The biggest game of the 2016/17 Premier League season so far saw the two Manchester giants go head-to-head at Old Trafford, with their newly installed super coaches in Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho experiencing their first taste of the Manchester Derby. Judging by their perfect starts to the season going into this fixture, it was clear that both Manchester sides were looking like strong contenders for the Premier League crown in May. However, neither side had come up against strong opposition prior to this game; this was sure to be the first test of the title credentials of both sides this season.
Pep Guardiola’s City side were at a disadvantage as star man Sergio Aguero beginning his three-game ban, with youngster Kelechi Iheanacho tasked with providing the firepower for his side in his absence. United manager Jose Mourinho had the luxury of more or less a full strength side, making a couple of changes from the side that defeated Hull in their last Premier League game. Jesse Lingard took the place of Anthony Martial on the left and Henrikh Mkhitaryan replaced Juan Mata to make his first start for the club since his move from Borussia Dortmund in the summer.
These changes were ultimately detrimental to United, with Mourinho quick to remove the two of them at half-time as United struggled with over-compactness when in the attacking phase. Guardiola came out on top in the end with a typically astute tactical display; instructing his wingers to hug the touchline and allowing De Bruyne and Silva freedom to exploit the room in the half-spaces and between the lines of the United defence and midfield proved decisive to their victory.
Man Utd (4-2-3-1): 1. De Gea // 25. Valencia, 3.Bailly, 17. Blind, 23. Shaw // 27. Fellaini, 6. Pogba // 22. Mkhitaryan, 10. Rooney, 14. Lingard // 9. Ibrahimovic
Man City (4-3-3/4-1-4-1): 1. Bravo // 3. Sagna, 24. Stones, 30. Otamendi, 11. Kolarov // 25. Fernandinho, 17. De Bruyne, 21. Silva // 7. Sterling, 72. Iheanacho, 9. Nolito
Substitutions: 45’ Rashford (Lingard), 45’ Herrera (Mkhitaryan), 81’ Martial (Shaw) // 53’ Fernando (Iheanacho), 60’ Sane (Sterling), 90’ Zabaleta (De Bruyne)
Goals: 42’ Ibrahimovic // 15’ De Bruyne, 36’ Iheanacho
United’s poor 1st defensive phase structure, City midfielders take advantage
In typical Guardiola fashion, Manchester City preferred a patient, structured build-up to allow for the creation of a more organised attacking structure. Bravo was heavily involved with the build-up along with the centre-backs; in response, sporadic pressure was applied by Ibrahimovic in the no.9 position and Wayne Rooney who often vacated his position behind the striker to move onto the same line as Zlatan, creating a 4-4-2 shape.
Initially, it halted City as they looked incapable of building through the centre. Fernandinho was nullified by the two United forwards in the early stages and it appeared that City would be forced to use their full-backs in order to move the ball into midfield, given that the player assisting their circulation was prevented from receiving the ball. In the image, we can see that Silva has dropped between the lines to compensate for Fernandinho’s inability to receive possession in this phase.
To counter this, Fernandinho was instructed to drop deeper than both centre-backs to create an overload, knowing well that Rooney would be apprehensive in tracking him into such a deep area. As a result, when receiving the ball, he had an excess amount of time to turn and possibly pick out a forward pass into midfield.
Fernandinho has dropped into the defensive line and now the United forwards are outnumbered in this scenario with Stones in possession. It appears that United are in control of the situation as City have only one viable option in Silva for transferring the ball into midfield, however City players often found it very easy to drop between the lines unopposed in order to receive the ball. The poor spacing and co-ordination of the United block very much facilitated City’s ball circulation and provided them with space to occupy and exploit. As soon as a City midfielder received the ball he would be given multiple passing options as his teammates would be quick to fill the space and create and overload in the zone in which the ball was in.
It was obvious that there was a lack of clarity in the United set-up in terms of their positioning and behaviour off the ball. Their press would often be half-hearted and uncoordinated leading to the defenders having plenty of time on the ball to threat defence-splitting vertical passes into the forwards and meant that the midfielders could receive the ball in space between the United block, as previously mentioned.
It was clear that they were caught between intense, high pressure from the forwards in the first phase and retaining their defensive shape and remaining compact in the midfield. In an attempt to deploy both strategies, they made it even easier for City to create compact and dangerous structures in possession and combine effectively in the final third as their vertical compactness had been severely inhibited.
The two United players primarily responsible for this were Pogba and Fellaini in the double pivot. Neither have ever been natural holding midfielders and were prone to leaving the 6 space exposed, which City duly exploited. A lack of organisation between the two was apparent as they both occupied the same lines, thus resulting in poor staggering and a disconnection between defence and midfield.
Here we see them both shifting and on the same lines once again when City were in possession on the left. A simple switch of play was all that was needed to find De Bruyne in acres of space in front of the United back 4; he can now turn and drive at the centre backs. It is arguable that the defensive line should have pushed up in order to condense the space. Had either of the two midfielders been deeper though, they would have had access to De Bruyne and therefore such a situation would not have occurred.
The image above provides another instance of United struggling to maintain an adequately compact shape due to poor staggering and the positioning of Pogba and Fellaini. We can see that both midfielders chose to push further up field simultaneously without taking into the account the potential threat of Kevin De Bruyne between the lines. He, along with Iheanacho are completely free in this zone with none of the United players having access to either of them.
This situation occurred far too regularly in the game and it is for this reason that United would have been better off with a designated number 6 such as Schneiderlin who would have maintained his position and filled the gap between the lines as well as covering the half-spaces and ensuring he has access to any players attempting to receive the ball in the 6 space.
Movement of City midfield disorganises United defensive block
Manchester City and their midfielders, in particular, can count themselves responsible in part, for United’s poor showing in terms of defensive positioning. The movement of the City midfielders was exemplary throughout the game and created openings and spaces for teammates to drop into and exploit. One movement which stood out and was particularly dangerous was the simultaneous movement of De Bruyne and Silva into the half-spaces.
The scenario above shows De Bruyne and David Silva both deviating from their starting positions in the centre of midfield and moving into the half-spaces. This has the positive knock-on effect of forcing Fellaini and Pogba to follow them and open the centre, severing the connection between the two of them. Iheanacho (circled) is now free to drop into the 10 space as he is unopposed due to the freedom given to him by the United double pivot. City are now easily able to play a vertical pass right through the heart of the United midfield with almost no opposition.
Instead, Otamendi opts for a through ball which evades all the United defenders and finds Kevin de Bruyne. Iheanacho can be given credit for the opening of the channel which allowed Otamendi to find de Bruyne as his deeper movement causes Daley Blind to follow him in order to stop him receiving the ball, this in turn forces Bailly to shift in order to cover the space.
Nolito, who is not visible in this image, was key along with Sterling in creating situations such as this due to their occupation of the wide areas for much of the game. The United full backs were wary of leaving them out wide to receive the ball and run at them, especially considering how effective both of them are against defenders in 1v1 situations. Both Shaw and Valencia would often move out wide which would reduce the compactness of the United back 4.
Again we can see how Nolito’s wide positioning has created an opening which could potentially be taken advantage of. In this phase however, City were unable to exploit it as the players involved are not in optimal position for a combination. Had Silva and Iheanacho been deeper into the half-space, United could have been in some danger.
City’s shape in possession in midfield was very well organised in general, with de Bruyne and Silva often drifting into areas where an overload could be created and providing a link between the midfielders through their positioning between the lines.
The connectivity of the City midfielders and forwards is wonderful with the centre, half-space and wing well occupied. De Bruyne has a multitude of options as do the rest of the City players involved in this phase as they are so well connected. Ball circulation is made so much easier with the team in this shape as none of the players are likely to be short for options.
The City players were very intelligent in their positioning in relation to the ball. All appeared to be focused on being compact and in an ideal shape for ball possession as opposed to simply just remaining in their formation. Players were, as a result, required to deviate from their position to increase the resistance to pressure the man on the ball by providing him with a support option. This also makes them less vulnerable to counter attacks as their compactness created by the short passes facilitates their counter press. With City players all within close proximity of each other, players can press the ball more easily and passing lanes of opposition players can be blocked due to overloads created around the ball.
United’s problems in attacking phase
Unlike the United that we had seen leading up to this game, there was a clear inability to successfully construct an attack and keep the ball for a prolonged period of time. Mourinho’s side were unable to create many opportunities for much of the first half, with their shape in deeper possession and the final third for that matter, being their primary issue.
This is just one example of Manchester United’s at times, atrocious shape in the first and 2nd phases of possession and shows exactly why their opponents so easily regained possession from them. Daley Blind has the ball with his only forward option being Mkhitaryan. This seems to be a fairly straightforward decision as he appears to be in a lot of space; however behind him is a City player who will be pressurising him immediately should he receive the ball, denying him any space to turn.
The problem here is the 4 United players, who for some reason are all on the same vertical line, serving no purpose in the United build-up whatsoever. Mkhitaryan is now isolated as a result of their poor positioning and the half-spaces as well as the wings are now left vacant. No shape or opportunities for combinations are being created with their current shape and as a result, their chances of playing through the City pressure are quite limited. Had Pogba or Fellaini been quick to move into the near half-space to support Mkhitaryan, they would have been able to maintain possession and continued circulation of the ball. Instead Blind opts for the longer pass which De Bruyne intercepts.
The full backs are also at fault for this as they do not push up in order to force back the wingers. It results in 3 United players being on the same horizontal line and now Blind is unable to play diagonal pass which would cause a vertical and horizontal shift from the City players. In addition, if Mkhitaryan receives the ball from Blind he has no wide option to allow for pressure relief. The space created by the winger being forced back could have allowed Blind to drive forward with the ball to attract pressure from the City players close to him.
Again United are having issues with their shape in this image. Bailly is in possession but is virtually isolated as Fellaini is on the same vertical line and has his passing lane blocked by Iheanacho. The lack of connectivity between the midfield and the man in possession contributes to this also. The spacing is too much and the only option he has is a longer ball into Mkhitaryan who has no one in support for an escape pass. All the Man Utd attacking players are more or less concentrated in one area, showing poor spatial occupation in the final third and leaving the wings wide open instead of drawing out the full-backs and opening the half-spaces as Nolito and Sterling did so well for City.
Another example of United’s over concentration of the centre is on show with Pogba on the ball and Zlatan next to him calling for the ball. This promising situation is being hampered by Lingard and Rooney who choose to remain more or less central as opposed to moving out wider. The Man City back 4 have a much easier job as they have much less space to cover as a result of United’s over compactness. Had Lingard moved out wide, Sagna would most certainly have followed him, which in turn would have opened up the channel for Pogba to run into after making his pass. A possible combination between the two could have occurred which may have led to a chance for United.
Another one of their principal issues, for me was the selection by Mourinho. With Guardiola’s sides always being very effective in defensive transition and skilled in the counter press, the logical solution would have been to select players with good press resistance. Players such as Juan Mata and Ander Herrera who have good game intelligence and ball control would have been ideal starters as they have proven to be adept at keeping possession even when faced with opposition pressure. The difference was clear to see when Herrera entered the fray and we saw a United side that kept the ball a lot better and were not so easily dispossessed. Players such as Fellaini, Rooney and Lingard were most guilty of this as they struggled to maintain possession amidst the press applied by City. Had Schneiderlin, Herrera and possibly Mata or Martial started ahead of those three we would have seen a very different United to the one we saw in this game.
Where does this leave them?
This win has left Guardiola’s side in a very good position in these early weeks of the season. A monumental win such as this at the home of their greatest rivals and their biggest threat to the title this season will do wonders for their momentum and confidence going into the next round of games. This win is made all the more impressive by the fact that Aguero was missing, Pep will be hopeful that his star striker is available for the rest of the season as although talented, Iheanacho is not yet prolific enough to lead the line for City for the entire season.
Despite this defeat, United are still very much one of the favourites to take home the Premier League crown this season. A win in this fixture would have been very necessary considering their arduous Europa League campaign is due to begin. What this game has shown though, is that a number of players may not be up to games such as this, luckily they are far from short on quality and strength in depth. Without doubt one of the strongest squads in the league, United will surely be there or thereabouts come May but must bounce back as soon as possible from this loss against their noisy neighbours.