By Kelvin YapFollow @@plevyakin
It is utter irony that Sir Alex Ferguson chose a continental approach to what he deemed as the ‘biggest derby of all time', and perhaps fitting that it was the biggest factor that gifted the tie to City ultimately.
The Continental Approach
Coming into the match, I was unknowingly prophetic when I told my esteemed colleagues how Ferguson's penchant to flood the midfield and go for a draw with a 4-5-1 formation in big matches may cost them dearly.
There have been many occasions in the past decade where United set up shop to play for a draw - a case frequently witnessed when they face a technially-superior opponent who need the win more badly than the Red Devils. That was the exact case in Monday night's derby.
It hardly ends well when United approach a game with such tactics. The men in red are used to laying siege on goals, not trying to break down another team's assault on their own. Their lack of experience in holding out wave after wave of attack puts them in poor stead in such matches, especially considering they spend most of their matches dominating the opposition.
Last season's Champions League final defeat to Barcelona and the FA Cup tie against Liverpool earlier this season are prime examples.
There's no denying how huge the stakes were against City. A win would have essentially seen the title go to the victorious side, while a draw would have meant that the title would still be firmly in United's favour. Ferguson chose to play for a draw instead of taking a risk and going all out for the three points.
Who dares wins
In their previous encounter in the FA Cup, aiming for a win paid off for United - they held the ball up in City's area and forced the men in blue, who are not the most elegant of ball-winners, into committing fouls, essentially sealing the tie when Vincent Kompany was sent off for a two-footed challenge on Nani.
This time round, it was quite the opposite.
What Ferguson did was to set an extra man in midfield (a role played in the past by Anderson and particularly Darren Fletcher) to bolster his side defensively while hoping to keep the ball for as long as possible.
As we witnessed in the opening exchanges of the game, both sides were cagey. Joe Hart, who is usually so cool that he won't blink even if you point a gun at him, misplaced several passes under no pressure at all, while the entire United team - with the exception of Scholes and Carrick - were content to lump the ball upfield for City defenders to practice their ball-trapping skills.
With two sides equally panicky and likely to make mistakes, the team which took the initiative and created more chances would have had a better chance of winning.
Park Ji Sung was assigned the role to man-mark City's engine room ace Yaya Toure, in hope that it would allow Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick to ping the ball around the midfield as usual.
On paper, it may sound like a smart decision, where United would be able to disrupt City's attack while launching counter-attacks with highly accurate cross-field passes. However, the execution of the plan was far from ideal and Ferguson's side essentially shot themselves in the foot by sitting back and giving the momentum to Mancini's City's lethal attack.
Park did manage to hound Toure throughout the match, but the South Korean man was simply too easily brushed away by the physical Ivorian, allowing him to get the few touches needed to play his City team mates in up front and keep the ball for his side.
With City's widemen Samir Nasri and David Silva pushing United high up the pitch, a perfect solution would have been for Scholes and Carrick to spread the ball high up the flanks, where City's full backs would have had to fend for themselves without their wingers. Yet, Ferguson chose to hold back on the wing play, asking Nani and Ryan Giggs to help out defensively.
That left Scholes and Carrick trying to thread the ball through the middle of the pitch to Rooney, but Gareth Barry and Vincent Kompany were near-psychic off the ball, essentially cutting out the passes before the United talisman could even get a sniff of it.
The solution would have been to have two strikers up front to lump the ball forward to, but that would have meant sacrificing the extra man in midfield and essentially allowing Toure a free rein. That was something Ferguson eventually did when Park was brought off for Danny Welbeck, but Mancini smartly reacted by bringing Nigel De Jong in place of Carlos Tevez to give United a taste of their own medicine.
In the end, the match was decided from a set piece when Kompany headed in Silva's corner kick a minute into first half stoppage time, making City's deluge of possession count as they took the lead at the break.
The timing of the goal was crucial, as it meant that Mancini was able to use the 15 minutes to calm nerves and bolster his side defensively, while United were demoralized after seeing 45 minutes of valiant effort go to waste.
A tactical victory
Essentially, it was a tactical victory for Mancini and a gamble lost for Ferguson.
When both managers clashed on the sidelines in the second half after De Jong's tackle on Welbeck, it wasn't about the foul. It was frustration from Ferguson boiling over. He knew his tactical choices backfired on him, and his players were about to get the brunt of it.
Mancini, however, got it right in pushing his side forward when his side had advantage in terms of possession and shutting up shop when the win was there to take.
Ultimately, Ferguson lost a gamble when he chose to impose a continental style in a local derby - yes, his side could have easily held City to a draw if not for a set piece goal - but it was a risk that he should not have taken in the first place.