that.

Mata finds himself in a pleasant company of other, rapidly progressing players. Marouane Fellaini, who’s used to be a calamity as a straight-up defensive midfielder, has turned into a serious attacking weapon once van Gaal looked back at his role at Everton and redeployed him into an advanced, athletic outlet he used to fulfil for The Toffees. Antonio Valencia, previously known as a pace merchant with no real clue what to do on the ball, grew up to become a good, last-ditch defender against through balls, as he played a fairly solid game against David Silva and managed to clamp down one, important, nearly fatal Aguero’s run. However, the real star of the day was Ashley Young, scoring an equalizer and assisting his teammates twice with inch-perfect crosses. United’s winger had a game of his life: he repeatedly annihilated Zabaleta and his persistence in tackling made Jesús Navas look like some fat and lazy foreigner on holiday in UK. Young was so active, he caused City centre-backs to float out of the positions and with that, the rest of their defensive duties laid in ruins. “We wanted to keep our noisy neighbours quiet” – said the hero himself, regarding visitors’ fans. “I’m delighted to score in a derby and help our team to make a comeback. We’ve shown the character. It’s amazing feeling” – he added.

Young will be delighted to look at Premier League’s table after this weekend. Four point clear over City, nine over Southampton and at least eight ahead of Liverpool – Manchester United are on a good way to bring home Champions League football again. Rumours say LvG will then receive a £150m budget to improve team’s roster even more. The names expected to be his targets include Dani Alves, Roberto Firmino, Paul Pogba, Thiago Silva and Marquinhos – not to mention Edinson Cavani or Mats Hummels, who were linked with the red shirt for some time already. And what’s going to happen with City? There’s a slim chance that the sheiks will hijack Kevin De Bruyne after his scintillating season in Wolfsburg. If this fails, there are always two or three Liverpool players greedy enough to betray Anfield in favour of Ettihad. But first, Citizens have to defend their Champions League spot in a battle that will likely decide Manuel Pellegrini’s future. As we speak, SkyBet pays only 5 pounds for every four betted on MP being sacked before the end of this campaign. Will he stay? If yes, Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, the men responsible for clubs’ flawed transfer policy, might go. If no, there are already few people lined up for the job – including world’s most wanted manager, the one and only Diego Simeone from Atletico Madrid…

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