The upcoming derby will give a strong indication of each sides genuine ability for league success this season.
The Manchester derby – who is the pressure really on?
It has certainly not been a great season yet for either United or City in terms of quality. Criticism in the media regarding mediocre performances and poor defending has been fair and justified. However regardless of their "below standard" performances they are, as expected, first and second in the league and one cannot see anyone knocking them off for the remainder of the season. The question is, who will come out on top at the end of the season? The upcoming derby will give a strong indication of each sides genuine ability for league success this season.
Make no mistake, United and Ferguson are obsessed, desperate and driven to take the title back to Old Trafford this season.
Last season Man City defeated United home and away, in a manner which seemed incomprehensible to many; City simply outplayed and outclassed United. Although they recorded the biggest loss on United home, a 6-1 win, it was perhaps the game at the Etihad which really highlighted the gulf between the two sides. United came with a defensive 4-5-1 in the hope of scraping a draw. It was a clear admission that Man City were the better side. And they were.
And yet, United still could have won the league last year. The draw against Everton was costly and it was another painful reminder that United had serious deficiencies defensively. That draw along with the loss to Wigan gifted City the title and although it took till the final minute to secure the league, City were deserved winners.
Defensive woes are United's downfall once again
This summer was huge for Ferguson and United. Losing the league on goal difference to their rivals was a bitter pill to swallow and it was evident that United needed much work to become a title winning side again. Defensively there were problems; in the absence of Vidic the side lacked organisation, leadership and composure and although it was hoped he would return this season, there was clearly a need to reinforce this area. Yet Ferguson decided not to.
With more injury setbacks for Vidic this season, with the constant decline of Ferdinand and the average (for United’s level) Evans, Jones and Smalling, United have shown a real naivety in defence this season and after 15 seasons have recorded their worse defensive record in 11 years. Not exactly learning from their mistakes is it?
As this blog argued in the summertoo, United needed to bolster their midfield to give the side more stability, drive and tenacity. In the absence of Darren Fletcher these past 18 months United have been weak and overran by sides not just of Barcelona’s quality. Ferguson decided that a midfielder was not required as he believed that Fletcher would be returning and that in players like Anderson and Cleverley he had sufficient quality in this area to support Michael Carrick. However, the fact he still relies on Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs to offer discipline and “experience” to that midfield indicates the state of United’s failings in this area. Quite simply United’s defence and midfield is nowhere near world class standards, it is weak and exposed too often and this shaky foundation has been guilty of conceding of 32 goals in all competitions.
Now for all the signs that United lacked quality in defence and midfield, Ferguson believed that the reason for United losing the league was that the side did not score enough goals. (In fact they scored 89 goals, more than any season in the past five years). The loss of the league last season came from conceding too many goals and importantly losing twice to City. The league effectively came down to head to head games between the two and the truth was United came second to City in those games.
City and United were by far the two dominant sides in the league last year. 89 points was the highest total since Man Utd won the league in 08-09 when they recorded 90. Those six points lost to City was the big factor in United's loss of the league.
Rooney satisfied, Kevin Keegan proud.
Ferguson decided to spend £40m on both Kagawa from Dortmund and Robin Van Persie. Two excellent signings without doubt, who had been in scintillating form for their previous sides for the past two seasons. Ferguson knew that both would give the team more goals and also the ability to control games more.
In bringing in two genuine top quality players United had sought to improve on an issue which has been evident for the past several years. An issue which caused Wayne Rooney to voice his concern and frustration about the club's ambition and direction in late 2010. Whether because of money or Ferguson's desire to bring in and develop potential is unknown, yet the truth has been that in the past several years United have been distinctly average.
The arrival of Kagawa and particularly Robin Van Persie has brought out the best in Rooney. After some years in the absence of Ronaldo and Tevez, Rooney now has genuine quality playing with him again. Without question Rooney has beniftted from their arrivals. Yet has the team? There is no doubt that Untied look stronger in their attack, yet that was not the issue was it?
There is no getting away from the serious deficiencies in United's side.This worrying trend of conceding first is becoming more than a little concerning. Why are United not focused in games from the start? Why does it take a goal from the opposition to seemingly wake them up and react. There are clearly issues with dealing with set pieces and crosses.
The problem appears to be coming from United's mentality. This mentality appears to be coming straight from the "Kevin Keegan School of Football". Quite simply, the we will score more than you approach. So far it is working for them. However, whereas in games like against Reading, Southampton, QPR and Aston Villa, United can almost afford to concede goals and go behind, knowing they can score more and win the game. There is a worry however that against the best sides in the league, this will be their undoing.
City are the one's standing in Ferguson's way
There is an argument to say that only one side can prevent United from winning the title and that is Man City. The six points which City took from United last season and the six goal swing in goal difference gave City the title. United therefore have to treat these games against their rivals as essential in their pursuit for the title.
I argued towards the end of the last season that even if City did not win the title, they would overtake United this season as the best side in the league due to their financial might and possession of genuine world class players. I referred to it as a “widening gap” between the two clubs. The argument was based on finances yet the truth was that the quality which City possessed compared to United was extremely vast. I argued that perhaps the main thing holding back City from running away with the league was their manager, and for United, the thing keeping them competitive, was theirs.
City’s league success appeared to be the start of a very dominant period for the club. That “monkey” was off their back and only a period of domination appeared forthcoming. However, a rather quiet summer in terms of transfers, issues in the boardroom and a changing of management in executive level, has meant a strange cloud hanging over the Eithad this season, a cloud which has affected performances in the league and in Europe.
With any successful side there is a need to bolster and bring in new faces in order to keep the competitiveness and eagerness of the players alive. City, although chasing players like Eden Hazard, Robin Van Persie and Danielle De Rossi, failed to bring in any “world class” talent this summer. Instead they brought in rather average talent which in all fairness did not improve the squad.
A defensive midfielder was needed; with Gareth Barry’s decline and De Jong’s departure a player of De Rossi's class was needed. Instead Javi Garcia arrived and has shown a clear lack of ability at this level. Garcia's arrival has negatively affected the quality of Yaya Toure's performances too, a player who was key to City's success last season. This is a concern.
Added to this was the need to “change” the attack, an argument could have been made for any of Dzeko, Balotelli or Tevez to be moved on this summer and a new face to be brought in to inject a new energy to the side, much like Aguero’s arrival the summer before. However, the side is very much unchanged and those new arrivals have not improved the side.
Mancini's woes and tactical fiddling
City appear to have stood still and although there is much talk of the long term planning of this side, the club should be slightly concerned with what is happening in the short term. Undefeated in the league, yet six draws from their first 15 games has led many to question the team so far.
These draws have come against sides one can term as “difficult”; Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool as well as Stoke and West Ham. What this tells me is that sides have learnt how to play against City, they are more compact, deeper and organised. How have City reacted to these games?
Well performances have been at times abject, lacking in intent, desire and creativity. Certainly in the absence of David Silva, City have looked at times devoid of ideas. It is worrying for City fans that the pressure on them being champions is clearly having an negative effect. Yes they are undefeated and although the cliché goes that true champions get results when playing badly, City are worryingly looking like a side going backwards right now. The impressive spine of last season of Hart, Kompany, Yaya, Silva and Aguero all are underperforming on their levels from last year. The problems can be pointed at the manager.
I have argued many times previously that Roberto Mancini is not good enough for this level of management. Many will say this is a ludicrous statement considering his success at City, Inter and Lazio. However, the league successes in Italy and England came because quite simply he possessed such a superior playing staff than anyone else. Sure he improved the defensive foundation after Hughes, yet many managers would have won the league with that squad.
This season however, whether out of madness or an eagerness to replicate a change in Italian football, Mancini has opted for a three at the back formation. It has been chaos. The players have looked confused, disorganised and City, who looked so solid last year, have been distinctly poor so far. This change has certainly affected City's player of the season Vincent Kompany, who without his teammate Lescott next to him, has looked a shadow of last years player.
Perhaps the best indicator of City's poor form has come in Europe. Five games against some of Europe's top sides would enable the fans to see if City had improved from last seasons disappointing campaign. Well, unfortunately City’s performances against Madrid, Dortmund and Ajax have shown that the side have gone backwards and learnt little since last season. For a side with City’s aspirations, being knocked out at the group stage is not what the owners wish.
If it was not for Aguero’s goal last season, he may have been out the door in the summer. As it was he got a new five year contract. Yet in my opinion the difference between City becoming a force in Europe and going on a run of domestic title success is the manager. I predicted that City would win the league in the summer and still hold on to this belief only because for me they have a better XI, a better goalkeeper, defence, midfield and even attack.
All over the pitch they are better than United in terms of technical skill. And yet, United possess something which City appear to have lost, a desire and drive to win. Perhaps the most important difference between the clubs is the managers. In Alex Ferguson Man United have one of the greatest managers of all time, his desire to win, the drive and belief he instils in his players have made United one of the world’s best teams these past two decades. After losing the title last year in the dying seconds, the hunger to win it has become an obsession for Ferguson. One wonders if City have the ability to match the hunger United possess.
The first leg of the league decider
This weekend's game pits the team who have scored the most goals against the leagues best defence. Last season Ferguson admitted his sides inadequacies and played at the Etihad with a 4-5-1 in a very negative fashion. I cannot see the same this time around. The use of width will be important and I anticipate a similar set up like that against Chelsea.
If United go at City then perhaps they can get an early goal and look to be more compact. However, I am sure Dzeko will play in order to give City the aerial threat which appears to be the achilles heal of United.
Both teams play in the Champions League this week and in truth, both games mean little. United have qualified and City are out. Mancini should consider whether the game against Dortmund is really worth risking players ahead of this weekend.
Many City fans have argued that the club needs years of domestic success before it can “challenge” in Europe. I disagree to an extent, this side should be reaching the quarter finals of the competition each year with relative ease. However I do agree that multiple league success is a necessity for City’s rise. Thus success in the league must be City's aim this season.
I believe the season will be very close for these two sides and the key will be the head to head battles between the two. Thus, City need to make sure they are prepared and focused for this weekend’s game, it has the potential to be season defining for both teams.
If City lose then serious questions will be asked of Mancini and his ability and suitability for the job at City. If he wins those questions may be still be asked as managers like Mourinho and Guardiola look set to be available next summer, however a win may keep the wolves away from the door for a few months.
The battle of Manchester offers a week of massive hype and build up. Man City are finding being on top more difficult than expected, yet there are off field issues which appear to be affecting the harmony of the club. These will need to be sorted if City wish to retain the title this season.
As for United, many can argue this is a distinctly average side compared to previous ones, yet there is no doubt that they have added real quality to the side and with a manager like Ferguson who will instil a drive in his players to win back the league title, there is no surprise that United are seen as favourites for many. However my concern for United goes back to their weak and porous defence. Defending wins championshipsand United may just have to learn this the hard way once again.
There is no doubt that the battle between City and United will be fascinating encounter. It is more than probable that the victor from this weekend will be league champions in May.