I watched the Man City–United lumbering beast of a match twice now. Once live and once in the bat cave drinking Monster and making Roberto Mancini hand gestures to nobody in particular. Let’s figure this out together.
Why City Won
In the 28th minute, United right back Phil Jones broke upfield with the ball at his feet, starting a United counterattack. This counter promptly ended when City’s Yaya Touré covered about 10 yards of central midfield and served Jones with repossession papers, knocking the United starlet off the ball, starting a City attack, and leaving Jones to think to himself, I am really not where I am supposed to be.
When you saw that you just knew someone found Touré’s beast-mode switch. Touré was the most influential player in this incredibly tight derby. He also seemed to have the most fun. Where many of the United players seemed on edge, like a bunch of guys in a hospital waiting room expecting bad news, Touré galloped, tackled, shot from distance, tussled with Paul Scholes, and joked with Manchester City’s new mascot, Mario Balotelli.1 He was obviously enjoying himself.
Touré and Gareth Barry were the rock-solid foundation of City’s early-season success, allowing their attacking munchkins to roam free while they minded the back four. Touré would often get forward, but he always held down the middle of the park.
After leaving the side, mid-season, for the Africa Cup of Nations, Touré returned to City with heavy legs and a broken heart: The Ivory Coast national team had failed to live up to expectations, losing to Zambia in the finals in a stomach-churning penalty shootout. Since mid-February, Touré just hadn’t seemed himself.
Monday we saw the old Touré, the best version of this physically imposing and technically gifted man mountain.
Lescott & Kompany
When Joleon Lescott went down with a groin injury on March 8, Manchester City were top of the table. He missed a month, and when he returned to action on April 8, City were eight points behind United. No, I’m not saying that Lescott is the second coming of Franz Beckenbauer, but it should come as no surprise that since his return, City have won four, lost one, and given up only two goals. On Tuesday, he seemed to be in the business of making Wayne Rooney miserable, tracking United’s main goal threat deep into midfield. And based on Rooney’s facial expressions, he was doing a hell of a job.
As for Kompany, well, to the extent that I could summon an emotional reaction to a team owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family beating a team that has won the Premier League 12 times, I felt a pang of joy for Kompany. He has always seemed like the beacon of sanity in the storm of lunacy that is Manchester City.
Kompany joined City as a defensive midfielder from Hamburg. He has since switched to central defense and, last season, became captain of the club. When players come to Manchester City, they are thought of as mercenaries. Yaya Touré gave up the dream of Barcelona, and Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Samir Nasri left the footballing Utopia of Arsenal so that they could live in houses made out of gold bricks. In 20 years, I’m sure people will be leaving Manchester City for whatever the new richest football team in the galaxy is. But to the extent that any City player seems to be truly part of the club, Kompany is a company man. In a good way. When the match ended, the camera panned the Etihad crowd and I noticed a Kompany banner hanging off the edge of one of the sections in the stadium. He has become a City icon.
His goal at the end of the first half, which would prove to be the winning goal, was pretty iconic too. When you hear the phrase “towering header,” that’s what they mean. Kompany skied over the United backline. Chris Smalling must have thought a Belgian skyscraper had gotten dropped on his head in that moment. In a game that might have suffered from too much buildup, and for a team that is going to have a hard time capturing the imagination as long as they are viewed as talent pillagers, Kompany’s goal wasn’t just good for City in terms of their title hopes, it was good in terms of City’s appeal to football fans.
Northwestern English Jazz Hands
Mind games are soooo last week. Hand games are the new mind games, folks. Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini’s touchline tea party was really much ado about nothing (or yellow cards). The two shook hands at the end of the match (more than you can say for Mark Hughes and Martin Jol), and they probably hate each other. But, for Mancini, this was a game about standing up to the town bully.
Mancini is no dummy; he knows people are watching his every move. You can see it on the sideline as he’s acting wryly amused at stupendous goals, or losing his mind at seemingly innocuous defensive oversights on the part of his players.2
Why United Lost
Boredom, thy name is Ji-Sung Park. Whenever Ferguson puts the South Korean in the starting XI, you are almost guaranteed a cagey or conservative performance from United. It’s not even Park’s fault, really. At this point he has become a signifier for Fergie’s tinkering in big games. One of the major reasons for United’s success in the last month or so has been the partnership between Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck and the play of right winger Antonio Valencia, both of whom were dropped for the biggest Premier League game of the season.
You have to wonder whether United’s poor European campaigns this season had something to do with Ferguson pulling back on the Red Devils’ leash. After being bounced out of the Champions and Europa Leagues (to say nothing of the thrashing they received at Old Trafford by City early in the season), it would seem that Ferguson, nothing if not practical, is done trusting his boys to attack in must-win (or at least, must-not-lose) situations.
Only Robin van Persie has scored more goals in the Premier League than Wayne Rooney. So why does it feel like Rooney doesn’t quite inspire or power this United team the way Cristiano Ronaldo did several seasons ago? Granted, Ferguson asks Rooney to do more subtle, industrious jobs during a game than he ever demanded of his former prize winger. But I think it goes deeper than that. The problem with Wayne Rooney is that, simply, he doesn’t have a Wayne Rooney to rely on.
Ronaldo always knew that he could cheat just a little because the little engine from Everton that could would be there to hunt someone down, make the extra pass, and follow through on the run off the ball. It gave him plenty of time and room to just be Ronaldo.
On Monday, Rooney got hacked down a fair amount by City defenders. But the real problem was that he didn’t have any other offensive talent to rely on. He was being asked to be the alpha and omega of United’s attack.
During the first half, Rooney often looked dejected. But I couldn’t tell what bothered him more:3 the fact that Kompany and Lescott were living all over him, or that when he finally got on the ball he had nobody.
We Need to Talk About Wigan
When you see a club in a relegation fight, you expect them to be playing football with both feet on the brakes, just trying to avoid the crash. Wigan, on the other hand, are perfecting the art of turning into the skid. And it’s working.
They’re not just surviving, they’re having a say on how the league turns out, raining on Manchester United’s title-winning parade on April 11, stopping Arsenal’s all-conquering run five days later, and then throwing cold water on Newcastle’s Champions League fever dreams.
Roberto Martinez has his grab-bag collection of Scottish, English, and South and Central American nobodies playing their best football at the most important time of the season. This makes sense: Wigan is a classic feeder club, losing their best players year after year (Antonio Valencia, Leighton Baines, Charles N’Zogbia) and somehow reloading with enough talent to stay afloat season after season. It stands to reason that, with the constant personnel turnover, it might take Martinez the better part of a season to get these strangers playing like a cohesive unit.
What does not make sense is Wigan pummeling Newcastle 4-0 and Shaun Maloney putting in the best performance of the weekend by any Premier League player. Maloney is 29, short, and Scottish. He has bags under his eyes but he passes like he can see into the future.
When I look at Maloney, I think, Man, I would not want to owe that guy money. He just looks like the kind of dude who would fight dirty. But in Maloney’s case, looks are deceiving. Lots of players work hard and have incredible speed or physical presence. Maloney is my favorite kind of player, though. He’s imaginative.
What else could you call his performance on Saturday? Wigan’s first three goals were all products of Maloney’s creative streak. The first came when he dribbled Cheick Tioté in a circle and launched a cross-field pass that landed right in the path of the oncoming right wing back, Emmerson Boyce. I had to check to make sure Paul Scholes hadn’t up and decided to play for Wigan on his day off when that happened.
Wigan’s second was the product of an absolutely outrageous backheel from Maloney, catching Newcastle’s right back Danny Simpson totally out of position, freeing Jean Beausejour to attack down the left wing and leading to Victor Moses’s putback for his second goal in as many minutes.4
Maloney finally got his very own highlight when Wigan scored their third. The Scottish midfielder made an awesome arcing run down the left flank, roasting Simpson and sending a daisy-cutter, low and hard, past Tim Krul.
It would be one thing if Wigan managed to stay up as result of the incompetent play of the teams around them, but to see the Latics play such handcuffs-free attacking football makes it all the more special. Other than Tottenham at full flight in the late fall of 2011, I haven’t seen a better offensive display than Wigan’s first half against Newcastle.
• Did Newcastle get spooked by all the talk about Chelsea getting the fourth Champions League bid next year if they beat Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena? I doubt it. They probably just did what Manchester United and Arsenal did before them: took Wigan for granted. Don’t make too big of a deal out of this one result; not many teams could have dealt with Wigan for those first 45 minutes, and once Antolín Alcaraz and Maynor Figueroa gang-tackled Demba Ba, leaving the Senegalese striker hobbling and in a sulk for much of the match, things never broke right for the Magpies. It’s cheap to say “just one of those days,” but they do happen.
• Stoke fans booed Aaron Ramsey during Arsenal’s match with the Potters this weekend. Stoke boss Tony Pulis said after the match that “We all get it at away grounds, but whether we should have to accept it is another matter.” True enough. But we don’t all get our legs broken by Ryan Shawcross. Sometimes I wish these guys would just say, “Yeah, sorry about that. Not great on our fans’ part.”
• In light of Wigan’s world-beating performance against Newcastle, QPR looked like the Lake Worth senior citizens’ shuffleboard team against Chelsea on Sunday. Fun fact: Manchester City winning the title and Queens Park Rangers staying in the Premier League could very well be decided by the managerial performance of former Man City boss and current QPR manager Mark Hughes. Handshakes ahoy.
Goal of the Week: Luis Suarez, Liverpool
What did John Ruddy do to deserve this?
Quote of the Week: Harry Redknapp, Tottenham
This is Redknapp commenting on the almost official appointment of Roy Hodgson as England manager and whether it has impacted his stewardship of Spurs. Redknapp had been the prohibitive favorite for the job back in February, when then-England boss Fabio Capello resigned. Wouldn’t you know it, that was around when Spurs started a nosedive that now sees the club on the outside looking in at the Champions League places. Between the Hodgson news and Gareth Bale’s comments that if Spurs fail to finish in the top four “we’ll have to sit down and see what’s best for me,” it really hasn’t been the best of weeks for the Tottenham manager.