Manchester United’s soft core was exposed again as the ‘noisy neighbours’ secured the bragging rights

Manchester City won an intriguing battle at Old Trafford as Aguero's effort made the difference. Brendon Netto discusses why Manchester United came up short in midfield.
 Brendon Netto
 Comment | England
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Manchester City ran out 2-1 winners at Old Trafford in the latest edition of the Manchester derby courtesy of a fantastic winner from Sergio Aguero. For a game that virtually had nothing riding on it as far as the league table was concerned, it certainly didn’t lack intensity. As is the case in such intense encounters, the battle in the middle of the park often decides the tie and Manchester United’s central midfield was once again dwarfed in the face of City’s.

The visitors had the power and drive of Yaya Toure complimented by the work-rate and stability of Gareth Barry in their central midfield with the likes of David Silva and Samir Nasri often dropping in to make the extra man. Confronting that daunting midfield for United was the brilliant Michael Carrick and the evergreen Ryan Giggs but despite their best efforts, there were plenty of space in the middle of the pitch for City to exploit.

Carrick has been one of the best players for the league leaders this season and consistently so. Yet again, he put in a fine performance as United’s midfield general, so much so that the cries for Paul Scholes from the terraces of Old Trafford have dwindled. However, the Englishman was at times a one-man midfield with Giggs often straying forward and leaving United’s number 16 to anchor proceedings.

Carrick| Often left in his own

When United pushed forward, the two wingers on either side joined Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in the final third to make a front four while Giggs got sucked into attack as well and left plenty of space in behind when they lost the ball. The common consensus is that Giggs doesn’t have the legs to operate in a two-man central midfield but his lack of running wasn’t the problem.

On the contrary, the 39 year old ran his socks off but his positioning and awareness was often below par. It’s hard to criticize a legend like Giggs especially since he did a very good job when he got on the ball but against the best oppositions, the finer details of the game will always be scrutinized. While he will still be effective in central midfield against lesser opponents, facing the might of City required the presence of a natural box-to-box midfielder.

The Welshman falters when he does things not fitting of a central midfielder. He attempts far too many flicks in the middle of the park when the priority is to keep the ball. Sometimes they come off and are pleasing on the eye but every time it doesn’t, it gifts possession back to the opposition and leaves United vulnerable.

Giggs liable in the center at times

When a proper midfielder would shield the ball, draw a free-kick or even play it back to the keeper, Giggs attempts to wriggle his way out of tight spaces or tries an extravagant flick, which is feasible at times but he doesn’t seem to realize when it could put the team under pressure if unsuccessful. It was one such flick that didn’t quite come off in the second half that led to the opening goal.

Having driven the ball back towards the right-back position, the veteran attempted to flick the ball through Barry’s legs in order to release a team-mate down that flank when he perhaps should have opted to either play the ball back to David de Gea in goal or take the safe route and knock it out of play. From an attacking perspective, his attempt was ingenious as he was a tad unfortunate when it didn’t come off but with precious little cover behind him, it wasn’t worth the risk.

Barry drove the ball towards the penalty area and eventually James Milner’s deflected effort found its way into the back of the net to give the Citizens the lead. Obviously Giggs wouldn’t have had the time to assess the situation at its time of occurrence in the detail with which it has been above but then again for an out and out central midfielder, those things become part of instinct and they don’t need to dwell on situations to make the right choice.

Giggs' mistake led to Milner's goal

Nevertheless, United’s number 11 still put in a good shift and the blame cannot fall entirely on his shoulders. To a certain extent, the system was flawed as well. Rooney is recognized for being the player who operates in the hole between the striker and midfield but in actuality, he’s made to play too far forward. Where United needed an attacking midfielder to drop back and get on the ball, they got a center-forward who slotted in right behind the main striker, looking for service.

With Silva and Nasri dropping into midfield to make the extra man, United were outnumbered and inevitably allowed City that edge in possession. With Rooney playing so far forward, he spent a lot of time lurking in the penalty box rather than dropping off and orchestrating proceedings in the final third. That resulted in United’s attack being slightly rigid as opposed to the fluidity of City’s. While the Sky Blues averaged 3.9 passes per minute, United averaged only 2.9.

Rooney wasn't involved enough

That brings us back to the central midfield. With Toure and Barry sitting back and marshaling their midfield, the front four of City were allowed to interchange and attack freely with the support of the two full-backs as well. United didn’t have the same security in the middle and that’s where Carrick ended up being a bit of a lone ranger.

The modern game is such that teams almost operate in a 4-2-4 formation when they have two sturdy central midfielders in their line-up. Carrick desperately needs a formidable partner to help him out in that midfield area. United have been heavily linked with a move for PSV Eindhoven’s Kevin Strootman in the summer and perhaps the Dutch international is just the sort of player the Red Devils need to bolster their midfield.

A classy winner from Aguero

You get the feeling that United are perhaps just a couple of players away from matching City’s first eleven man for man. Ultimately, Aguero’s sublime effort was the difference between the two sides and worthy of winning any match. The victory would have made City feel a lot better about themselves and would have gone a long way to restoring their pride as well.

As for United, they will be gutted after losing to their fierce rivals but any talk about a potential collapse even with fixtures against Chelsea and Arsenal coming up should end right here. Sir Alex Ferguson will ensure that his players see the bigger picture. As he rightly pointed out, it was still a good performance from his side on the night and that bodes well for their run-in. There’s no way this lot will surrender their lead at the summit, especially after the events of last season but a defeat to Chelsea next week would certainly make things a bit more interesting.

Do you think United need another midfielder? Leave your comments below or discuss with the writer on Twitter @BrendonNetto.

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