By Kevin Koczwara
Roberto Mancini had Manchester City in prime position to challenge for the English Premier League title, but he couldn’t find a way to shut down Manchester United and Wayne Rooney in one of the most anticipated derby’s of the season. The loss will ultimately be his team’s shortcoming in the race for the league. The league looks unrealistic now, even in the boldest of dreams for City fans.
Old Trafford was the place to make the mark. To settle the score. A chance to put league leaders United on the back foot. It was a chance to hand the Red Devils their second loss in a row after starting the year undefeated until a loss to Wolverhampton a week ago. City could have cut the lead to two measly points — Manchester United with a game still in hand — and delivered a devastating mental blow to United.
“I like to play this game. I like to play at Old Trafford because it is better to win there than at home,” Mancini told the press on Friday before the game. “Because when you win away in a derby it is more important for our head and our personality.”
The Italian manager knew the battle for the league was in the balance and his team needed to show up. He needed to put his players in a position to win. He didn’t.
Mancini sent out five defenders — four actually lined up in the defense — to start the game in hopes of holding off United’s bursting counter-attack and to contain Nani. The negative approach by the Italian at the back was supplemented by four midfielders and the addition of Aleksandar Kolarov on the left, playing as a left wing back. Mancini played only two truly attack minded players, Carlos Tevez and David Silva. Mancini played not to lose instead of to win.
The negative approach worked in the opening minutes. Kolarov and his left-sided defensive partner Pablo Zabletta kept Nani out of the game, and the City midfield dominated possession early. The two sides looked like they would play to a stalemate, something neither side wanted nor needed in its chase for the league.
The 0-0 draw earlier this season was as dull of a match as one could have watched. Neither side was able to break down the opponents defense and both managers carefully selected squads that would negate the others strengths. A similar thing happened in the second meeting, but when looking over the stats and the game again, it’s easy to see who made the difference and what manager had a better idea of how to attack the opponent this time around.
Mancini wanted his side to stay narrow, work in to out and let his center midfielders overlap over David Silva and Carlos Tevez. Kolarov was suppose to add width opposite of Silva, but he failed to get into the game at all. Sir Alex Ferguson took advantage of City’s narrow play and had his center midfielders switch the point of attack quickly and often, making City’s defense move and open up holes for crosses and balls into the box. Paul Scholes ability to pass from wing to wing and one of the field to the other negated City’s narrow approach. But United could’t make their city rivals pay for their positive play until a miracle goal broke the deadlock.
With the game tied at one, Wayne Rooney made headlines with arguably the goal of the year. The striker volleyed a cross from Nani out of midair and struck it firmly into the back of the net, breaking the tie and City’s title hopes all in one marvelous strike.Kolarov’s ineptitude in the game can be seen by his lack of ability to pass the ball or win it back for City. by Guardian Chalkboards
One can argue that Manchester City has more collective talent that any team in the English Premier League, right now. The likes of Carlos Tevez, Mario Ballotelli, David Silva, and Edin Dzeko in its attacking ranks alone cost more than some collective rosters. Top that off with an expensive array of defenders and midfielders like Yaya and Kolo Toure, and with Joe Hart in net, you have a deep and experienced team with plenty of skill. But, again, City couldn’t beat United and really make a final push for the league. But why?
The team lacks a cohesive formation for one (see section above) Mancini rarely plays to win games. Is there any other manager in the league who would send out two holding midfielders (yes, I know Yaya Toure has shown his attacking ability, still he is a holding midfielder), a box-to-box midfielder and a left sided defender in the defense? Okay, maybe Roy Hodgson would, but no other manager in his right mind would do that and leave all that attacking power on the bench.
The bigger issue has to do with mentality. United surely isn’t the most talented team in the Premier League. The squad has been there and won. It’s a team with faith in itself when the times get tough.
“We have the experience with the manager and the players and we know what we have to do,” Rooney told Sky Sports.
Looking at Mancini’s comments after the loss, and it’s no wonder he team failed to fight back after Rooney’s wonder strike or create their own. He was proud of his team for its performance, but he still thinks his team is inferior to United. His team has more talent, but it is missing a collective confidence. And he isn’t helping to instill it with this type of attitude.
“But if we can come here and play like this against United then we will be OK. I am very proud of my players and I have told them this. I told the players to go home and have a drink. They should be disappointed by the result, if not the performance. We are very close to United now, very close,” Mancini told the Guardian.
Here lies the problem. The Italian gave his team a break when it could have easily made its mark on the Premier League. City missed a great opportunity. Sir Alex may not have criticized his players after a loss like this, but he would not have told them to go out and have some fun.
“United didn’t play well in the second half but their players always think they can change the game. This is the mentality that comes when you have been winning things for a long time. I think we need to win one cup, one title, because if we do that then we can change the whole mentality of our team,” continued Mancini.
He’s right, if City get one big cup win under its belt, all bets are off and this time could start making noise all over Europe, not just in England from time to time.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.