Manchester United 1-2 Manchester City | Mourinho loses to Pep yet again

Manchester United 1-2 Manchester City | FI

We’ve been eagerly looking forward to this fixture for a long time to see which color will dominate the City of Manchester; the same city that became Guardiola and Mourinho’s home after signing with City and United respectively. Their arrival to Manchester proved to be the spark that fired up the Manchester Derby for football fans around the world. Suddenly everyone started visualizing derby matches like no other due to the intense rivalry that Guardiola and Mourinho have between each other.

Last season both teams weren’t at their full potential as the coaches were still getting to know their players in addition to the weak chemistry between the newcomers. However, this season there are no excuses, and that’s exactly what made the Manchester Derby even more special. League leaders Manchester City came into this match with an 8-point lead ahead of Mourinho’s United; however, the points difference didn’t mean much since a win for United would cut that to only 5, and that is a really tight gap in the Premier League. On the other hand, a win for Manchester City would extend their lead difference to 11-points ahead of their closest rivals with the first half of the season coming to an end.

In this piece, I will highlight the key points and movements that were noticed from both teams and why Manchester City emerged as the victorious team in the first chapter of the Derby this season.


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Manchester United (4-2-3-1) | Manager: Jose Mourinho

  1. De Gea – 25. Valencia, 12. Smalling, 5. Rojo, 18. Young – 21. Herrera, 31. Matic – 11. Martial, 14. Lingard, 19. Rashford – 9. Lukaku.

Manchester City (4-3-3) | Manager: Pep Guardiola

  1. Ederson – 2. Walker, 4. Kompany, 30. Otamendi, 19. Delph – 25. Fernandinho, 21. David Silva, 17. De Bruyne – 19. Sane, 33. Jesus, 7. Sterling.

Mourinho was expected to start with the solid duo Herrera and Matic for their high defensive work rate; a must when facing Manchester City. The pacey attacking 3 of Martial, Lingard, and Rashford was used to trouble City’s slow defenders such as Delph, Kompany, and Otamendi. Pogba’s absence was surely missed since he is one of the best players on the ball for Mourinho and can create numerous chances for the aforementioned trio in addition to Lukaku, as seen against Arsenal in their 1-3 win away from home.

For the Citizens, Guardiola opted to choose Gabriel Jesus over Aguero in his favored 4-3-3 without rotating any of his wingers, midfield, and defence. Pep knew that this match would be the toughest test his team will pass through before the later stages of the Champions League. Playing United at the Old Trafford is never easy no matter how many points there is between the two; it’s the derby and not just any other match.

United’s man-marking scheme:

Even though Mourinho fielded attacking players, the instructions were to mark specific key players from City. Lukaku pressed the ball carrying central defender, Lingard with Fernandinho preventing any passes to him at the start of the game, Matic and Herrera each followed De Bruyne and Silva respectively in the half-spaces, whereas Rashford and Martial kept an eye on City’s full-backs and supported Valencia and Young in defensive duties as not to fall in the 2 vs 1 issue on the wings. There was an interesting aspect in United’s setup as Rashford was on the left rather than Martial, to look after Walker’s marauding runs in City’s right flank.


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The plan was to purely cover and not apply full-on pressure; priority was to cover the critical spaces on the field and leave City circulate the ball around without breaking down the lines, with the aim of exploiting the channels that Guardiola’s men would leave when overcommitting to attack.

Pep responds with the False Nine

After figuring out United’s intent in defence, De Bruyne and Silva started to move more towards the half-space knowing that both Herrera and Matic would follow them if they were each in their respective half-space or if they were grouped on one side. Add to that Lingard being busy with marking Fernandinho, and the result was a critical space found in front of United’s defensive line for City to exploit.

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Enter the “False Nine” tactic – Guardiola’s famous trick from his playbook that lead him to glory with FC Barcelona – and we saw City starting to pass at ease in front of United’s defenders. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Gabriel Jesus in the center, it was Raheem Sterling, who is playing some of his best football under Guardiola this season.

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With Sterling in the middle, Sane as a pure right winger, and Gabriel Jesus closer to the left half-space in order to finish chances, City’s attack was reminiscent of Barcelona’s that featured Messi, Pedro, and Villa. Sterling’s roaming in the center was facilitated by the aggressive positioning of Walker and Delph on the touchlines which occupied United’s wingers. However, if Lingard dropped deep to cover Sterling, Fernandinho would push up a little bit as he’ll be the free man and in case he was covered by Lukaku, Otamendi would step up to open up passing angles in the last third; absolute positional superiority from Manchester City.

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As seen in the image above, each player in United’s half occupies a certain vertical line to open up as many passing lanes as possible. For instance, De Bruyne’s position allowed for Fernandinho’s pass to reach Gabriel Jesus easily without any pressure.

Otamendi stepping up during possession

Following on the point mentioned above, Otamendi was frequently urged to step up with the ball towards United’s half if the space was available. This was Stone’s duty prior to his injury, a tactic used to alleviate pressure off the team’s midfield because eventually someone has to face the rushing central defender, thus opening up a passing lane towards the now-unmarked City player. Brilliant idea used by Pep that adds another way to circulate possession and find the free man.

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United started well but fell back

At the beginning of the match, United’s midfield was able to find Lukaku using vertical passes for him to lay-off, acting as the target man that would set the ball up for the pacey attacking three. Vertical ground passes are more effective than long balls; these passes travel faster, catch the slow defenders off-guard, and acts as the most suitable transitioning method when performing a counter-attack. For the first 20 minutes, United managed to progress into City’s half with smart passes and movement from the quartet Martial-Lingard-Rashford-Lukaku thanks to their speed and dribbling ability on the ball. However, the Red Devils opted to stop playing those vertical passes possibly to guard against potential counter-attacks from the Citizens. In other words, Mourinho minimized risk as he always does against the Big 6.

Due to the aggressive positioning of Walker and Delph, Martial and Rashford were forced to drop back deep into their own third to ensure defensive solidity. This lead to:

  • Huge amount of energy to be used by United’s wingers when a counter-attacking opportunity arises since their runs would start deep inside their half. Over time, this issue exhausted Rashford and Martial leading to weakened focus when attacking.
  • Lukaku becoming isolated against City’s defenders resulting in the failure of United’s long ball plan. Whenever Lukaku managed to control the ball his teammates were far away thus the opportunity of a successful lay-off was lost and the ball was recouped easily by Otamendi or Kompany.
  • United’s compact lines made City’s job in counter-pressing much easier as the Citizens had better access to most players within seconds.

How United could’ve played?

There’s a feeling that Mourinho could have gone out of this game with much more than he got only if he was bold to take the initiative and attack City. There’s a misconception that Mourinho doesn’t attack, but whoever saw Chelsea during the 2014/15 season know that the Special One can produce brilliant attacking displays if he wants to. Manchester United boast talented attacking players and the best of them all is Pogba. Even though he was out for the game, the general idea is that United could have attacked City and tried to test how resilient Guardiola’s backline is against quick vertical passes coupled with lay-offs and third man runs. Mourinho isn’t a stranger when it comes to facing Guardiola and he knows that through balls and runs in behind can exploit a high defensive line, it just needs courage. That’s the reason we saw United emerge in the last 15 minutes when Mata was introduced. The Spaniard is a talented player in picking out passes like the one he gave to Martial before the Frenchman squaring it to Lukaku who missed a guaranteed goal.


With their 15th win in the Premier League, Manchester City extended their lead to 11 points cementing their position as the best team in England right now. Pep is fine-tuning the system with match and the players seem to embark on an extreme learning curve. Perhaps Sterling as a False Nine will prove to be the tactical revolution of the season, similar to what the Catalan did against Real Madrid in the 6-2 win back in 2009. On the other hand, Jose Mourinho must quickly find the spark to ignite his team and get them back onto winning tracks to match the amazing form they were in at the beginning of the season. This spark could be the fight that happened outside both teams’ locker rooms, I expect Jose to leverage that into a cause for solidarity; same way he did with Inter Milan after being accused by the referees of bad behavior and putting the Nerazzurri under spotlight.

Looking back at the rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, there’s a common saying trending around the footballing world that perfectly describes it, it goes like this, “Whenever Mourinho discovers the answer, Pep Guardiola changes the question.”