LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United and Mario Balotelli of Manchester City fight for the ball during the FA Cup sponsored by E.ON semi final match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on April 16, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS: Manchester United played in a '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid shape. Edwin van der Sar was in goal and center-back pairing was Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. John O'Shea was the right-back and Patrice Evra the left-back. Michael Carrick shielded his defense as a deep-lying playmaker. Paul Scholes played slightly higher up the pitch than he normally has for much of this season in the central midfield. The versatile Park Ji-Sung joined them in the center of the pitch. Antonio Valencia was the wide right player and Nani was the wide left player. Dimitar Berbatov led the attacking line as the lone frontman.
Manchester City matched United's '4-3-3' shape. Joe Hart was in goal and the center-back tandem was Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott. Pablo Zabaleta was the right-back and Aleksandar Kolarov was the left-back. In the center of the pitch, Nigel De Jong was City's holding player, Gareth Barry was their possession passer, and Yaya Toure was the attacker. Adam Johnson was the wide player on the right and David Silva played in a free role that was based on the left side of play. Mario Balotelli was the striker.
Central Midfield: It was in the center of the pitch where United lost this match. This was due to both tactics and individual performances. In the opening 5-10 minutes of the match, City were the slightly better side. United looked a bit unsettled because City were pressing them high up the pitch. Once Scholes and Carrick settled in, United began to dominate the game in both possession and scoring chances. At around the half-hour mark, United had roughly 64% of the possession. At this point, City had stopped pressing up the pitch and they appeared to be content with absorbing the pressure and staying organized and compact when out of possession.
With about 10 minutes left in the first half, City manager Roberto Mancini could be seen instructing his players to start pressing higher up the pitch. Toure specifically began to play much higher and he worked hard to prevent Scholes and Carrick from having time on the ball. City at this point grew back into the match and soon began dominating it. United never recovered from City's adjustment to pressure higher up the pitch.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to start Park in the center was simply a bad choice for this occasion. In the past, Park has been deployed in this role and it's usually for one specific reason; to man-mark a deep-lying playmaker. In last season's Champions League match-up with AC Milan, Fergie brilliantly used Park to man-mark their deep-lying playmaker,Andrea Pirlo, out of the match. Even in the match versus West Ham United a few week's back, Park was deployed in a similar role to mark their best player, Scott Parker. However, with City using De Jong, who's only contribution comes from his defensive work as a holding midfielder, the use of Park was not necessary. The South Korean is fine at linking play and making the simple pass, but a more creative player would have been of better use here. Perhaps the rested Ryan Giggs or Anderson could have provided more in this role?
In my opinion, the man-of-the-match was Toure. The Ivorian changed the match when he began to close down Scholes and Carrick; it was fitting that he scored the winner. City's goal was symbolic of their success; they were pressuring United high up the pitch, two poor passes from United resulted, and Toure powered his way through to beat van der Sar one-on-one. The midfielder may lack the creativity to be an optimal central-attacking-midfielder, but his power and technique make him a unique threat there.
Wide Players: Although Nani had a clear match-up advantage on Zabaleta, City did reasonably well in dealing with the Portuguese winger. When these two sides last clashed in February, Nani absolutely terrorized City. This time however, City better dealt with Nani because they had a true holding player in De Jong. Whenever Nani would look to cut inside onto his right foot, the Dutch midfielder was often there to provide inside cover for Zabaleta. Nani perhaps should have looked to take the ball down the touchline a bit more and send in crosses. On United's other flank, Valencia was relatively quiet but he did well to pin back the attack-minded Kolarov.
The other wide player of note in this match was Silva, although describing him as a wide player is probably wrong. The Spaniard certainly has a free role and he often drifts towards the middle of the pitch. From there, his fantastic technical ability and his vision allow him almost to play as a trequartista at times for City. This may help compensate for the lack of creativity that City gets from their central midfield. Silva was mostly defended by his natural counterpart O'Shea, but because of his roaming throughout the match, he was picked up at times by Carrick and Ferdinand as well. Valencia's pinning back of Kolarov was important because there was space to get forward into because of Silva's tendency to drift inside.
Johnson provided City a little more natural width on the right side, but because he is left-footed, he continually looked to cut inside onto his stronger foot. The "inverted-winger" was fairly quiet during the match and Evra did well to deal with the England international.
Strikers: Simply put, Berbatov was poor. The Bulgarian striker forced a brilliant save from Hart on a one-on-one in the early stages of the match. He also somehow missed a sitter from about 4-5 yards out. As previously mentioned, the choice of Park in this particular game was a poor one. Berbatov was starved of service from the central midfield and he wasn't able to make use of his aerial abilities as he also wasn't getting much in the way of crosses from Nani and Valencia. However, Berbatov's movement was lacking as well. When City began to press high up the pitch, this also resulted in their defense pushing forward and playing with a high line. Berbatov was not a threat to run in behind the defense but there was another way for him to make an impact against this high line. He could have been dropping deeper and this would have provided two potential benefits: (1) Linking up better with his central midfield. (2) Possibly dragging his marker out of position with his movmement, thus, he could have created space for Nani, Valencia, or Park to get in behind to.
Balotelli was very quiet in the first half-hour of the match, however, he began to become a factor after Toure moved higher up the pitch. Like Berbatov, Ballotelli was choked off of service as well but Toure's higher positioning allowed the two to link up better. The mercurial Italian striker's movement isn't nearly as good as Carlos Tevez's so it was vital for his teammates to adjust to him.
* The '4-3-3' simply isn't as effective for United this year as it has been in recent years. During the seasons of our last two Champions League finals appearances (2008-08/2008-09), we had the attacking trio of Tevez, Wayne Rooney, and Cristiano Ronaldo. They were terrific in their movement and they were interchangeable and along with their fantastic ability, this made United's attack tremendous. Last year the '4-3-3' effectively worked because Rooney successfully was able to be the fulcrum in attack. He was terrific in dropping deep to link play in a "false-nine" role, but he also got good consistent service from Valenica on the right. Depending on the given match and tactics, Nani, Park, and Giggs all did well on the left as well.
This season, especially in recent months, Rooney has thrived in a withdrawn role. His support of Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez and Berbatov have ignited United's attack. For whatever reason, Rooney hasn't been as effective this season when he's the fulcrum in attack in a '4-3-3.' In that same shape, neither Chicharito or Berbatov have shown that they can thrive as a lone frontman. It simply doesn't appear to fit their strengths. Because of all of this, United may simply be forced to play in a '4-4-2,' or better described as a '4-2-3-1' when Rooney plays, if they want to be crowned kings of England and Europe.
The big risk in a '4-4-2' is being overrun in the central midfield versus sides that play with three central-midfielders. If Rooney can drop goal-side of the opponent's deepest midfielder, then United can generally avoid that problem. For the run-in, I'd like to Fergie continually play his side in a '4-4-2'. Versus Schalke in the UEFA Champions League, we should be able to do that without the worry of being overrun in the central midfield because the German club play in a similar shape. It'll be interesting to see what tactics Fergie uses for Arsenal, Chelsea, and in the potential Champions League final versus either Barcelona or Real Madrid.
* An alarming trend is our inability to consistently deal with teams that press us high up the pitch. This is the second big game in the past few months (versus Chelsea in March as well) where Scholes and Carrick were bossing the match in the center of the pitch before having trouble when teams upped the pressure against them. Carrick especially has the tendency to have a drastic drop-off in the quality of his play when he loses confidence. Park may been used versus City to so that he could be the one to provide the bite in the midfield, thus freeing up Scholes and Carrick to create. The problem with Park and even Darren Fletcher in this role is that neither have the creative ability to unlock defenses higher up the pitch, where they're forced to play with Scholes and Carrick being deep-lying. If Fergie wants to use these tactics, Anderson may be the best complement to Carrick and Scholes in a three-man central midfield. The thought of a possible match-up with Barcelona with their relentless pressing in the Champions League final is terrifying because of this alarming trend we're showing.
* It has been awhile since United have won the FA Cup and with possibility of trophies in the Premier League and Champions League, I really wanted to win the FA Cup this season. It was not to be. However, I think the reason I'm most upset is that we lost to City and they're likely to beat Stoke City at Wembley in the final. It's been fun taunting City supporters over their lack of trophies in the past 35 years but the fact of the situation is that City is arriving. They have a ways to go to catch United though still.