MANCHESTER UNITED vs MANCHESTER CITY
After a shambolic defeat at Stamford Bridge United fans expected a reaction. One would usually expect significant changes to the team selected for a League Cup game but as this was a local derby any changes would be more likely to be Mourinho’s response to that performance.
In: Rojo, Shaw, Carrick and Mata.
Out: Smalling, Bailly, Fellaini and Lingard.
- City were sharper at the start, but then United improved as they developed the ability to hold possession. They became quicker, sharper and braver.
- United didn’t beat the City press as much as they resisted it Ibrahimovic and Pogba used physical strength to hold ball. Herrera, Mata and Carrick were bold and composed. Valencia moved well.
- Carrick had a great game, he controlled United’s passing from deep ensuring United moved the ball away from their defensive third in a controlled way. In conjunction with Herrera, Mata and Pogba he also controlled space by blocking passing angles when City had the ball.
- Mourinho made a masterful substitution in the introduction of Schneiderlin. United reverted to a more boxy shape. Surrendering space in the wide areas Schneiderlin’s high position allowed that he could stay close to City’s deep midfield players and deny them time and space. This just made it harder for City to get at United.
- United’s performance in the second half was better because they were bolder and moved the ball quicker. They had realised collectively that if they could resist the City press there was nothing to fear.
As well as changes in personnel Jose Mourinho changed the team shape for this game. Out went a 4-2-3-1, in came a 4-3-3, or more precisely a 4-2-1-3. This was significant as it meant that for the first time this season United fielded a midfield three of Carrick, Herrera and Pogba. What made this deliberately not a 4-2-3-1 was that Mata and Rashford played in a fairly high position. One of the features of Guardiola’s usual strategies is that he will always try and have more players in the middle of the pitch, in other words in central midfield than you have. The change in shape had to be a response to this then but in the first half it was only really a partial success.
Mata’s natural inclination of course is to come inside, across the pitch from a starting position on the right and this of course can help to add an extra body to that central area, but it can also leave the fullback exposed.
United’s first half shape and the excellent, reliable Michael Carrick
City started the more brightly of the two teams; they were full of energy and running and closed United down quickly. There pressing was effective because United were slow and ponderous on the ball, and because United’s passing was overly cautious. There were shades here of not only the performance at the weekend but also of the league meeting between the two sides just over a month ago. City had a couple of early chances and could have taken the lead. But they didn’t and slowly United started to get into the game.
They did this by being more positive from about the middle of the half. Two features of their play allowed them to build their performance. Firstly they resisted the City press. At the start City’s higher energy approach meant that they closed the ball down quickly and won it back early. Now United began to retain the ball. This was as a consequence of good work in the central areas by Carrick, Herrera and as the half wore on Ibrahimovic and Pogba. They didn’t create a lot but turning away from the first challenge, changing the direction of the ball or pass and then playing an earlier pass they were able to resist City’s attempts to win the ball. This allowed United to move the ball around and take some of the pressure off themselves. The size and strength on Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Valencia helped in this, as did the busyness of Herrera and the calm of Carrick. United refused to allow themselves to be rushed.
City still had their moments and this was an even, if at times scrappy game, but a 0-0 score line seemed fair. The other feature of their play which helped United was the fact that they tended to pass earlier and pass forward. They did make some good triangulation patterns in the centre of the pitch, but these usually moved the ball up the pitch and away from the defensive third. What was clear when United did all this was that if they did resist the press City had to drop back to cover the power and physicality of Inbrahimovic and Pogba and the pace of Rashford and when City did drop back they didn’t look too secure.
It was very noticeable in the first half that Ibrahimovic, Rashford and Mata tended to stay fairly high. Rashford and Mata, (or Pogba when he swapped positions with Mata) would spread wide as City’s centre backs split to spread themselves looking to give Caballero passing options. This made it difficult for City to pass out from the back as they like to do. These two were backed up by Pogba (or Mata) and Ibrahimovic slightly deeper who prevented City’s deep midfield players Fernando and Garcia having time on the ball to pick a pass towards the higher players. United also had Carrick and Herrera covering those players in the half spaces in front of the defence. This was all a consequence of the change in team shape. A small adjustment; but significant. This meant that there was space in wide areas for City and Shaw particularly had a difficult time with Navas; but he coped.
There were no halftime substitutions but a change in their approach. They clearly upped the tempo of their play passing the ball quickly often via one touch moves. This not only allowed United to keep the ball but also saw gaps opening up as having failed to win the ball from a press City often found themselves out of position. Then moving the ball quickly prevented City recovering.
There was one sublime move down United’s right where Mata, Herrera and Valencia combined to release Ibrahimović. He released Pogba on the overlap on the left who shot against the near post when he probably should have scored. Would United regret this missed chance?
United’s goal came in the 54th minute and demonstrated all the best features of their play. Ibrahimovic chased down a high ball forward which the defender misjudged as the pair jumped together. He turned the ball back into the box from the left for Herrera. He challenged for what was a 50/50 ball with Fernando who fouled him. This could have been a penalty butt the ball ran free to Mata who fired home. Boom!
After this goal United seemed almost instantly to adopt a more cautious approach. At first this meant holding the ball a fraction too long before releasing a pass but after a while they began to drop deeper. This surrendered the initiative and space to City who now enjoyed plenty of possession. It was perhaps a surprise that Jose Mourinho waited so long to make a change. In fact City had made two substitutions by this point replacing Sane with Sterling and Nolito with Aguero by the time Jose made his first shape.
Then on 73 minutes Mourinho replaced Mata with Schneiderlin.
United’s shape in and out of possession after the introduction of Morgan Schneiderlin
With Schneiderlin on the pitch United’s shape alternated between a rough diamond in midfield when they had the ball and a flatter 3-1 arrangement in midfield when City had the ball. Basically the diamond consisted on Carrick at the base, Pogba further forward on the left and Herrera on the right. Schneiderlin was then unusually the furthest forward, something you don’t expect from a player who is generally a defensive midfield player. This gave United passing options and ensured that when they won the ball they didn’t automatically lose it instantly. Pogba and Schneiderlin occasionally shifted imposition to each other with Pogba pushing forward.
When City had the ball Herrera and Pogba would sit back forming a three in a line block but Schneiderlin would not. Instead he concentrated on staying close to City’s defensive midfield of Garcia, (who had been beginning to control the play) and Fernando. Schneiderlin appeared to be trying to maintain pressure on the ball rather than aggressively win it. He left the attempts to win the ball to Rashford and Ibrahimovic. This had three effects. Firstly City had little time on the ball at the back in deep areas, secondly City constantly fouled Rashford and Ibrahimovic as the United pair became an irritant, (this broke up the flow of the game), and thirdly City could not over-commit because they were aware of the threat of Ibrahimovic and especially the pace of Rashford on the break.
What City could do was get the ball wide into United’s fullback areas. They did this and had plenty of space here but United dealt well with any crosses into the box and this meant that City did not have a clear cut chance in the final 15 minutes. This statistic sits well with the strategy and the other notable statistic from the game which is that City did not have a single shot on target throughout the game.
Lingard replace Rashford on 82 minutes ensuring that the threat of a pacey breakaway was maintained. This helped United secure the win.
Always After defeat at Stamford Bridge United needed a win here to deny oxygen to those critics eager to talk of crisis; last month after a defeat to City a much changed side went down to defeat in Holland ushering a period of mixed results and over reaction in some quarters. Wins silence doubters and create the breathing space for team and tactical development. This is a period of adjustment and patience is needed but amidst all the talk about potential changes to both sides Mourinho demonstrated he had learnt a lesson and did not repeat the mistake.
This wasn’t a great performance, but it was disciplined and effective; a significant improvement on United’s previous performance. There a lot you could analyse in detail but beyond individual performances the important points to take from this display are fourfold. Firstly United’s spine was strong, (as at Anfield), secondly United controlled space, especially in the centre whilst being prepared to surrender space in wide areas, thirdly everyone stayed on message, positional and tactical discipline was the order of the day and finally Mourinho made an important tactical adjustment at the right time when needed.
These are all features of a Mourinho side and demonstrate that whilst we are experiencing a few ups and downs at the moment the squad is beginning to adjust and assimilate his methods. That is progress and bodes well for the future. No crisis here then.