While derbies are always a fun encounter, this match came with a lot of excitement due to the contrasting styles of the two managers. Ole Gunnar Solskjær had gotten the better of Pep Guardiola in their last meeting at the Etihad, which allowed Manchester United to advance in the Football League Cup. There was much anticipation going into the Premier League match to see if the counter-attacking style of Ole’s United would hold up as well in the league against the possession-dominant City. Both managers would be feeling the pressure from this game. Pep needing to win to close the massive gap between them and the league-leaders Liverpool and Ole needing to continue to move his side closer to Champions League football for the upcoming season.
In the end, United were able to record their 8th clean sheet in 10 matches while limiting City to only six shots. This tactical analysis will break down how City looked to take advantage of their possession, and how United wwere able to counter in good positions.
The lineups were straight forward, with Manchester United in a 3-4-1-2. They hadn’t used this formation since the 17th of February when they beat Chelsea 2-0 in the Premier League. Manchester City lined up in their familiar 4-3-3 with Fernandinho and Nicolás Otamendi filling in at centre-back.
The 4-3-3 for City was meant to stretch United across the field while giving them plenty of passing options for their build-up. The 3-4-1-2 of United was meant to help give them an extra player in the wide channels when City were able to get the ball to their pacey wingers. However, early in the game certain trends began to appear, which would set up the storyline for the match.
City game plan
City were intent on creating numbers even, or numbers up (2v2, 1v1, 2v1, etc…) in wide areas to take advantage of their creative and attacking players like Raheem Sterling. However, with United’s defensive setup it was difficult for them to do so. The use of wing-backs in their defensive blocks, effectively allowed for United to play with a back five, giving them an extra centre-back when the ball was passed into wide areas. To counteract this, City came up with a creative solution.
City are shown with their 4-3-3 attempting to play out against United’s defensive block. While not all players are visible, you can get the idea of how they are looking to stretch United, as United look to keep play in front of them.
Notice how United have the weak side wing-back flattened out to provide cover for the high City winger. Also, Aaron Wan-Bissaka splitting the difference between his winger, Sterling, and the advancing City left-back, Oleksandr Zinchenko.
You can see that in wide areas, United have a centre-back, as well as their wing-back. If the ball was to go wide to their full-back, United would press with the strong-side wing-back. But the rest of the backline would shift, leaving them still with a back four. City’s solution was very creative.
First, they would need to drag United across the field and try to commit the wing back to their own full-back. They also would need to drag the midfielders as far over as they could. This is done to create an overload on the weak side of the field. Here we can see City have moved the ball to the other centre-back and is waiting for United to shift.
The goal now for City is to attract United’s forward to the centre-back, so Fernandinho begins to carry the ball forward once he receives it.
Fernandinho will hold onto the ball and hope to commit Anthony Martial. To make sure it is not Bruno Fernandes who commits, they keep Rodri close to him to occupy him.
Here, at the moment Martial commits, they must now find a way to get the ball to João Cancelo. If they are successful, this will cause Brandon Williams (United’s left wing-back) to have to jump to Cancelo. Also, keep in mind the movement of Zinchenko, the City left-back who has begun to move across to the middle of the field.
Another thing to note is the movement of Bernardo Silva. He has taken up a very high and wide position, in the half-space. This was done to move Nemanja Matić and create a channel for Agüero to check for the ball. From here, they can bump the ball to Cancelo, forcing Williams to jump.
Now the ball is with Cancelo and Williams must jump to press. As a result, the rest of the United players must shift across, especially since Harry Maguire was forced to step in with Agüero. Notice how far Zinchenko has come, almost making himself another holding-mid.
İlkay Gündoğan has moved wider and higher on the opposite side, leaving himself closer to Sterling who is as high and wide as he can go. Lastly, Otamendi has begun widening out into the other channel.
Cancelo carries square across the field and finds a tucked in Zinchenko. The spacing of Zinchenko is important, and City finally can capitalise on his movement. There has been a lot of discussion regarding the use of tucked in full-backs at City. While there are huge benefits in preventing counterattacks, in this case it is allowing City to overload the far channel.
By coming in between Fernandes and Daniel James, Zinchenko has forced James into a decision. He must decide either to move wide to defend against a switch of play to Otamendi or come inside to prevent City from playing right through them with Zinchenko.
If Otamendi had stayed inside and not widened out, were he to receive the pass from Cancelo he would not be able to find Sterling, or Gündoğan due to the angle of the press from James.
Zinchenko pulling him inside and Gündoğan widening out creates a direct passing angle to both of those players, creating a 1v1/2v2 in the wide zone.
The ball is passed to Zinchenko, which draws James. The ball is now freely played to Otamendi and City have achieved their objective, of creating a number up the situation in a wide channel. This movement resulted in a cross into the box, which was not finished.
That would end up being a trend for City, of maintaining large amounts of possession, with a fair amount of those possessions resulting in corner kicks, or crosses into the box. Unfortunately for City, these movements forward rarely resulted in scoring opportunities. While the deliberate build-up was able to create these 1v1 or even 2v1 situations in wide areas, they did not lead to much direct penetration. Typically, they were simply means to move City into the final third, and circulate the ball. As a result, United were able to recover players behind the ball, and prevent City going to goal.
United on the other hand, were comfortable with City having the ball. While United did press higher up the field than a team that was looking to counterattack typically would, their game plan was clear. Ole wanted to take advantage of the fact that City was playing without a true centre-back. It is obvious he preferred the speed of his two forwards, Martial and James, to the two fill-ins for City, Otamendi and Fernandinho. United constantly kept their forwards outside of the two City centre-backs, making sure whenever they received the ball they were in a 1-on-1 situation.
United were also careful to leave their forwards available for quick counterattacks. They did this by funnelling the ball into wide areas. Then allowing the play to move past the forwards, who would then wait in open space in the outside channels. The moment that United would win the ball they could quickly counter through them.
Notice James is staying deliberately behind the play and leaving his teammates to deal with Zinchenko. He stays wide enough where he is not picked up by Rodri, and not too high where Otamendi will be able to pick him up. After all, Otamendi must leave himself as an option to switch play.
James and Martial are both positioned outside of their opposing centre-backs. Fernandes is close enough to Rodri that should they play him he can join the press, but also free of him to attack space in the event of a counter.
The ball is won, and immediately Fred finds James who breaks up the field.
Fortunately for City, Rodri and Cancelo recover well, however United are still able to advance the ball deep into City’s half.
The speed of this counter-attack has forced Otamendi into a 1v1 at the top of his box.
Otamendi is forced to foul, which results in a United free-kick. While United did not score this free-kick (Fernandes hit the wall), it was a good example of how United looked to break quickly when they have won the ball.
At the end of the day, Ederson was at fault for both goals, so you could say the 2-0 final scoreline was an unfair result. City dominated the ball with 70% possession, which is a lot even for them. However, the more telling stat is that Manchester City attacked 61 times, which resulted in six shots for them (a 10% success rate), whereas Manchester United attacked 31 times, resulting in eight shots (a 26% success rate).
Ultimately, it is the goal of the coach to set up their team through analysis in a manner that helps them be successful, and based on those numbers, it would be hard to argue that Ole didn’t do a better job with this. If Pep can’t increase productivity in his attacks through tactics, and limit the oppositions success rate, they will continue to struggle against weaker teams.