Manchester United disheveled again in 3-0 loss to rivals City

Tuesday March 25th, 2014

Manchester City won their first of three games in hand on Chelsea to strengthen their title challenge.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The Stretford End was in fine voice again -- in the past month it's probably been as consistently noisy as it has been for a couple of decades -- but this is a volume born of defiance. One again Manchester United was outclassed in a big game, for the second time in a month left to contemplate a 3-0 defeat to local rivals, either of which could go on to win the Premier League title.

The Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho had insisted Manchester City's games in hand gave it the edge in the title race and, while that seemed the most blatant of mind games, it may turn out that he was right. Of the three games City had in hand, this was the one that looked most likely to trip it up, but it brushed United aside to lie three points behind Chelsea having played two games fewer. "It's a must-win game and we expect to win," the City manager Manuel Pellegrini had said in his pre-match press conference, a sentence with confidence that stood at odds of decades of underperforming City tradition. But his side played like it had no doubts, United never recovering from an opening 20 minutes in which it could have been blown away. "It was very important psychologically for us," Pellegrini told Sky.

This was a fifth clean sheet in a row for City and, after all the talk earlier in the season that City was sensational going forward but vulnerable defensively, that fact seemed to please Pellegrini as much as the goals. "We were very compact, very aggressive from the beginning," he said, speaking of his side's balance. "We didn't give them even a meter to make damage for our defenders."

There were two moments of brilliance in City's first-minute opener: the first touch from David Silva as he moved on to Yaya Toure's pass and then, after Rafael's tackle, the pass from Fernandinho that laid Samir Nasri into the space Rafael had left in making the original challenge. Although Phil Jones took a strange step to his right when he might have blocked Silva's run, it could have been legitimately argued had Nasri scored that there was little United could have done. But when his shot hit the post, the only player who had even begun to anticipate was Edin Dzeko, which seemed to speak volumes about the general laxity and disorientation at United, even after the back-to-back wins over Olympiakos and West Ham.

At that stage, with David Silva apparently unstoppable, it seemed that City might do to United what Chelsea had done to Arsenal on Saturday. United seemed bewildered by the intensity of City's surge, perhaps not helped by the process of adjusting to an unfamiliar 4-3-3 system. David De Gea was one of the heroes of the win over Olympiakos, but he struggled badly with his kicking, one poor clearance presenting possession to Touré. A brilliantly cushioned volley laid in Silva, and when he squared, Dzeko slipped as he shot, giving De Gea the chance to make an excellent save.

David Moyes managed to arrest the momentum by moving Tom Cleverley out to the right and then, at half-time, replacing him with Shinji Kagawa, but that United used three players on the right, none of them in their natural position, before bringing on Antonio Valencia again seemed reflective of a general lack of clarity at the club.

What was striking was how stretched the game became early on. United often ended up with four players -- Marouane Fellaini (who mystifyingly often found himself on the left), Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata -- strung in a line high up the pitch. This meant its attacks often lacked any sense of depth, the ball being played from front to back too quickly. It was hard not to be reminded of Robin van Persie's remark after the defeat away to Olympiakos about players running in his zones. Frustration at that sense of players getting in each other's way perhaps offered an explanation if not an excuse for the incident toward the end of the first half when Fellaini thrust an elbow into the face of Pablo Zabaleta and was extremely fortunate to collect only a yellow card.

This was as dismal as it gets. It was hard to know quite how Fellaini or Juan Mata fit into the tactical shape, which raises questions about whether Moyes is the right man to spend a hefty transfer budget in the summer. If this is a work in progress, it is still in its very early stages.

City, after a couple of slightly anxious moments toward the end of the first half, began the second half at almost the pace it had begun the first. The second goal arrived nine minutes in, and again it came from a marriage of United laxity and City excellence. Rio Ferdinand was caught on his heels as Dzeko attacked a right-wing corner, giving him the space to shape a difficult volley into the roof of the net. By the time Touré smashed in the third, the game had long since been over as a contest.

City marches on in a buoyant mood to face Arsenal on Saturday, the Premier League suddenly seeming very much in its grasp. Both Chelsea and City still have to play Liverpool at Anfield, with the club a point behind City having played a game more, but the advantage now is with City.

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