MANCHESTER UNITED vs MANCHESTER CITY
International break over and back to Premier League business with a much anticipated first head to head for Guardiola and Mourinho in Manchester. After his late winner at Hull and a hat-trick on his England Under-21 debut the big question was would Jose pick Marcus Rashford for the starting eleven?
In: Mkhitaryan and Lingard.
Out: Mata and Martial.
- City were much sharper, more alert and quicker both to close down and more urgent in their passing when in possession. United improved significantly in this regard in the second half, but by then the damage was done.
- In the first half there was too much space between the players pressing City as they played out from the back and the player’s further back, notably Pogba and Fellaini. This allowed City time and space to develop play. De Bruyne and Silva thrived.
- Mourinho changed this after the break with Herrera at the base and Pogba and Fellaini pushing higher. United were more competitive thereafter but were chasing the game as City went to a five man defence.
- The first half showed that Mkhitaryan isn’t quite ready for the pace of a top Premier league game, but why was Lingard so off the pace? Or were these two players simply not fully fit?
- City rode their luck at the back at times using Bravo as a sweeper keeper. He also looked vulnerable on crosses, especially for United’s goal. United did not make the most of this. Others might.
Mourinho did not introduce Rashford, but he did make changes introducing Mkhitaryan on the right of the 3 in his 4-2-3-1 and Lingard in place of Martial on the left. Guardiola did make an adjustment to his general plan used thus far in that his fullbacks tended to stay wide. They did push high but they did not come inside to supplement the central midfield as in previous games. Mourinho probably turned to Lingard and Mkhitaryan in view of Martial’s apparent lack of form and Mata’s lack of pace.
United’s intended starting shape? And how it transpired at times surrendering space in the middle of the pitch
As is usual the first ten minutes or so were fairly tight and played at 100 mile an hour, but then City got on top and from then went on to dominate the first half. We are just going to describe the patterns of the first half in general terms rather than look at things chronologically as they developed.
The first big theme was the United press, or partial press. United only pressed when City had the ball in very deep positions and that meant pressing Bravo and his central defenders as well as Fernandinho who was playing at the base of their midfield. The press involved Ibrahimovic, Rooney and one of Lingard or Mkhitaryan dependent on the ball position at the time. The problem was that the deeper United players tended to stay too deep allowing City to pass around the press. City usually used Bravo almost as an outfield player to switch play to the other side away from the area of the press.Once they had done this United then tried to adopt a low block. One of either Pogba or Fellaini needed to push higher.
The second of the issues was that the low block did not work. Having beaten the press City worked hard to circulate the ball quickly and decisively with good movement and quick early simple passes. These were all designed to get De Bruyne and Silva between the lines. City played exceptionally well in this first half but these two and especially De Bruyne stood out. He gave a master class. Their play was supported by City’s fullbacks pushing higher and providing overlaps.
Pogba’s positioning was not good. Perhaps aware that there was too much space in front of him when United pressed high and aware that Silva and De Bruyne were trying to find pockets of space behind him he appeared in two minds about where he should be. Stick or twist, this meant that Pogba was usually too high leaving a pocket of space between himself and his defence but also too deep losing any ability to support a press or an attack. Fellaini worked hard to compensate and made a reasonably good job of this as best he could but often the two ended up with the game passing them by. Overall this made them look too passive and too slow.
United were generally too passive in the first half and behind the pace of City’s passing and movement. This especially applied to the central defenders. They have played well together this season but they were all at sea in this game. As with Pogba they appeared unsure whether to stick or twist as well. The classic example of this is City’s first goal on 15 minutes. Bailly stood off Iheanacho as he jumped to head on for De Bruyne to run past a flat footed Blind before shooting past De Gea. Both United defenders were essentially spectators in this move and this happened far too often. 0-1.
All over the pitch City were setting the agenda and with their movement controlling the position of United players. Up front Silva regularly dropped deep asking the question of whether Fellaini should follow him or not, if he followed him this left United’s defensive pair open and City would then hit the ball long into a two on two situation. This was exactly what happened in the build up to the first goal. If Fellaini didn’t follow him Silva would receive the ball short in space.
In deeper areas Fernandinho played a similar game with Rooney coming short into the defensive line, would Rooney follow, if he did this would leave space in the middle of the park. If he didn’t Fernandinho was free to receive the ball in the deep. This was all basically possible because City did things more quickly than United.
The other big issue for United was the performances of Lingard and Mkhitaryan. Were they fit? They contributed very little going forward and regularly seemed to want too much time on the ball; Lingard’s first touch was very poor. They were regularly disposed by City’s busy midfield players who always seemed to be stealing the ball away. As a consequence United struggled to break out. When they dropped into the low block they were far too passive. A feature of United’s low block this year has been the way the outside players in the three have dropped in to the half spaces forming a narrow four in front of the defence. They were unable to do this here because Silva and De Bruyne were always looking to create overloads with their advancing fullbacks, Sterling and Nolito, so Mkhitaryan and Lingard tended to get dragged wider.
Mkhitarayan also seemed a reluctant presser and as a consequence City had great success building play down the United right. The issue was that Mkhitaryan seemed unsure whether to press, perhaps concerned that he might left Valencia exposed to overloads by De Bruyne, Kolorov and Nolito. The consequence was that Otamendi had time and space to move forward.
Previously when they have formed this four two of the four have been more passive with the other two being more aggressive and exerting pressure on the ball. United did not do this here and generally this gave the impression of being behind the pace of the game. City’s second goal was an example of this as Sterling was allowed to run unchallenged into the box across the defence from the right. The ball reached De Bruyne who made space for himself to shoot. This shot came back off the post allowing Iheanacho a chance to side foot home from close range. 36 minutes 0-2.
United got back into the game late in the half when Ibrahimovic fired home after Claudio Bravo had dropped a cross delivered from a free kick. Boom! 43 minutes 1-2. Bravo’s mistake indicated a weakness that United hadn’t exploited and he made a second mistake moments later when Lingard chased down a 50/50 ball and won it in a challenge with the keeper. The ball spilled to Ibrahimovic who should have scored but his shot was far too weak.
Jose Mourinho made two half time substitutions replacing Lingard and Mkhitaryan with Herrera and Rashford. Herrera moved to the base of a midfield triangle with Fellaini and Pogba further forward. Rashford played wide on the left with Rooney moving wide on the right. The shape was now essentially a 4-3-3. This effectively changed the game; United were not completely on top but they were more competitive now with greater pressure on the ball. City were no longer dominant.
The change allowed Pogba and Fellaini to play higher and Felaini in particular spent a large part of the second half playing just behind Ibrahimovic. United used these two targets to move the ball forward quicker via longer forward passes. More of the game was therefore played in the City half and when it was their United started to look more threatening. Herrera had clearly been detailed to pick up De Bruyne who was now less effective at the start of the half. Herrera didn’t get touch tight to De Bruyne as he had the difficult task of tracking him and Silva and whenever United had possession he was free enough to join in the task of circulating the ball and directing the forward thrust.
Fellaini’s first and second half action areas; so much higher in the second half
Pushing Fellaini and Pogba further forward close to Ibrahimovic made City vulnerable to the long ball forward but it also seemed to limit the involvement of Pogba in the second half who had far fewer touches. United either hit the ball over him or went wide either through Rooney and Valencia on the right delivering crosses or Rashford on the left running at people often diagonally. The number of crosses and the long early passes out from the back was a challenge to both Bravo and the City central defence and prompted a very early adjustment from Guardiola.
Pogba’s passing in the first and second half, note he was far less involved after the break
On 52 minutes City removed Iheanacho and replaced him with Fernando. Effectively this was a move to withstand the areal onslaught. City’s shape changed to a rough 5-4-1 with Fernandinho moving forward to a higher midfield position and Fernando playing at the base. More often than not using his height he played as an extra central defender. De Bruyne played as the central striker, although generally in a fairly deep area. This adjustment worked well for City as playing with three centre backs they always seemed to have a spare man to deal with the flick-ons and second balls in the area. It also took responsibility away from Bravo to come and claim crosses; an interesting statistic is that in the whole game Bravo only came to claim two crosses, the one he dropped in the first half and one he claimed in the second. The rest of the time in that second period he left everything to his centre backs to deal with. The use of three centre backs also allowed City’s fullbacks the licence to close down space in wide areas pressing the ball in attempt to limit the quality of any crosses.
On 60 minutes City made a second substitution replacing Sterling with Sane, in terms of position a straight swap.
This all meant that United’s second half onslaught was fairly ineffective. City still looked very dangerous on the break particularly as United tried to force things even more as the half wore on. This was especially true later in the half when United made a further substitution with drawing Shaw and introducing Martial. Now they switched to a back three with Rashford moving to the middle and Martial playing on the left in a 3-4-4 formation. Unfortunately a disciplined City display saw the game finish 1-2.
United’s shape late in the second half after the introduction of Martial
A few words about Claudio Bravo. Much has been made of his performance since the match with the focus being on his role as a sweeper keeper or an auxiliary outfield player as City looked to playout from the back. Actually he performed this role well with a 93% pass completion rate; his two failed passes were actually long punts up the field. This approach may look risky to British eyes but that is part of the plan. Guardiola wants to play with a degree of apparent risk to draw the opposition forward into the press leaving space higher up to be exploited once the press is beaten. This worked.
There were two areas where Bravo did look slightly vulnerable. The first was on crosses or long high balls into the box. He flapped for the United goal but was protected thereafter by City’s use of three centre backs. If United had adopted this more direct strategy from the start City would have been forced to change their shape earlier. United missed a trick here. Others may not. Finally Bravo did look slightly vulnerable if he over played at the back and this may be an area of weakness generally. United should have been awarded a penalty when his control was loose and Rooney stole in. A studs up challenge could have resulted in a foul being given and potentially a red card. That could have changed the complexion of the afternoon completely.
A disappointing result and a very disappointing first half performance. It was good to see an improvement after half time but why were United second to everything in that first half? Why were Fellaini and Pogba both so deep? City seemed to have a sense of purpose, United didn’t.
At least United competed in the second half. With a less disjointed shape and a more aggressive, spirited approach. But City adopted a “what we have we hold” approach with 5 at the back looking to hit United quickly when the opportunity arose. They always looked dangerous on the break but the tactical adjustments had significantly altered the balance of the game making it a much more even contest. Post-match Jose Mourinho commented,
“The two halves were completely different. In the first half we were below the level to play this match. You have to be completely ready in terms of the speed of your thinking and decision-making.
The second half was completely different. We were a team that had the courage and honesty and dignity to chase with pride the result which I think we deserved – we deserved a goal in the second half.”
The question is did Jose get his tactics and selection wrong at the start?