The Manchester derby is normally one of the highlights of the Premier League calendar. The rivalry between City and United is intense, and historically, this has made for some classic encounters.
Last night’s goalless bore draw was one of the most lackluster derby matches in decades, totally devoid of the passion and intensity which football fans have come to expect from this fixture.
A win over Manchester United at Eastlands could conceivably have been the highlight of the season for Roberto Mancini’s side. It would have given the supporters something to sing about for months to come and been a huge morale boost to everyone associated with the club.
Manchester United’s team was supposedly depleted by a virus whereas Manchester City’s only notable absentee was the suspended Mario Balotelli. Under the circumstances, a full blooded 90-minute assault on Edwin Van Der Sar’s goal would have been entirely appropriate. Instead Mancini, in an unprecedented display of tactical cowardice, made a premeditated decision to settle for a point.
The fervour of the fans is obviously not something which affects the Italian manager. He set his team up not to concede goals, and in the latter stages, with the game very much there for the taking, chose to consolidate these tactics rather than risk an offensive gamble.
Mancini’s comments after the game were telling,
“It's a good point and it's not important for me if we get criticized. We wanted to win but I would prefer to have one point rather than zero points, which is what we got from this game last season,” he said.
Given the level of emotional intensity which accompanies the Manchester derby, this is a stunning admission. Manchester City fans will have been looking forward to this fixture all season and earmarking it as the opportunity to get revenge after being beaten home and away in the league and knocked out of the Carling Cup by United last season. Mancini, by contrast, felt that a win was not worth risking a precious point for.
The flaws in this footballing philosophy are compounded by the strength of Manchester City’s squad. Never in the history of Premiership football has a manager had so many attacking options at his disposal. This makes the following excuse, which Mancini came out with after the game, even more extraordinary,
“When you play every three days the players can get tired. It's not easy playing every three days and then having a game like that,” he said.
To put this embarrassing claim into context you have to bear in mind that Mancini has been in possession of a fixture list since June and has also been given unlimited funds with which to build a squad which can win these type of matches.
Some of the Manchester City players who did not even make the bench for the Manchester derby included £17 million striker Roque Santa Cruz, £18 million striker Jo and £8.5 million winger Shaun Wright Phillips.
Meanwhile the substitutes included £25 million striker Emmanuel Adebayor, £16 million full back Aleksandar Kolarov, £24 million defender Joleon Lescott and £7 million winger Adam Johnson.
Mancini decided of his own volition to start with 10 of the 11 players which began Sunday’s win away to West Brom. He should be well aware of the physical condition of his side yet the only change he made was enforced by the suspension of Balotelli.
If he felt that fatigue was a problem, why did he chose not to rotate his multimillion pound players? It seems Mancini would rather run Tevez and Silva into the ground than risk giving a Premier League start to Adebayor or Johnson. He then expects the fact that his first team players are ‘tired’ to be accepted as some sort of vindication for a poor performance.
Despite having the most expensive collection of strikers the Premier League has ever seen, Manchester City are not prolific goalscorers. They have managed just 15 league goals this season. Arsenal and Manchester United have both scored 24 and Chelsea have got 28. Even Blackpool, whose most expensive striker cost just £1.25 million, have managed 19 league goals four more than Mancini’s exorbitantly expensive strikeforce.
Most teams who employ a 4-3-3 formation do so with at least one attacking central midfielder such as Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas or Chelsea’s Frank Lampard. Mancini prefers to use three holding midfield players who are all defensively minded—Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong. This goes a long way towards explaining why a squad which is overloaded with attack-minded players scores so few goals.
This system has been effective on occasions, notably in the 1-0 win over Chelsea, and fans could have forgiven Mancini for starting with his favoured three holding midfield players against Manchester United. They are entitled to feel aggrieved that he not only refused to change the system but showed a total absence of attacking ambition in his use of substitutions.
Whenever Carlos Tevez received the ball, he invariably had four defenders in front of him and was isolated from virtually all of his team mates. The game was crying out for Manchester City to employ an auxiliary attacker or even a more attack minded midfielder.
Instead, Mancini went like for like with every switch. First, he swapped a winger, Milner, for another winger, Johnson. Then he switched a full back, Boateng, with another full back, Kolarov. The final insult came two minutes into injury time, when he did belatedly introduce Adebayor but only as a replacement for Tevez.
In 2002, newly promoted Manchester City faced champion’s elect Manchester United in the final ever derby to be held at Maine Road. Kevin Keegan's team triumphed 3-1 that day courtesy of two goals from Shaun Goater.
Tactically, Mancini is undeniably astute, but when it comes to showing passion for the game, he could learn a thing or two from Keegan. Supporters do not part with their hard earned cash to see their side accumulate points, they do so in search of the moments of magic which every once in a while a football match will provide.
Manchester City finished the 2002-03 season in mid table, but DVD’s of the historic win over Manchester United are still being sold to this day. Mancini might have his point, but he has deliberately denied his team’s supporters the sort of memories which could have lasted a lifetime.