United left feeling black and blue

Let’s face the facts, Manchester United have simply fallen short in meeting the standards set by the league leaders in this campaigns title race. Striving for a top three finish seems a more realistic target, and I am of the opinion that not a single competitor behind us is any closer to demonstrating the standard of football we’re witnessing from Manchester City so far this season. Having just watched my team being dominated for 90 minutes at Old Trafford, I have to say I’m at a loss in trying to piece together the reasons behind our failure. Having to surrender the championship midway through a season is a big ask for any Manchester United fan, but if I can be honest with myself, that is where I’m at. This article will touch on my take on why we’re so far behind our city rivals, and my theory behind how the evolution of the number 10 role is the main cause.

Pep Guardiola has guided his team to a remarkable 11 point gap, but is their squad that much better than ours I ask? They have a goalkeeper, once upon a time deployed as a left back, ticking that ‘ball playing ability’ box Guardiola craved so much so that he saw it necessary to push out a fans favourite and England’s number one goalkeeper, Joe Hart. A defence that again regularly focus on playing their way out of trouble. Attacking threats in Sterling, Sane, Jesus, and not to mention arguably the best striker in the game for the past few years Aguero – can’t complain there. With all this at their disposal I would still claim that above all else, their performances this season are elevated due to an excelling midfield. In them a group of world class players reaching the heights once displayed by a Barcelona of old.

I don’t have to remind you that this Barcelona team, led by Pep, entered an era of unfathomable superiority, during a period Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and of course Messi pulled all the strings. Pep evidently has a unique style of playing, and with it a habit of leaving his competitors behind. Could we be witnessing the beginning of a similar era of dominance with Manchester City now?

If we shift our attention to the United squad, we possess a keeper in De Gea of whom I consider the best in the world (if not the best then not many could argue at the very least in the top three). A defence that features promise in the shape of Bailly and Lindelof, and an erratic Rojo to always call upon should you want to concede a last minute penalty. Correct me if I’m wrong but we statistically enjoy the best defence record in the league so far this season, and with it boasting an unbeaten run of 40 games at Old Trafford, which until the heart breaking derby result, denied us of a record breaking milestone of 41.

Attacking force in the shape of Rashford, Martial, Lukaku and Ibrahimovic, we’re not doing too badly ourselves at this end of the pitch either. Call me bias, but when compared to City’s front line I would personally only favour their number 9 for ours – albeit an absolute world of difference between Lukaku and Aguero. Touching on the Lukaku signing, the Belgian striker finds himself under constant scrutiny of late, and if you ask me, rightfully so. Lukaku has so far this season been a shadow of his expectation. I want to see fearless hunger, regularly displayed by the likes of Rashford and Martial (and even Lingard!). A desire to charge at defenders with intent on beating a man. His struggles are no doubt a consequence of the pressure formed around his price tag, and we can only hope he turns it around soon.

At present our ‘in favour’ midfield selection features Pogba, Matic and somehow, Lingard. This compared with City’s chosen three, Fernandinho, David Silva and De Bruyne. I would certainly agree that we have strength in Matic, and a world class rising star in Pogba. Considering the absence of Pogba, we used Herrera with Lingard – is it any wonder that we fell short on Sunday.

Label me deluded, or overly optimistic if you will, but I believe we’re much closer to matching our rivals than what the league table would suggest. Mata and Mkhitaryan, considered by many as highly effective number 10 players, find themselves out of favour with Mourinho and I believe I’ve figured out why. My theory is that the number 10 role has become extinct and the position has now evolved into something bigger. I remind you that Mourinho once sold the likes of Mata, labelling the playmaker as a ‘luxury player’.

When deploying a Coutinho sort of player, often neglectful of his tracking back responsibilities, you loose something in the teams balance. This perhaps influenced Klopp’s decision when choosing to leave the talented Brazilian star on the bench for the Merseyside derby. Our balance was lost the moment we tasked a frightened Herrera to the job of man-marking De Bruyne, and unwilling to join in any attack. I watched City’s two midfield stars run the show, cleverly alternating in their roles between the number 10 and the tireless central midfielder. Herrera was left confused and uselessly dragged all over the pitch, leaving holes at every end of the field. This imbalance left an incapable Lingard with too much to do, and an out of confidence Lukaku, alone, isolated and as ineffective as ever. We were doomed.

Manchester City are demonstrating this alternating of positioning in midfield regularly, and the results of it are clear. Every time Silva bursts forward in his intimidating fashion, I notice De Bruyne drop that little bit more to offer stability. They are chopping and changing their roles, and between them claim 21 assists, and 8 goals already this season. Statistically, with Pogba featuring in our starting 11 we create and score a lot more goals and ultimately have a better win ratio. It is also noted that we concede far more goals with his involvement too.

As Pogba pushes forward driving our team, eager to create chances for the front three, he naturally neglects his role as a central midfielder for that attacking phase. It is during this phase that you must envision a player tasked to alternate, such as De Bruyne doing so for Silva in the example above. By dropping in behind, he takes on the role of controlling the middle and thus the balance is restored. This necessary alteration of roles provides a stability to a team that I believe we lack at present and City posses in abundance. I call this role a number 8 and a half, and there aren’t many out there. Probably because I just made it up.

There is it, my verdict on the derby and the miles between the two Manchester clubs could quite possibly be the difference of just a single player in an evolved, more advanced position. Now let’s go out and find one in January! In the meantime, Manchester United are left black and blue, and how very blue it feels right now.

Andy Andreas

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