* The most obvious conclusion from Arsenal and Manchester City’s FA Cup semi-final on Sunday was that Tottenham and Chelsea are comfortably the two best teams in the country. The most obvious conclusion from Manchester City vs Manchester United on Thursday is that Tottenham and Chelsea are comfortably the two best teams in the country.
The result of Thursday night would not change the fact that both these two managers have underperformed badly during their first seasons at their new clubs. I largely agree with Gary Neville that neither’s job should be under pressure and that it would be nice to judge both after three years, but Manchester City and Manchester United were the pre-season first and second favourites for the Premier League title. Success from here on in is only judged against stunted ambitions.
Yet that only made Thursday’s result and performances more important. This was not an opportunity for either manager to make themselves the ‘Giant of Manchester’, as the Daily Mail’s splash claimed on Tuesday, but for each to rub the other’s nose into the dirt. They could lay down a marker ahead of next season. It could also have been a shoot-out for Champions League qualification. Liverpool’s creaking squad and creakier results mean that both Manchester clubs could yet make the top four, but victory for United would really put them back in contention. They needed it.
The result was pitiful, given our expectations. The Premier League may be the richest league in the world, the most intense league in the world and often the most exciting league in the world, but the first half was not a good advert. Having watched an extraordinary El Clasico on Sunday evening, the Manchester derby felt half-paced. Even at this reduced speed, passes were misplaced too often and the general quality low.
At the start of the season, the arrival of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho made Manchester the capital city of English football. On the evidence of a Thursday night in April, this was a battle between peripheral clubs from a provincial town. Must do better.
* Still, at least Manchester City tried to score. Guardiola started Sergio Aguero and all three of Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane in the absence of David Silva. Aguero dropped deep to collect the ball from Yaya Toure, and allowed the wide forwards to pin back the full-backs. City had 19 shots (six on target), attempted 17 crosses and had more corners. They had 69% possession and 31% of the game was played in United’s final third.
Yet in that dominance, there is a flaw. Having scored 102 league goals in 2013/14 and 83 in 2014/15, City dropped to 71 league goals last season. Despite the signings of Leroy Sane, Nolito and Gabriel Jesus, that total is set to rise only by two this year.
It is City’s chance conversion rate that has held them back under Guardiola as well as their defensive incompetence. Missed chances may have been the hallmark of United’s season, but City rank seventh behind five of the other six teams for chance conversion. For shooting accuracy, they only rank 12th.
* Part of the problem is one of style. Given the pace at Guardiola’s disposal, City are lightning fast on the counter-attack. Yet when a team sits back and challenges Guardiola’s team to break them down, they fall down far, far too often. Quick dribbling and stretching of the play is replaced by ponderous moves and backward passing.
Against United, they were basically reliant upon Aguero collecting the ball, beating two players and then scoring. On the few occasions Aguero did the first part, he failed to achieve the second.
That problem is reflected in the statistics, with Aguero taking nine of City’s 19 shots but just three of them coming from inside the penalty area. Without the magician Silva playing those threaded passes that take two players out of play, City quickly run out of options. Silva won’t be around forever.
* As far as United are concerned, I’m just confused. All week we have been told that City were vulnerable, and victory for Mourinho would pile the pressure on Guardiola and put his Champions League place in doubt. City had won two of their last seven matches, and conceded 11 times in those games.
Yet Mourinho totally allowed City off the hook. There was nothing wrong with sitting back to soak up pressure before hitting their opponents on the counter-attack (as Monaco demonstrated, that is the perfect plan to hurting City), but United focused on the defending and left out the attacking part.
Mourinho’s only defence was the lack of attacking talent at his disposal. United’s five highest chance creators (per 90 minutes) this season in the Premier League are Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, and only one of those five started the match.
Yet this was a match that Manchester United surely needed to win, and yet they did not even try. They attempted three shots in 90 minutes, and only one in the second half. Even before the sending-off, they had decided to settle for the point that helped only their hosts.
For all the talk of unbeaten runs, the overriding feature of this Manchester derby was United’s emphatic lack of adventure. Mourinho has all the eggs piled into his Europa League basket.
* The instant retort from United supporters will be that their team defended well, but only Michael Carrick and the excellent Eric Bailly were truly composed in that regard. For the most part, the midfield and defence won possession but then lost it quickly, clearing the ball far up the pitch through desperation more than aspiration.
Herrera is the obvious example to prove the theory. The Spaniard has completed 90 minutes on 20 occasions in the league this season, and this match ranked 20th out of 20 for his number of passes, number of touches and passing accuracy.
It’s also not even close. Herrera completed 21 passes, had 57 touches and registered a passing accuracy of 65.6%. The next lowest figures for any of his 90-minute league displays this season are 32 (successful passes), 60 (touches) and 74.4% (passing accuracy).
That is a reflection not of Herrera’s performance, but United’s style. They deliberately placed their backs against the wall, which a naughty writer might say is a mere step from parking the bus.
* Can we talk about Marouane Fellaini now? Lovely.
There is no doubt that Fellaini is a limited central midfielder, nor too that he has no role in a team supposedly challenging for the title. Yet in an away game against a difficult opponent, Fellaini has his place. He is there to break up play, win aerial duels, help out when defending set-pieces and hope to cause panic in the opposition box in similar situations.
In that regard, being booked for fouling Aguero and stopping a counter-attack is fair game. Bookings aren’t ideal, and Fellaini has nine in the league this season, but they are an accepted part of the job.
To then argue about that booking before committing another offence on the same player is pretty dim, but Fellaini may well not have received a second yellow for the second foul. A stern talking-to from Martin Atkinson would probably have sufficed.
So for Fellaini to react to Aguero’s complaints by headbutting the Argentine is absolutely disgraceful, not just in terms of his conduct but lack of intelligence. Aguero may well have made the most of the contact, but this was not two players with their heads together and one claiming to be the injured party. Fellaini’s head was pushed into Aguero, and he fully merited his red card.
Fellaini’s subsequent protestations of innocence were embarrassing, but it is his initial refusal to leave the pitch that risks a further ban from the Football Association. Fellaini went ‘full Joey Barton’. Apart from that. And that. And that. And that. Oh and that. And all of that.
* This might not just be the end of Fellaini’s domestic season, but also the end of his United career. As he trudged from the field, Mourinho asked him what happened but was given only further complaints. The manager’s look as Fellaini headed down the tunnel was instructive.
In some players you can accept the risk of outburst and disciplinary problems due to their talent, with Zinedine Zidane the most obvious example of that principal; Sergio Ramos is another. Yet Fellaini does not merit any patience or leeway. He has barely enough quality to merit a place in Manchester United’s midfield even if his record was clean. As it is, this was just another example of a liability proving himself to be exactly that.
* Is there a team more unwise in their decision-making when making tackles than Manchester City? Vincent Kompany’s reputation for steaming out and wide from his central defensive position to give away fouls is infamous, while Fernandinho, Fernando, Aleksandar Kolarov and Nicolas Otamendi are all prone to rash challenges in foolish areas. That’s particularly stupid given City’s struggles when defending set-pieces.
Pablo Zabaleta was the latest to resort to such stupidity. Just before half-time, he kicked Martial on the left wing. The United forward was going nowhere, but rather than stand his ground and hold Martial up, he sprinted towards the Frenchman and kicked him. Why? What happened to discipline?
City should have been punished for the mistake, too. From the resultant free-kick, Herrera headed wide when left completely unmarked at the back post. Poor challenge, poor miss.
* There is a gem of a player in Sterling, but he really does have to improve his shooting if he is to move onto the next level. Whether it is an issue of confidence, technique or a combination of both, too often he miskicks his shots or sends them over the crossbar.
No player in the Premier League has more touches in the opposition box than Sterling. Clearly the majority of his role is as creator, but on the opposite flank Leroy Sane has a shot conversion rate of 26.3%; Sterling’s is 15.8%. Given that 36 of his 56 shots in the league have come from inside the penalty area, that’s not good enough.
* Paul Pogba has not been perfect this season, but the lack of dynamism, energy and effectively recycled possession in his absence is enough evidence for his positive effect on this United midfield.
Herrera sits deeper, Henrikh Mkhitaryan provides the drives forward and Fellaini the physical strength, but Pogba gives you enough of all three combined. His absence made United look like component parts rather than a complete unit.
* I’ve finally worked out the problem with Claudio Bravo: He’s not very good. The Chilean’s inability to stop shots on target has haunted him throughout his first season in Manchester, but don’t be fooled into thinking that is his only weakness.
A goalkeeper’s job is not just to save shots, but to effectively marshal his defence to reduce the number of chances conceded, and instil confidence in his defenders. Bravo emphatically fails in that last task.
After 20 minutes, we saw the perfect example of why. Martial’s cross was delivered into the box, with few Manchester United players challenging for the ball. Rather than catching it, punching it clear or leaving it for one of his defenders, Bravo instead palmed the ball out into the middle of the penalty area. His follow-up save from Mkhitaryan was excellent, but the chance was created purely by his own incompetence.
Guardiola must swallow his pride this summer, and buy another new goalkeeper. Bravo and Joe Hart may well be sold, because this has been a disaster.
Also, shout out to the people manning the Manchester City Twitter account. It must be hard to do this stuff with a straight face.
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— Manchester City (@ManCity) April 27, 2017
* It’s quite simple to produce football well for television. The entertainment stems from the product more than the production; the key is letting the ingredients speak for themselves.
Some of Sky Sports’ innovations in televised football have been truly excellent, but their insistence on trying too hard is really frustrating. We didn’t want player cam, we didn’t want to watch matches in 3D and we don’t want to be made to feel sick by odd camera angles.
Our eyes and minds are programmed in how to watch incidents on TV, sat high up on the halfway line and occasionally zoomed in. Sky’s new spidercam, used on corners to offer a different view, makes you feel as if you are at the top of a rollercoaster looking down.
The biggest issue with this camera change is that football is so fast-paced that as soon as the corner is delivered into the penalty area – and the spidercam used – the ball has been cleared or passed outside the box. That causes a rush to switch cameras again, giving the whole thing a ‘Blair Witch Project’ vibe.
It’s football, for goodness sake. It’s bloody brilliant. So just let us watch it.
* I know he can and will watch it back until his heart’s content, but is it just me that thinks it is a little weird that the England manager missed the Manchester derby to watch a match of rugby league?
— Betfred Super League (@SuperLeague) April 27, 2017
* There is a habit in football punditry that really grinds my gears. When an official gets a decision wrong, even a marginal one, they are criticised. Yet when an official gets a marginal decision correct, particularly in the case of offside decisions, we are told that it was “just right”. That seems incredibly unfair.
With that in mind, it was great to hear Neville praising the assistant referee for his exceptional call in ruling out Jesus’ goal. Not only did he have to judge that the running Jesus was ahead of the last man, but also that the ball from Aguero was played from behind Jesus rather than level with him. I’m tempted to give him Man of the Match.
* Yet the player who does receive that award is Carrick, who again demonstrated his continued usefulness to United. It was interesting to see Guardiola congratulate the opposition captain after the game.
In many ways, this was the perfect match for Carrick. With United sitting deep, he could delegate the running to Herrera and Fellaini, instead focusing on being in the perfect position to screen United’s defence. Yet he still does everything with a quiet efficiency that was lacking in so many other players on the pitch.
We are likely entering the final days of Carrick’s tenure at Old Trafford. He is out of contract in the summer and no new deal has yet been forthcoming. Mourinho will likely replace him with a younger model, capable of playing twice in a week alongside Pogba and Herrera.
* In the early 1990s, there was a competition called the Rumbelows Sprint Contest in which clubs put forward their fastest players in races against other clubs to find the quickest player in the division.
Here starts the campaign for that to return, but just with Otamendi racing Marcus Rashford, with the defender given increasing headstarts and seeing how much distance Rashford can make up. When sprinting against him, Otamendi looked like he was wearing boots made from cement and dipped in PVA glue.