Well let’s put it this way, there’s certainly better ways to start a season.
It should have been a tale of how a young Spanish goalkeeper withered under the pressure of his first competitive match in English football. Instead what we had was a tale of City’s complete and utter Charity Shield capitulation to Manchester United. A hard and (given last season’s FA Semi final victory) strange pill to swallow. Two goals up at half time and we throw it away. Unbelievable.
It feels worse than the 4-3 loss at Old Trafford and the Carling Cup semi final defeat of a couple of seasons ago. Then, on both occasions we were always up against it. Here we had the foundations of control in our grasp but somehow could not hold on to that control. It’s incredibly frustrating.
This of course was not just another game, not just another run out to sharpen up the limbs before the Premier League kick off this weekend. This was a Manchester derby, played at times with frenetic pace and passion. The reactions on the players and managers faces at the end of the game told you all you needed to know.
What happened to City’s pre-season?
By all accounts the Blues have had a good pre-season on the pitch, no massive injuries to worry about, winning many games (if not all) and dispatching Inter Milan convincingly on the way. But at Wembley we just didn’t turn up. We weren’t in the game for large periods. Joleon Lescott took his header well, and as for Edin Dzeko’s freak goal, well I said at the time that we should’ve been testing De Gea more. We did, and we got our reward, but both goals came as surprises, against the run of play.
United, with the wind knocked from their sails, should have been put to the sword. We should have gone on and finished them, but instead showed none of the composure and defensive steel of the Mancini era to date. Instead we came out during the second half looking even less up for the battle than we did the first. Possession football – another mantra of Mancini – was thrown out with the bath water as we easily allowed United back into the game.
How not to play against United
You would have thought our current squad would by now have learnt its lesson. One thing you do not do against United is give them – freely – the incentive to attack. Without possession you must fight and press as a team to get ball. If you don’t it becomes a mental thing. They build up attack after attack, you find yourself retreating and then suddenly you’re thinking of how United have this ‘knack’ of retrieving even the most irretrievable of causes.
There’s a reason why United do this so many times and that because they have the courage of their conviction. They ask the question, and you must answer it.
Unfortunately last Saturday City didn’t come up with the answer. I do feel that this was a question of mentality, not a question of picking the wrong players, the wrong formation, using the wrong substitutes to freshen things up.
Replacing Balotelli with Barry was correct. The Italian was ineffectual and we weren’t seeing any of the ball, so I can understand why he was sacrificed for someone who was more adept at getting the ball back and giving it. The formation – again I think correct. It served us well last season, but here our two key individuals (Yaya Toure and De Jong) could not impose themselves on the game in an attacking / defensive sense respectively. In terms of line up we went with pretty much our stronger available. Aside from the Tevez circus, the only question marks for me were Kolarov over Clichy and Milner over Johnson. Kolarov did surprisingly well, and Milner will always give you more defensive cover than AJ. I thought it was a side well balanced, as you can’t go gung-ho against United.
With so many things appearing to be correct from the outset, the gaping deficiency was the way we went about our business, the way we allowed United to cut through us, almost at will in the second half. At times it was as if we were not up for the battle.
After we had conceded we did muster some resistance. Silva had a glorious opportunity to put someone (maybe Dzeko) clean through on goal, but his pass was snuffed out. Adam Johnson’s ferocious shot was saved by the unimpressive De Gea, and Micah Richards’ header, again forcing a save out of the young keeper, was judged to be a foul. In the end we have only ourselves to blame. I truly believe that in every other way we are now a squad that stands ready to win the league. Only the mentality – not any other football club – stands in our way now.
United will always be United but we are much better than the offering we gave here. Our detractors are having a field day of course – they love to cast us in the mould of expensive strangers, players driven by big wage packets and by the same coin, United as the purists, a team that places never say die team spirit above all else. But for City at least this is wide of the mark and fails to take into account all that was good about us last season. A team of expensive strangers would not have topped the league in December, would not have finished third, and would not have won the FA Cup, defeating United on the way.
Talk of us being taught a ‘footballing lesson’ is pure gamesmanship (I would like to hear how Mr Rooney describes his team's Champions League performance against Barcelona last May). The fact is that last season we were much closer to United than they would like to think, but still the glaring error of Vincent Kompany, our most assured defender of recent years, capped off a day to forget. Mancini must now ensure that this does not set the tone for the rest of the season.