Neil Humphreys: City's midfield no match for United's
Difference between Fellaini and Fernando mirrors quality of two Manchester midfields
MAN UNITED v MAN CITY
(Tomorrow, 11pm, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
The Manchester Derby will prove that midfields are made in the image of their managers.
United's fantastic four are malleable, mobile and inventive. City's forlorn flops are stiff, sterile and increasingly out of ideas.
When the two sides meet at Old Trafford tomorrow, the touchline will separate the centre circle from the dugout.
It might as well be a mirror.
Louis van Gaal treats his midfield like a potter's wheel, constantly rotating, shaping, prodding, always improving the sculpture, never entirely satisfied.
Manuel Pellegrini plays musical statues with his midfield, his hand stuck on the pause button, his frozen players waiting for the signal to dance once more.
City are out of step, but United are finally in tune thanks to their human microphone.
Marouane Fellaini is the unexpected hero with the funny halo.
Van Gaal must take the credit, but circumstances beyond his control allowed him to pull off the tactical masterstroke.
Angel di Maria was signed to fill the left-sided berth, but the Argentinian faltered.
So van Gaal tweaked until he came up with a plan that still reeks of plagiarism. Fellaini had already played as a deep-lying forward at Everton.
Still, the Belgian has been a revelation.
Cutting inside from the left to link with Wayne Rooney, he rules the air with the rugged reliability of a fighter pilot. He's top gun with an afro.
According to whoscored.com stats, he battles for almost twice as many aerial balls as any other midfielder.
Against Liverpool, Fellaini didn't so much dominate Emre Can as disembowel the man, leaving the poor defender a broken shell of a footballer.
Fellaini has added pace to United's midfield without really showing any. His reliability in winning first balls gives either Ander Herrera or Michael Carrick confidence to push forward in anticipation of retaining possession.
Together, they make a fluid triangle that stretches, but rarely loses shape.
The renaissance of both Ashley Young and Juan Mata (and Rooney to a certain extent) is a direct result of van Gaal hitting upon a 4-3-3 formula built around that central midfield triangle.
With Fellaini at the apex, the ball sticks. Herrera and Carrick press their advantage. Mata and Young hit the space and Rooney suddenly thinks it's Christmas.
Fellaini is rarely easy on the eye, a dizzying combination of flying elbows and frizzy hair, but he's awkward to mark and impeccably utilised by van Gaal.
Whether United's high-flying midfield came about through a set of fortuitous circumstances misses the point.
If luck is the residue of design, then van Gaal is the luckiest coach alive. He never stops designing until he's satisfied. And the Dutchman is never satisfied.
Pellegrini, on the other hand, appears out of designs and out of luck.
There are two telling statistics that sum up the sorry state of his midfield.
On New Year's Day, City were level on points with Chelsea. On Feb 24, Sergio Aguero scored his last goal for the club.
After six matches and 556 minutes, he's still waiting for the next one. A muddled manager and a regressing midfield cut the supply line.
Since New Year's Day, City lost Yaya Toure to the African Nations Cup and their momentum fell away soon after, revealing a startling lack of alternatives.
Samir Nasir's mercurial performances mirrored his temperament. Jesus Navas proved to be a one-trick pony, with a trick that often malfunctioned (i.e. push the ball to the bye-line and swing in a decent cross. He seldom achieves either).
At least Fernandinho sustained the physical presence that deserted Toure on his return. But Fernando remains a rabbit caught in the EPL floodlights, leaving only David Silva to illuminate proceedings.
Through the decline, however, Pellegrini pursued the same approach, like a lemming dashing towards a cliff.
While van Gaal threw caution to the wind by sending in Fellaini as an old school inside-left, his opposite number remained enslaved to the tried and tested.
James Milner, an experienced 29-year-old international and a City veteran, has made no secret of his ambition of following Carrick into a defensive midfield role.
It's an option that offers pace, variety and perhaps even the odd counter-attack that City's two banks of four struggle to muster these days.
But Pellegrini procrastinated. He left Milner on the bench and persisted with a line-up that has lost its mojo in an ineffectual campaign.
It's a familiar tale of ineptitude. City regress as United progress.
Mata and Young are men on a mission to rebuild reputations, with Carrick and Herrera on board for the ride, but Fellaini is the midfielder of the moment.
If the mop top hits the high notes again, Old Trafford will be swinging at the final whistle.
It’s a massive game. It will be intense for the players and the supporters. We want to play in the Champions League next season, so we have to win in front of our supporters. We have to do everything to win.
— United midfielder Marouane Fellaini, on playing against City
FELLAINI’S EPL SEASON STATS
- Games: 13 (7)
- Goals: 4
- Assists: 0
- Pass success: 85.4%
- Shots per game: 1.6
- Tackles per game: 2.5
FERNANDO’S EPL SEASON STATS
- Games: 18 (3)
- Goals: 2
- Assists: 2
- Pass success: 91.4%
- Shots per game: 0.4
- Tackles per game: 1.6