With Rafael da Silva in fine form, few expected John O’Shea to start yesterday’s Manchester derby. The Irishman, who is known more for his versatility than virtuosity, has been in poor form this season but his deployment was crucial to Manchester United’s 2-1 victory at Old Trafford.
There is no doubting Rio Ferdinand’s importance to United’s defence; a leader on the pitch, the English defender provides composure to the back line. United’s defence is much more prone to jittery moments without Ferdinand. With inexperienced Chris Smalling playing alongside Nemanja Vidic yesterday, it would have been too risky to play two attacking full-backs in Rafael and Patrice Evra. O’Shea limited his forward forages and helped stabilise the defence by providing extra cover.
It was a brilliant decision by Sir Alex Ferguson.
This column has previously argued that United’s deployment of two attacking defenders in a 4-4-2 based system has been responsible for United central midfielders’ collective poor form this season. Even against teams playing a lone forward, the Reds’ two at the back are exposed to too much pressure without support from central midfield. United’s central midfielders need to combat opposition midfielders, provide ammunition to forward players and defend as well; they end up trying to do everything and failing all.
With O’Shea, Smalling and Vidic staying back yesterday, Manchester City’s forwards were completely neutralised. United midfielders and forwards were freed by the extra defensive player at the back.
This freedom was particularly appreciated by Paul Scholes. As brilliant as he is, the English midfielder has performed noticeably worse in games where he is exposed to great pressure. Ferguson deployed Scholes deep to afford the midfield maestro extra time but even in this role, the midfielder was pressured as City played pressing game as a response to United’s deep line. With three behind him – instead of the usual two – Scholes always had an easy option to recycle possession.
In addition, Darren Fletcher and Anderson could play box-to-box roles because of the defensive stability brought on by O’Shea. O’Shea allowed Scholes to dictate the play and Fletcher and Anderson could make runs from deep, instead of helping out at the back.
Fletcher and Anderson’s running had two effects. Firstly, Scholes was afforded even more protection as United’s midfield runners pinned back City’s midfield players. Secondly, City’s defensive midfielders could not double up on Giggs and Nani.
City introduced Edin Džeko in the second half and switched to a 4-4-2. O’Shea’s presence allowed United to introduce Berbatov and match City’s system without Vidic and Smalling being overwhelmed by Džeko and Carlos Tevez.
O’Shea didn’t have a particularly spectacular game but he did what Ferguson had in mind. The game was won by a spectacular Wayne Rooney strike but the scene was very aptly set up by the Scot and his Irish defender.