Manchester United vs Manchester City, FT 0-0
[Premier League, 25/10/2015]
Big, hyped up duels can often end in being damp squibs in reality. The 2014 World Cup final following THAT semi-final; virtually any boxing match that anyone has talked about in the last 5 years; Harry Potter and Malfoy’s duel at midnight in The Philosopher’s Stone, the dampest squib of the lot as it never even took place. This match ranks among them, though was not quite bad enough to force viewers to switch over to the Buffalo Bills against the Jacksonville Jaguars (Jagwars, for Americans) being played at Wembley in the other kind of football.
The centre-backs stayed the same for the entire match, Jones and Smalling for United while Kompany and Otamendi featured for City.
If you had said on the ten minute mark that Otamendi was to be given the man of the match you would have been surprised (partly just because you would hope that the match would be interesting enough to warrant someone other than a centre-back being given the award). He had gone out for balls he didn’t need to several times during the first eight minutes or so, which was not a major problem but the most notable thing to happen involving any centre-back during that period.
Jones made a poor pass in the 13th minute, which he did again several times during the match, and is an aspect of his game he needs to work on, particularly as Louis van Gaal seems to like ball-playing central defenders and just because a centre-back who often misplaces easy passes is a potential liability. In contrast, Smalling took the ball out of the back line well on several occasions, making a particularly good midfield-splitting pass to Fellaini in the second half which set up a United attack.
In the early period though he didn’t quite appear commanding, resorting to physically holding back a City player after failing to tackle them on two occasions in the first 10 minutes, though neither event was judged serious enough to penalise. He was also turned by Bony and passed past easily during the first half.
Probably the most exciting moment of the first half came in the 25th minute when Martial received the ball on United’s left and drove forward, ghosting straight through attempted slide tackles by both Kompany and Otamendi in the process. It’s possible that the tackle attempts were partially due to the City defensive mentality of stepping up to stop attacks (seen through their strictly high defensive line to play the offside trap), but even so they were neither well executed nor the most advisable choice.
Whilst that was the most exciting few seconds of the first half, the part of central defensive play that most people will remember was an awkward header out for a corner by Jones, following a high, looping clearance-pass which threatened to find its way to Bony. In reality, due to the trajectory and speed of the ball, it was too dangerous to try and nudge back to De Gea and given that he and Smalling had been stepping up the pitch, he could not get back quick enough to be in a position to head it back up the pitch. Clumsy doesn’t always mean bad.
Just before half-time, Kompany was booked for a late challenge on Martial, who could be heard to ‘meep meep’ as he was toppled by the Belgian Cayote. Not only was the tackle late, which is often going to happen when facing someone as fast as the Frenchman, it was also simply a bad piece of decision making.
That does not mean that Kompany had a bad game; in reality it was probably just a little below average, a 6.6 in Football Manager parlance. Like his United counterparts, the defensive work of his teammates in front of him meant that he didn’t have a lot to do during the game, though he did exhibit some good pieces of positioning, covering runs behind Otamendi as the Argentine stepped up to meet a United player who had found their way through the City midfield.
The second half was largely similar to the first. The spell of highly-skilled drudgery was broken in the 62nd minute when a tackle by Rojo on the half-way line, following a United attacking set piece, freakishly found its way through the City backline, though Hart was off his line very quickly to deal with it.
Jones had a quietly good time when called upon in the second period, cutting out a pass and setting up a United attack in the 63rd minute, blocking Bony to prevent him pressuring David de Gea in the 66th, and positioning himself well during a City attack in the 73rd, eventually collecting the ball when it came loose.
The best chance of the game fell for Jesse Lingard, who came on for Juan Mata, who cut in from the right behind the City centre-backs to get a toe to a Martial cross, the ball lifted over Joe Hart and hitting the crossbar. It was not a case of the City CBs being at fault, though, as Lingard was played onside by Kolorov. Perhaps Otamendi should have been more aware of what was going on behind him, but that is a bit of an extreme ask.
Jones had another awkward moment in the 86th minute, failing to head clear a long ball which he should have judged better, but nothing came of it. A minute later, Rooney offered more in defence than he had all game in attack, blocking an Otamendi run at a free-kick on City’s left, preventing the defender from getting a potentially vital touch.
Otamendi, in the end, was Gary Neville’s man of the match on the Sky Sports commentary. Out of the four centre-backs on show that would probably be the right decision too, though more through a lack of action than anything else and there was not an awful lot that separated the four.