It was another masterstroke. Meticulous preparation, man-management, media manipulation, managerial mind games and marvelous tactical execution—Sir Alex Ferguson pulled it off.
Once again, Manchester United’s manager of 26 years drew on all his experience to ensure his team was both mentally and physically equipped for the biggest game of the season, the Manchester derby.
The victorious result could well be a game-changer in the race for the Premiership title. Seasons can hinge on these types of gigantic clashes; they can be turning points, and Sir Alex Ferguson was determined to make a statement of magnitude at the Etihad Stadium.
Let’s set the scene:
Manchester is now the capital city of football in England and arguably the world. United is the biggest club on the planet; City is the richest. United has an opulent history; City desperately desires to create one. The newly deposed EPL Champions versus the newly crowned EPL Champions. Both enjoy fantastic football teams. Both enjoy an intense rivalry.
As such, the derby has now become an occasion of national standing. December 9 had been etched in diaries the country over, pre-game television coverage began before the sun came up, conversation and social media was hijacked by fans’ vitriolic banter and even Hollywood A-lister Tom Cruise attended the game to add an unprecedented sprinkle of stardust to proceedings.
Sir Alex was fully aware of its magnitude and how crucial it was to wrestle the psychological advantage back from his cross-city rivals in a swashbuckling attempt to regain the Premiership crown.
Ferguson’s preparations began months in advance. Long ago, the Carrington training facility had been fortified, allowing a media blackout at a moment’s notice. In the days leading up to the derby, Sir Alex’s player selections and tactical preparations were conducted in secret.
Careful player rotation of the first-team squad in the early stages of the season ensured freshness was retained and early qualification from the UEFA Champion’s League group stage allowed key players to be fully rested for the crunch match.
In summer, a £24m investment was made by securing the signature of the EPL’s most prolific marksman, Robin van Persie.
Following some frankly unacceptable performances, the manager needed to pick the side up, ready them and motivate them. If they weren’t at the top of their game they would likely perish, and the mental advantage would remain on the blue side of town.
Almost miraculously, they responded.
Michael Carrick looked like a different player, constantly haranguing David Silva and, certainly in the first half, denying him any creative ponder. Rio Ferdinand displayed a command of his box that had been missing in recent games, and the wingers, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, returned to form.
Speaking in his press conference and reported by Mark Froggatt of ManUtd.com, Sir Alex revealed the following team news,
“I know we've got a few injuries at the moment but we've got a big strong squad of players. Nani and Valencia are still out. It will be a few weeks with them.”
Tom Cleverley had also limped out of the midweek ECL fixture, and Ferguson had this to say,
“On the injury front, Cleverley will have a scan this morning and we'll see what he's like. It's his calf, which is always a worry, but we'll see.”
News of these injuries had United commentators speculating wildly about exactly which players would now be selected. No doubt, Roberto Mancini was as confused. Not until the line-up was announced an hour before kick-off did anyone realise what a little fibber Sir Alex was!
Managerial mind games:
It was only subtle, but Ferguson strategically planted seeds. Talking to Gemma Thompson of ManUtd.com, he had this to say,
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
“We need to come out unscathed and, with so much at stake, I wonder if there will be a little bit of caution from both clubs. Roberto Mancini and I will both have to think deeply about our selections and tactics and there may well be an element of playing safe.”
It turned out to be a bluff, but within two sentences, Sir Alex had both faked caution and thrown down the gauntlet.
Ferguson also made a veiled warning to the match officials, while simultaneously touching Mancini’s nerve when feigning outrage at the amount of penalty kicks City is awarded at home (per bbc.co.uk),
“If we got that number of penalty kicks there'd be an inquiry in the House of Commons. There'd be a protest."
YaYa Toure was the key man in the last derby at the Etihad, and most were expecting a narrow midfield to be employed by United in order to deal effectively with his threat.
Instead of setting up to shackle him, Sir Alex pulled a master-stroke by utilising a wide 4-2-3-1. This created a risk down the flanks for City that they were forced to counter.
It reduced the congestion in the middle of the park with Gareth Barry and Toure having to commit themselves to the wide channels to nullify the danger posed by Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young.
City mirrored the formation, but once the deep midfield duo was pulled out of position it left open spaces for Wayne Rooney to operate in. He did so effectively, scoring twice and achieving 150 Premiership career goals.
United was prepared to sacrifice possession in order to play an almost perfect counter attacking game, taking the lead on 16 minutes after City had enjoyed 70 percent of the possession. This pattern was repeated and the second was scored on 29 minutes.
United had a game plan. They were highly organised and pressed well, particularly when Toure and Silva were in possession, and everything went according to plan until the assistant referee disallowed a perfectly good goal from Ashley Young on 59 minutes, which was ruled offside.
That would have been 0-3 and game over.
City pulled one back immediately and began to take hold of the game. United defended admirably, but on 86 minutes Pablo Zabaleta equalised and the determined tactical set-up appeared to have been spoiled by a bad decision from the match officials.
However, more was to come from United, and deep into added time Robin van Persie scored a 24-yard free kick into the bottom corner to break City’s hearts.
Ferguson really had prepared well. Robin van Persie’s winner was a fitting conclusion to an encounter that Sir Alex was going to win, no matter what.