David Moyes answered the critics who pilloried him for not reacting during the defeat to Liverpool tonight. He threw three shapes of [redacted] at the wall. Unfortunately for him, none of it stuck.
United began the game in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape, a formation that Moyes had experimented with in the beginning of their abject post-Xmas run. Juan Mata, who had reveled in his natural no. 10 position on Saturday against West Ham was shunted out to the right. Danny Welbeck came in for Kagawa on the left. Michael Carrick played as an anchorman, with Marouane Fellaini to his left and Tom Cleverley to his right.
Manuel Pellegrini showed that he has continued to learn from his mistakes this season. He dispensed with his 4-4-2, as he has done in the last couple of big games, electing instead to field David Silva in the hole behind Edin Dzeko in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1. Jesus Navas was stretching the play on the right, with Samir Nasri tucked in on the left.
Before the game could settle into a pattern, City drew first blood – by scoring the fastest opposition goal at Old Trafford in Premier League history. Fellaini allowed Silva to run off him in a right of centre position. He collected Navas’ square pass before hurdling a Patrice Evra challenge on the edge of the area. Phil Jones inexplicably moved out of his way, but Rafael came across to make the saving tackle on the cover. Unfortunately for United, Fernandinho cleverly played the rebound pass into the space that he vacated. Nasri collected, hit the post, and Dzeko reacted quickest to put his side a goal up.
The influence of David Silva was the key theme in the first quarter of the game. He was finding pockets of space either side of United’s lone holder Michael Carrick. After 26 minutes, five of the six most common passing combinations featured the Spaniard. He attempted more passes than anyone else on the pitch in the first half – a whopping 46, finding the target with 89% of them. He also should have had an assist to his name, were it not for Dzeko’s profligacy and De Gea’s reactions in the 18th minute.
City press and dominate possession, United respond
City overran United in the middle of the park in this period. By the end of the first quarter of the game, they had 59% of the possession to their name. United’s defenders were being forced into aimless long balls and were unable to work it through midfield. In the first half, United’s centre backs attempted 10 long passes – City’s only 3.
David Moyes needed to respond and he did. He moved Juan Mata into the middle behind Welbeck and Rooney. United were now 4-3-1-2 and with the extra man in the centre were able to dominate the ball themselves and push City back. The final possession tally at the end of the first half was 47:53 – a good recovery.
They also managed to create some half chances from their new found territorial advantage. Rafael flourished in his wing back role, taking good advantage of Samir Nasri’s narrow positioning and sporadic tracking. He attempted 5 crosses, one of which produced United’s best chance of the half for Juan Mata.
Second half, second change of shape
Given United’s recovery in the last 20 minutes of the first half, what happened next was baffling. Tom Cleverley was ineffective enough in the first half certainly. Removing him in favour of Kagawa is one thing. But to revert again to the starting shape that failed so dismally was just insanity. United were now 4-5-1 again with Kagawa in an unfamiliar right wing role. City’s territorial advantage was restored. The pressure that created led to a series of poorly defended near post corners from Samir Nasri. When Dzeko ran off Rio Ferdinand to put the game to bed from one such corner, no-one was surprised.
In the 65th minute, Moyes changed shape again. This time the abject Fellaini was removed (before he was deservedly sent off) in favour of Antonio Valencia. United were now 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1. Rooney joined Carrick in a double pivot, Mata went to no. 10 and Welbeck went upfront. Phew!
it made little difference. Pellegrini responded intelligently to the switching of Mata into his favoured role. He introduced holding midfielder Javi Garcia alongside Fernandinho to shut that area down, moving Yaya Toure into the no. 10 position in the process (from where he would eventually score the third). United did still have one area which they were consistently exploiting however. Rafael was still getting joy from Samir Nasri’s lax defending. In the 72nd minute, he broke free down the right flank again before crossing for Danny Welbeck at the near post. His flick was saved by Joe Hart. Immediately, Pellegrini showed his nous again – Nasri off, the reliable James Milner on.
This game more than any showed how out of his depth David Moyes is at Manchester United. He started with the wrong shape, happened upon a solution to City’s early dominance, bafflingly abandoned it and then made another pointless change after the horse had bolted.
Pellegrini on the other hand demonstrated logic in his decision making all night – by starting with a 4-4-1-1 and by making substitutions that both responded to United’s and prevented any slight hope of getting back in the game from materialising.
Is this the last straw for the United powers that be?