The Big Analysis: Manchester United vs Manchester City

The Big Analysis: Manchester United vs Manchester City

Hype and English football seem to go hand in hand. Every week we are presented with another mid-table fixture that is promoted as a must-see game by subscription television channels. From time to time, though, there are matches that not only live up to the hype but even exceed it. The first Manchester derby of the season was one of those.

If you accessed a media outlet or signed into social media in the week between the international break and the resumption of domestic football, you could be forgiven for thinking that this fixture was one between two coaches as opposed to two sets of players.

A lot has been made of the rivalry between José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola that developed whilst the Portuguese was coach of Real Madrid and the Spaniard was with Barcelona, with the former resorting to more extreme psychological warfare through the media as Barcelona pulled further away from their closest rivals.

When Guardiola took his next coaching role at Bayern Munich he was criticised by Mourinho for taking the easy option and joining a team where he will be expected to win the league easily every season.

The fact that the two coaches took positions in the same city served only to heighten the interest in this rivalry between two of the most successful coaches in the modern game.




There was a first league start for the Armenian attacker Henrik Mkhitaryan, who replaced Juan Mata on the right side for United, while Jesse Lingard was preferred on the left to French international Anthony Martial.

One of the most interesting aspects of the United system this season has been the use of Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini as a double pivot at the base of the midfield and Wayne Rooney as a number 10. The lack of positional discipline from Rooney so far this season has seen him occupy advanced positions in the left half space that Pogba would ideally like to advance into.

Whether this lack of tactical balance is a symptom of new team-mates struggling to adapt to one another remains to be seen.

For City, there was a first start for their new goalkeeper Claudio Bravo following his move from Barcelona. A lot has been made this season of the refusal from Guardiola to give an extended chance to English goalkeeper Joe Hart, citing his lack of competency in the build up; the Chilean international keeper is seen as the perfect fit for the City system.


John Stones switches to midfield


There are those who claim that Pep Guardiola is tactically inflexible and that he refuses to adapt to the environment around him, always preferring the short attacking passing style which brought him such success at Barcelona.

Those individuals, however, fail to see the positional switches which occur time after time in games coached by the Spaniard.

Since the start of the season, the British media seems to have discovered the phenomenon of full-backs inverting in-field in the attacking movement and providing an extra passing angle or option to shift the depth of the attack. In this match, there were some moments in which the City full-backs found themselves in an inverted position, but these were purely situational and not a theme.

Instead, the most intriguing positional switch came with the tendency of former Everton centre-back John Stones to step into the midfield strata when not in possession of the ball to offer a route for the man in possession to either bypass or play around the United pressing structure.

Stones has long been lauded as a highly promising ball-playing defender, and since joining City he has improved in all aspects of his game exponentially. It should be said, however, that the forward movement of Stones was counter-balanced by the intelligence of Fernandinho who would drop back to cover.


Here you can see United in their default defensive structure of 4-4-2 with Ibrahimović, Rooney, Pogba and Fellaini respectively providing a solid centre. As the nearest City player to the ball drops out of the space in the midfield strata we see Stones step forward to occupy the central area.

This small piece of movement gives the man in possession a chance to play through the first pressing line (Ibrahimović and Rooney) to find a player who has space to turn in to. Stones also has the quality on the ball to be able to play in this area effectively and search for the next pass through the second press.

Many defenders taking possession in these areas would just look to be safe on the ball but Guardiola allows his players to take risks and be progressive.


Fernandinho has the ball in relatively comfortable possession in this example. The tendency for most players in this situation would be to play the safe lateral pass across to Nicolás Otamendi who has taken up an angle at which to receive the ball.

John Stones has moved again into a more advanced position and offers the option to play through the first line of pressure from United.

Each time that you are able to play through a line of pressure in this manner, your team have an immediate advantage in a more advanced area. The capacity to take this pass and then turn and attack the next level of the defence causes the opposition to have to restructure their defensive block and can lead to defensive mistakes.


City midfielders play in space


With summer signing İlkay Gündoğan still unavailable due to injury, we have seen Guardiola prefer David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne as the pair of central midfielders with the licence to both fulfil the number 10 role when City are in possession.

In this match we saw De Bruyne finally come into his own under Guardiola and his positional sense was the key factor in this improvement.


Here we see an example of De Bruyne’s ability to drift into space on the blindside of the opposition midfield.

With the ball in the right-back area, the first line of defensive structure from United will come from Paul Pogba. The French international, however, is extremely passive and is neither willing to close down the man in possession or effectively cover the movement of De Bruyne.

The Belgian has drifted away from Pogba and positioned himself effectively between the midfield pivot of United. By playing on the shoulder of Pogba he has effectively neutralised the defensive ability of the Frenchman and given City a significant positional advantage.

The right-back is able to feed the ball to De Bruyne and he is able to attack the highlighted space and threaten the United back four.


This time, De Bruyne has taken a much higher position effectively joining the City front line. It is not Stones but Otamendi who is carrying the ball forward and splitting the second line of pressure.

This pass cuts the central midfield duo for United who are too passive in their defensive organisation and finds Nolito in the left half-space. The position taken up on the opposite side by De Bruyne causes United problems.

If he runs outside then he creates interior space for Raheem Sterling moving behind him, and if he moves inside he narrows the defensive structure of United and leaves then vulnerable on the outside.


United change their structure


Thankfully for United fans Mourinho is also a tactically renowned coach and, having seen City take a 2-1 lead into the half-time interval, he made structural changes and encouraged his players to be move active in defending without the ball.


Finally, in the second half, we saw United put effective pressure on the City build-up. There were numerous attempts by United to press high in the first half but these were isolated pressing movements with no layers of support, which the City players were able to bypass with ease.

Here you can see that United are becoming more active in closing down pockets of space as the City players move into them. De Bruyne and Fernandinho are both closely shadowed and there are two more United players positioned to cover other passing options.

Essentially the Red Devils are looking to force the man in possession to play a risky forward pass and make a mistake.


Again, United are far more aggressive with their pressing approach. Pogba and Rooney are closely shadowing the most obvious passing options for the man in possession and Marouane Fellainii has taken a more active role in the centre of the pitch where he is positioned to react to the choice that is made by the man in possession.


Once again Pogba is far more aggressive having moved right up to press the City defence and prevent them from playing out from the back. With Rooney and Ibrahimović also joining in the high press, we saw Claudio Bravo forced to try to play the ball into the midfield strata.

This shift in defensive organisation from United denied City the space and time that they had in the first half to play through and around the United block.




First blood in this engrossing new chapter goes to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. They deserved their 2-1 victory thanks to their progressive and brave movement in the first half which saw United struggling to understand and adapt to what they were seeing.

That Mourinho was able to largely nullify these threats after the half-time break should come as some solace to United fans, although a more flexible and proactive approach from the start of the match could well have led to a different outcome.

By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed