x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

City v United: Neither title chaser is stuck in the middle

Countdown to the derby Yaya Toure epitomises City's central strength, while United have more flair on the wings, says Ian Hawkey as he analyses the midfield battle.

United's Michael Carrick, left, tackles Manchester City's French midfielder Samir Nasri, who was signed from Arsenal in the summer. Paul Ellis / AFP
United's Michael Carrick, left, tackles Manchester City's French midfielder Samir Nasri, who was signed from Arsenal in the summer. Paul Ellis / AFP

When Barcelona sold Yaya Toure, the imposing Ivory Coast midfielder, to Manchester City in the summer of 2010, the then champions of Spain believed they had done an unusually good deal. They received around €27 million (Dh130,709m), three times what they paid three years earlier, to Monaco, for the player.

At Barca, Toure had won two Primera Liga titles and the Champions League and given drive and muscle to their midfield.

But the club accepted his departure with a shrug, happy with the profit, satisfied that with the emergence of Sergio Busquets, five years younger and schooled within the Spanish club, they had Toure's position staffed.

Within Barcelona, they privately doubted Yaya Toure's capacity to stay fit throughout full future seasons. He had suffered some back problems.

Besides, it was to be expected that, as a leading figure in one of Africa's most powerful national teams, Ivory Coast, he would be missing for a portion of every other January and February at the African Cup of Nations.

In short, Barcelona thought they had got the best out of Toure. They may well have got that wrong. Yes, the money invested in a much-travelled 27 year old by City at the time seemed substantial given that Toure arrived with the designation "defensive midfielder".

It was also legitimate to wonder quite how many holding midfielders Roberto Mancini, at that stage overseeing his first major transfer window as the City manager, felt he needed.

Mancini had already recruited the veteran Patrick Vieira, now retired. He had Nigel de Jong. He had Gareth Barry and he knew that, for City, Vincent Kompany could thrive in a central midfield role.

With so many anchors, was there not a danger the whole ship might struggle to feel any wind in its sails?

Mancini certainly values strong sentries in front of his back four. Only David Silva has made more Premier League starts this season than Barry and Toure, and the Ivorian was away at the Nations Cup for the best part of a month.

But Toure is far more than a scuffler, an interceptor in central midfield. At his best, he gives City attacking traction, too, and is a far more regular contributor of goals than he ever was at Barcelona.

Manchester United know that as well as any opponent.

Toure's goal settled the all-Manchester FA Cup semi-final last season, and the way he engineered it will haunt Michael Carrick, whose loose pass Toure pounced on before eliminating United from that competition, a landmark in the tussle for the summit of English football between the two clubs.

Carrick, for his part, has done plenty of things well in the year since that error. At his best, he is a cultured passer, a responsible organiser of his team's overall shape.

But he is not Roy Keane, the best epitome, over 12 years either side of the turn of the millennium, of the sort of bristling aggression found in most of the best United teams of the Sir Alex Ferguson era.

A Barry-Toure combination has obvious physical advantages over, say, a Carrick-Paul Scholes partnership in the centre of midfield and Ferguson, although delighted with the effect of Scholes's return to the squad, after six months retired, will be wary, against City, of the risk of being bossed there when he ponders his starting XI for Monday.

Where United undoubtedly gain over a deep City squad is on the wings.

Adam Johnson, signed under Mancini, has not commanded a regular place as a winger and City, when their confidence falls, can look narrow, for all the match-winning ability of Silva, who had a better first half of the season than second half, and Samir Nasri, to run into wide spaces and deliver telling passes from there.

At United, there exists an obligation to respect the club's historic tradition of exciting wing play. Antonio Valencia has been, with City's Silva, the leading provider of assists in the Premier League so far this season - they have 13 each - and ranks as probably the best crosser at United.

Nani has set up 10 goals for colleagues. Ryan Giggs has provided eight decisive passes for goals. Ashley Young, the best of the wingers at delivering a dead ball, has laid on seven goals for teammates.

That is a strong creative department.


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