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11th Nov 2018

Nemanja Matic sums up the difference between Man United and Man City

Robert Redmond

There was no comeback today

Once again, Manchester United set out to stifle the opposition. Once again, they fell behind early in the match. Once again, they improved after conceding first, when plan A was gone.

However, this time there was no comeback.

After a string of comeback victories, United’s luck ran out against Manchester City on Sunday afternoon. City won 3-1 and looked like a team on course to retain the title.

The Premier League tie between the Manchester clubs was full of contrasts.

The smallest team in the division took on the tallest. The arch proponent of progressive passing and pressing football, Pep Guardiola, versus its very antithesis, Jose Mourinho, a coach who considers possession of the ball to be more of a threat to his own team than his opponents.

The contrast between the two sides was summed-up by their respective midfield trios. The match was won and lost here and the two coaches’ respective views on the game were embodied by these players.

United opted for three stoppers – Marouane Fellaini, Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera.

City had two creators and a controlling presence – David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Fernandinho. Both with and without the ball, City’s midfield came out on top.

Fellaini and Matic appeared to be tasked with man-marking the two Silva’s – a tactic Mourinho has deployed in big games in the past, but is rarely used by other top teams. The United pair looked lost and cumbersome as their opponents dragged them all over the pitch.

The City pair dovetailed throughout. They switched positions and ran rings around Matic, Herrera and Fellaini, weaving passing triangles around the lumbering, clanking United engine room.

When they lost the ball, City’s midfield pressed in packs to win possession back. Meanwhile, United’s midfield – particularly Matic – appeared to be a step behind their opponents.

This was evident in the build-up to City’s second goal.

United lost the ball in the centre-circle when Jesse Lingard’s loose touch was punished by Fernandinho. The Brazilian capitalised on Lingard’s poor control and set City away on a move that ended with Sergio Aguero driving the ball past David de Gea and into the roof of the net.

But look at Matic’s role in the goal.

The Serbian didn’t react quickly enough to cut out Fernandinho’s pass into Bernardo Silva. He lurched forward and left an ocean of space behind him.

If United pressed as a unit, the way City do, they may have been able to cut out this goal at its source. But, like Matic, United aren’t built to press.

Matic’s usefulness as a central midfielder, like Mourinho’s reactive tactics, has arguably been bypassed at this level of the game.

During Mourinho’s peak-years as a coach, central midfield was the land of the giants. Physicality reigned supreme until Spain and then Guardiola’s Barcelona turned football on its head between 2008 and 2012.

Players like Matic are arguably obsolete when there are smaller, skilful, creative midfielders who can control the game, create chances and win the ball back as effectively as a giant like Matic or Fellaini.

Mourinho is still using a Nokia 3310 while Pep has long moved onto a sleek multi-functional smartphone.

Matic is arguably the embodiment of Mourinho’s rigid style of play, a lumbering presence who brings very little craft to proceedings. The gulf in class between the Serbian and City’s trio of midfield magicians was almost uncomfortable to watch at times.

The same applies to the two teams. United improved after going behind – which was arguably bound to happen when they only had just 11 per cent of possession before the opening goal – but at times it was like they were playing a different sport to City.

There is a clear gulf in class between the teams. While United fans may not want to hear it, this is mostly because of the coaches in each dugout.

Guardiola has improved every single player at City. Mourinho spends his time complaining about the players United haven’t signed. The won’t improve under him, while City are getting better with every game.

Like David Silva versus Matic, Guardiola versus Mourinho is proving to be a mismatch.