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City deflates United's title charge

Watch the highlights from City's win over United in the Manchester derby.
Watch the highlights from City's win over United in the Manchester derby.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND

DERBY DAY!

Relive the best action shots from the Manchester derby on Monday.

It makes no difference to the destination of the Premier League title, of course. At this stage of the season, with just seven games now remaining, there is little difference between a 15-point lead, an 18-point lead and the 12-point lead Manchester United now holds. United won’t suddenly collapse, at least not to that extent: the Red Devils need only 10 points from those remaining fixtures to be champions. That’s even if City wins every game from now until the end of the season.

But what Manchester City’s performance in the derby did achieve was to take some of the gloss off United’s coronation parade. There is such a lack of tension to the end of this season that it feels anti-climactic, United wandering vaguely towards the title as everybody else looks on from a distance, rather than surging towards it. It is of significance because it is United’s 20th – the first side to achieve that mark – but in the collective memory of football it is a murmur beside the great crescendo of City’s triumph last season.

In statistical terms, City’s win delays United confirming the title and makes it less likely the Red Devils will break Chelsea’s 2005 record points tally for a season; six wins in the final seven games are now needed even to tie that mark of 95 points. Perhaps more relevant is what it suggests about the respective strengths of the two sides: City must wonder how on earth it has found itself so far behind United when there is apparently so little between the sides.

What was most striking – again – was City’s advantage in central midfield. It wasn’t as glaring as last April, when City overpowered United in the middle of the pitch in winning 1-0 at the Etihad to set up its late charge to the title, but its superiority was enough that it comfortably controlled possession until the chaotic final minutes. It isn’t just against City that this is an issue: it all three matches United has played against Chelsea this season with something approaching a full-strength side (that is, the Premier League game at Stamford Bridge and the two FA Cup games, but not the Capital One Cup game when both sides played a weakened line-up), it was forced to cede control of the center, looking to absorb pressure and attack through rapid breaks down the flanks.

Its forward power has been such that that was an effective strategy in the league games at Stamford Bridge and at the Etihad, but recent defeats to Chelsea in the FA Cup, to Real Madrid in the Champions League and now to City raise questions about a transfer policy that has forced United into that tactical approach.

They’re lines that are often repeated but what Sir Alex Ferguson said in May last year when asked if he planned to sign a holding midfielder remains relevant: “If you look at the examples, [Cesc] Fabregas was one of the best midfield players in England for five years but he wasn’t a big lad and wasn’t a holding player,” he said. “He was an attacking player. Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta are small players – you can’t call them holding players. I don’t think we’ve had a holding player since I’ve been here. We’ve never had a holding player. We tried to get Roy Keane to do that but he just couldn’t do it. He had to play a way that was his own way of playing, so I’ve not had it for 25 years. Why should I think about it now?”

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Instead he bought Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa. Nobody doubts their quality and Van Persie’s goals have been a key factor this season, but yet again the question arises of whether the front end of the team was really the priority. Ferguson may not have had a holder in the sense of a Claude Makelele figure before but he has certainly had dynamic midfielders, players who could win the ball back, who could take the fight to Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and David Silva. Wayne Rooney can do that, from the front rather than the back of midfield, but he was subdued, perhaps feeling the effects of his two-week absence with a groin problem.

United had more chances in the game than City, and may argue that the two goals City scored were freakish – a deflected shot after Ryan Giggs had given the ball away cheaply (with Carlos Tevez in an offside position in front of David De Gea), followed by a stunning goal from Sergio Aguero as he generated ferocious power while seemingly falling over – but the bigger issue is that of midfield control. Perhaps if United hadn’t had a slew of injuries to central defenders – Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling were all unavailable – Jones could have played in midfield and that would have given some protection, but with him at center back, Ferguson was essentially left with the choice of Giggs or Tom Cleverley to operate alongside Michael Carrick. Giggs made the mistake but the more fundamental issue was the lack of a physical presence and it’s hard to imagine Cleverley offering much more in that regard.

United will contemplate that deficiency over the summer but it will at least do so as champions. City may win the FA Cup and end the season on the high but its lack of consistency and the opportunities squandered will nag at it. It’s probably going too far to say that based on its squad it should have won the title - but City should never have been so far behind.

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