Manchester United hosted City in the 170th Manchester derby. In this fixture last season United dominated the midfield battle with Mata’s central roaming creating an overload that was key to United’s victory. Furthermore Toure was played as one of City’s two deep midfield players despite his well-documented defensive shortcomings and this contributed to their resounding defeat.
This time around Pellegrini showed his pragmatic side with a dogged defensive display, although this was partially forced with injuries to Silva and Aguero. There was a lot of ambivalence in the reactions to the game with some praising it as the best 1st half in the league season so far, (Gary Neville) while others labelled it as boring, forgettable and lacking quality.
Man Utd: 4-2-3-1: 1.De Gea// 5.Rojo, 12.Smalling, 4.Jones 25.Valencia// 31.Schweinsteiger, 28.Schneiderlin// 9.Martial, 21.Herrera, 8.Mata// 10.Rooney
Man City: 4-2-3-1: 1.Hart// 11.Kolarov, 30.Otamendi, 4.Kompany, 3.Sagna// 6.Fernando, 25.Fernandinho// 7.Sterling, 42.Toure, 17.De Bruyne// 14.Bony
Man Utd: Lingard for Mata ’67
Fellaini for Schweinsteiger ‘75
Darmian for Valencia ‘81
Man City: Navas for Sterling ‘55
Toure for Demichelis ‘77
Iheanacho for Bony ‘87
City’s defensive structure/United’s sterile attack
City had quite a heavily man-oriented defensive structure which was mostly active in deep defensive zones, which of course added a zonal element to their defensive system. Toure was attached to Schneiderlin, Fernandinho to Schweinsteiger and Fernando to Herrera. Sagna and Kolarov were tight to United’s wingers; Martial and Mata respectively. This worked well mostly in stifling Van Gaal’s men, but as with any man-oriented defensive scheme it only takes an error from one individual to compromise every one’s efforts.
It was quite common to see United attack like shown above with no one occupying the 10 space. City’s midfielders were thus free to push forward and mark their men tightly, therefore giving none of them time on the ball to dictate the game. This is where United missed Blind’s passing ability, with Blind at the back Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin would be slightly less concerned with aiding the build-up and could occupy spaces within City’s defensive block as opposed to standing on the toes of the centre-backs. This would have given United more penetrating passing options centrally.
There were a couple of occasions where Fernando lost concentration and Herrera was free to receive the ball in a half space which was free with City’s wide players being heavily focused on United’s wide players, below is an example. Herrera receives the ball with time to turn but a lack of movement ahead of him, his refusal to provoke the situation and the resulting hesitancy meant United let City off the hook. Herrera would have been better off driving forward with the ball which would draw Sagna or Kompany towards him and open space for Martial or Rooney. What this also demonstrated was the value of having several players between City’s defence and midfield lines. Mata coming infield took Fernando’s attention while Fernandinho focused on Schweinsteiger making Herrera the free man between the lines.
United could and should have done more to manipulate City’s man-orientations. By moving towards the half-spaces United’s wingers could draw Kolarov and Sagna in with them and with both full-backs pushing on City would be forced into a back six. United could then take advantage of the extra space that would have been available in the midfield whilst also testing De Bruyne and Sterling’s defensive acumen with runs from Rojo and Valencia. Another advantage of doing this would be to reduce City’s counter-attacking threat with De Bruyne and Sterling forced into deep positions. Unfortunately for United, and the neutrals, this was expecting too much from Van Gaal who was perhaps too focused on the stability the possession was giving United in the 1st half. Without committing enough players to overload City’s structure United would need individual quality to win the game, however Herrera Mata and Rooney were not decisive enough in the final 3rd. Martial was once again United’s brightest attacker but his goal threat was heavily reduced on the left. Furthermore when the full-backs did get into attacking positions their final ball was poor with their crosses often over or under-hit (although we have come to expect this from Valencia). United really struggled to create chances in the 1st half and this is highlighted by their failure to have a shot of any kind before the interval. United were also missing specialist 1v1 dribblers who could drastically change the pace of their game in an instant. (As Van Gaal would say United were lacking ‘speed and creativity’)
United’s pressing/City’s midfield personnel
Manchester City initially experienced some difficulties in their build-up against United’s man-oriented pressing. Similarly to City, United man-marked the opposing midfielders and therefore built strong resistance to vertical passes, this was generally organised quite well.
In the above scene Otamendi is forced to either pass across to Kompany or go long and possibly lose possession. Herrera presses Otamendi, but crucially uses his cover shadow to block the pass into Fernando, while the other midfielders are tightly marked as well as the near wide players; in this case Kolarov and Sterling. Initially this pressing was very effective as City failed to build superiority in the 1st line with their midfielders not dropping in.
Being the most technically gifted City midfielder Toure began to drop in to create a 3v2 against United’s 2 man first line of defence. This would have pleased United as it indicated they were doing a good job of starving him service between the lines, and it meant he would operate in less dangerous areas of the pitch. So job done right? Not if you switch off and stop what you were doing well.
In the above scene Schweinsteiger is caught ball watching and momentarily loses Fernandinho who drives forward on Schweinsteiger’s blindside and picks the ball up after a superb pass from Toure. Fernandinho then drove forward and set up one of City’s better attacks which led to a corner. This demonstrated what City were lacking, with Toure in a deep position he would have been able to punish United’s midfielders if they lost concentration more readily than Fernandinho or Fernando were able to.
2nd half changes
In the 2nd half it was clear how much more aggressive United were with their positioning. Perhaps noticing how comfortably City were containing United, Van Gaal pushed Schweinsteiger and Herrera further forward with Schneiderlin anchoring behind. United now resembled a lop-sided 4-3-3 much like last season, with Herrera (far more subtle than Fellaini) being United’s most advanced midfielder. It is hard to be certain whether Van Gaal was responding to City defending deeper or City retreated in response to United’s more advanced positioning. Either way, the pattern for the 2nd half was set United would probe and circulate continually in an attempt to open valuable spaces.
City meanwhile would seek to exploit offensive transitions and evade United’s counterpressing with their quick combinations, collective narrowness, press resistance and vertical runs. United had their pro-active defenders to thank for City’s failure to score on the counter. With the ball travelling forwards Rojo, Jones and Smalling numerous times seized upon momentary hesitation to steal possession and keep City hemmed in their own half.
United were clearly more vertically-oriented in the 2nd half in search of the opener. The spaces behind City’s midfield that were often unoccupied in the 1st half were now frequently overloaded with Mata, Herrera and Schweinsteiger roaming. Furthermore City’s shape was manipulated better (as shown below)with Rojo or Valencia moving higher, drawing Navas, Sterling or De Bruyne back and taking away their ability to congest the middle. This helped United get into better attacking positions more frequently and more isolations were created in wide areas. However they were still crippled by indecisiveness and poor execution of passes and crosses and this was a major factor in their failure to score.
The game was slowly petering out into a stalemate until Van Gaal brought on Fellaini, a key player in last year’s 4-2 triumph. With one of his touches Fellaini received the ball and drove past 3 City players with the ball at his feet. For a moment it looked as if his addition would finally give United the edge in the intense midfield battle. In City’s tiring midfield only Toure could come close to Fellaini’s height and physical prowess but question marks remain over his diligence to carry out such a role. Pellegrini therefore reacted, about two minutes after Fellaini’s introduction Demichelis replaced Toure. This left Pellegrini with a midfield of Fernando, Fernandinho and Demichelis, not dissimilar (player profile wise) to a midfield Mourinho might end a big game with. (I would say if you can’t beat them join them, but it does not apply anymore with Chelsea’s rotten run) With Pellegrini’s penultimate substitution he returned the game to square one; stalemate.
Originally posted on Outside of the Boot