For both Manchester United and Manchester City, this season has been a mixed bag thus far. There have been highs and lows, stunning victories and crushing defeats, and as we approach the halfway point of the 2016-17 Premier League season, it’s fair to say that neither club is where it would have hoped to have been, going into the hectic festive period. After an explosive start in which they blitzed past their first six opponents with ease, City have cooled considerably, their shaky home form- 2 wins from their last 6 at the Etihad- and increasingly leaky defence playing a massive part in the six point gap that has now opened up between themselves and League leaders Chelsea, whilst their neighbours Manchester United’s frustrating inability to convert draws into wins has them on the outside looking in on the top 4.
Both teams had title ambitions at the start of the season, and although United are the ones who find themselves embroiled more in a top 4 race than a title race, it should be City fans feeling more concerned right now. Despite having some of the best attacking talent in world football, with world class players such as Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Sergio Aguero, and Ilkay Gundogan, their defence has been absolutely shambolic, especially in the past few weeks. In my article in June discussing Guardiola’s appointment, I said the following of Man City’s defence:
“Yaya Toure, Fernandinho, and Fernando’s ages average to just over 30, while all four of Man City’s full backs- a position that requires high intensity running for 90 minutes in the modern game- are also all 30 or above. Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool have shown how much it pays to have a youthful team (both teams doing the double over Man City in fact, beating them 13-3 across four matches), and perhaps City’s ageing squad contributed to their alarmingly growing lethargy throughout the season.”
At the time I was talking about how in a League in which high pressing, and counter attacking football has increasingly become the recipe for success, the average age of Man City’s defence meant that they simply weren’t as well equipped to deal with high energy football as other teams were. Now however, this City defence is simply making silly, schoolboy errors that age is no excuse for. If you look at Walcott’s goal from Sunday night, it’s just a string of poor mistakes, lack of aggression and lack of concentration that let the Englishman in. As Sanchez drifts in between the midfield two and the back four, one of the centre backs has to close him down. It’s four minutes into a big game, a game between two title title rivals and they’re at home, playing in front of their supporters. Why are neither of the defenders right up in his face, stopping him from playing that ball? Send a message to your man, show him that you’re going to make it a tough night for him, that he won’t have the time and space to do what he wants. Instead it’s just so easy for Sanchez. He’s allowed to take three touches to settle himself, and then slide in Walcott, who himself takes two touches before sliding it past Bravo. There is an argument to be made that had Zabaleta not slipped, he would’ve gotten a block in on Walcott’s shot. But Zabaleta wouldn’t have needed to come scrambling in if his positioning had been right. He’s too far over as Sanchez picks the ball up and he should be getting in tighter to his centre back to prevent that ball from being played through the middle.
Revisiting City’s losses to Chelsea and Leicester unveil another worrying trend: City get breached far too easily, and when I say breached, I don’t simply mean they are conceding goals too easily. Of the seven times they conceded across those two matches, on six occasions the goalscorer was one on one with the keeper, clean through on goal. You could argue that Theo Walcott was through on goal as well when he scored his goal. This is very concerning. In fact this tells us a few things: firstly, City’s defence is positioned far too high up the pitch, secondly, they are incapable of tracking runners, and thirdly, they have a keeper who is incapable of bailing the defence out during one on one situations. If part of Guardiola’s philosophy is ‘the best form of defence is attack’ then he is truly in trouble. Not a single one of those City defenders would walk into one of their rivals starting elevens, whilst it’s been proven across 24 editions of the Premier League that you simply cannot win a Premier League with a leaky defence. Liverpool were the last team to find this out, as the 101 goals produced by their potent strike force was ultimately not strong enough to offset the 50 goals they conceded back in 2014. I was shocked that Guardiola didn’t address the back four as strongly as he did with the midfield and forward areas during the summer window, but I’ll be even more shocked if he isn’t active in the January transfer market to rectify this increasingly alarming situation.
Looking across town now, and for Manchester United, it looks like their season it starting to get back on track. Following a two month blip in which they won only once in eight league matches, three straight victories-including an impressive 1-0 defeat of top 4 rivals Tottenham Hotspur- leaves them only four points off the Champions League places. Whilst Mourinho has had his critics this season, on the pitch, United have been nothing short of unlucky. In matches which they drew- those against Stoke, Burnley, and Everton especially- the Red Devils were truly dominant, and deserved nothing less than all three points. If you look through the squad, there are some very encouraging signs: Each of Mourinho’s four centre backs- Bailly, Smalling, Rojo, and Jones- have shown great form this season, the trio of Herrera, Carrick, and Pogba has given Mourinho great balance in midfield, and his central striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has adjusted very quickly to the Premier League, scoring 11 goals already in just 16 matches. Add to that the consistently strong displays from the likes of Valencia, Mata, Lingard, and Mkhitaryan especially, and United have a very strong core of players
Mourinho will be happy knowing that even though he isn’t getting the points, he’s getting the performances from the players, and in the long run, the victories will start coming more consistently. United have entered a period of good form, and as games come thick and fast during the Christmas period, he’ll be glad that his team now has a platform upon which to build upon. With three very winnable games coming up on the horizon (Sunderland and Middlesborough at home, followed by West Ham away), and the added bonus of their rivals playing each other in the next few weeks, don’t be surprised to see the Red Devils in the top four come mid-January.
As far as what their season ambitions should be, it’s still too early to definitively say what they should and shouldn’t focus on. Mourinho himself admitted earlier this month that his team were some way off winning the title, and while it is in his nature to be more conservative when discussing his team’s chances (his ‘little horse’ remarks back in February 2014 spring to mind), he probably does believe that this team isn’t ready yet to challenge for the title. This Manchester United team isn’t a Mourinho team just yet, and just as it was during his most recent spell at Chelsea, his second summer transfer window will be the one where he really identifies players who fit the bill. Winning the League Cup- a trophy Mourinho values higher than a vast majority of other Premier League managers- would be good, but I would concentrate more on the Europa League, a trophy that has been taken for granted by English clubs for far too long. As well as being a prestigious European trophy, the Europa League could be United’s best chance of qualifying for next year’s Champions League, especially when you consider the sheer quality of the top six English clubs this year that will make it even harder than ever to finish in the top 4.