After a first season which unexpectedly saw newly kindled Manchester forces become extras in Chelsea’s blitz to the Premier League title, two old rivals will meet yet again, this time as the two main title contenders. Jose Mourinho faces Pep Guardiola at Old Trafford in probably the biggest game of the season so far. Adrift of the mesmerising City by eight points after fifteen games, this meeting is of huge significance in the long battle for the Premier League crown.
United used a 4-4-1-1 type shape. Key man De Gea was the goalkeeper. His defence was Valencia, Smalling, Rojo and Young. In the centre of the pitch, both in 6/8 type roles was Matic and Ander Herrera, in the absence of Pogba. Martial and Rashford flanked them. Lingard played as a second striker behind Lukaku.
Unsurprisingly, Pep attempted to spring another tactical surprise in a big game. Not so much in his team selection, but slightly in the positioning of his his players in an adjusted formation. Ederson was in goals, with Walker, Kompany, Otamendi and Delph the back four, City missing John Stones and Benjamin Mendy. Fernandinho was the 6, with De Bruyne and David Silva the interiors. Leroy Sane was a right winger. Sterling played in a dynamic false 10 role, with Gabriel Jesus in a left wide forward role. City didn’t use a clear number 9.
Exploitation of Man-Marking Through Use of the 10 Space
In anticipation of Jose Mourinho’s typical man-marking approach in big games, Pep Guardiola adapted the structuring and role of his advanced players in possession to exploit spaces which can typically be created and found versus man-marking.
Creation and use of spaces due to opposition inadequate man-marking can be done in a number of ways. This may be done through specific positional play, rotations, receiving patterns, actions on the ball and many, many others. Manchester City used a variety of different methods to exploit United’s man-marking, particularly in the centre. Most notably was the adjustment of the positioning of City’s front three. So far this season, it’s been known definitively as Sterling right-wing, Sane left-wing and one of Aguero/Jesus as a number 9. However, in this match, Pep chose Jesus, but not as a central-forward. The Brazilian played in a wide left-forward role, vacating the centre for Sterling to play in a central role just behind the front line. Though throughout the season so far, we have sometimes seen City’s CF situationally drop from typical 9 areas into slightly deeper 9.5 positions, to receive from deeper and offer lay-offs to vertical runners. Using Sterling, a more technically able player in the central attacking role however, suggested Guardiola wanted far more impact from his central attacker in deeper chance creation in this match than previously. Sterling could support different zones very dynamically, playing in a free role. He could aid in overload of the wings as well as make vertical runs beyond the United defence, but it was clear that his occupation of the 10 space, which City would look to open through manipulation of United’s man-marking, was his main job. In order to free up and/or use this space, City used their positional play, which could differ from situation to situation. One movement pattern we saw was for City’s interiors, De Bruyne and David Silva, to push into high midfield positions, wide in either halfspace.
Man-marked by Herrera and Matic, the pair could drag both United’s defensive-midfielders out of their position, much wider than ideal. Splitting the two apart created a large distance between them, with a gap in this central-midfield space. This gap was difficult to cover for United, as Lingard was occupied defensively by having to cover Fernandinho and support Lukaku in blocking progressive lanes from the centre-backs. As this space opened up, Sterling would move from his position into this hole. From here, he would look to receive a vertical pass from deep. Ideally, he would turn and run directly at the United defence. When Rojo followed him however, playing a lay-off to a supporting runner was usually the option.
Using dynamic superiority was another way City looked the receive in the hole created in the 10 space through their exploitation of Mourinho’s man-oriented system. When Sterling was not available, due to occupation of a different zone which was too far from the 10 space, it would be De Bruyne or Silva tasked with occupying the space. Initially the same method as previously mentioned, the interiors would split wide and high in either halfspace, with Herrera and Matic following. Just as Herrera/Matic got tight to them, and there was potential for an open passing lane from deep to the 10 space, one of City’s CM’s move burst back inside into the previously empty hole. Due to Herrera/Matic just moving outwards to quickly mark De Bruyne/Silva, they are likely to be unable to move off again back in this direction to follow their marker. This could potentially give the drifting player a chance to receive in this space for a second or so.
Poor Structuring Leads to Vulnerability
As is not typical of a defensive-minded team, more specifically managed by Mourinho, there was a clear vulnerability from Manchester United in the case of counter-attacks. The reasoning for this was largely down to the weak, unstaggered structure set by Mourinho when his team did have rare ball possession.
Mourinho’s plan was to escape the pressure of City, and target their vulnerabilities in defending long balls, by playing long high passes from deep into advanced areas around and beyond Man a City’s backline. Lukaku was often the target, with the 6’3 forward looking to knockdown or flick-on to supporting runners Rashford, Lingard and Martial, who all started in position almost as high as the Belgian himself. The long balls forward offered little base or structure that a progressive build-up would allow for. Valencia and Young had very ‘straight’ roles, and simply supported the wingers from very wide positions. The two full-backs, similarly to Rashford and Martial, the wings, had huge distances to cover in moving infield to return to defensive position quickly. This meant unless United could counterpress to delay City (difficult unless Rashford/Martial had moved inside to support Lukaku and Lingard), all four wide players for United very often too far out wide to support in the defending of a counter-attack. This left Herrera and Matic, who mostly played as a flat double-pivot with little involvement in progression, to hold the centre of midfield themselves. As a flat double-pivot rather than being staggered, the pairing were significantly more vulnerable to being penetrated and received behind, as they covered less vertical distance.
Though infrequent due to United’s low number of opportunities to actually attack, when United’s long balls went forward, City actually exploited this central vulnerability very well, up until the final third, which was simply down to poor final balls. The dribbling ability of De Bruyne/Silva/Sterling combined with the pace and movement of Jesus and Sane simply looked too much for the disorientated United backline and Herrera and Matic to contain. As the ball reached the box however, City often delayed their final ball, giving United a vital second or two to recover and make key blocks.
Anticipated as a potential game of the season, with two footballing masterminds looking to outsmart one another using the supposed endless quality at their disposal, the first Manchester derby of the season was perhaps a slight anticlimax, at least tactically. City’s domination of the game was difficult to fault, as their almost unpressable circulation and Pep’s game management admirably allowed to take a 2-1 win and most importantly three points added onto their previously eight point lead at the top of the table.
Pep clearly understood the importance of this match in the Premier League title race and utilised a gameplan which saw his Manchester City side through the match as winners. Though City’s possession lacked its usual bite and penetration, Mou’s Red Devils didn’t looked hugely threatening at any point throughout the match, which was down to City’s well measured game plan. There were not as many massively impacting factors on the game as predicted, due to the game killing domination of Pep’s City, who now hold an all important 11 point lead at the top of the English Premier League.