Goalless Manchester derby leaves much to be desired
Inconsequential—this it the word that characterises both Manchester sides appropriately when they met last Thursday. The Battle of Manchester saw both committing to their respective roles but lacking some tweaks and turns in order to win the match.
Pep Guardiola decided to field Manchester City in a 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 hybrid, with Yaya Touré as the central midfielder who constantly switched between a no. 6 and no. 8 role, while Fernandinho stuck to the holding position. On paper, Kevin De Bruyne was City’s attacking midfielder in the middle, but the Belgium standout was moving to the left and right over and over again throughout the 90 minutes. Meanwhile Leroy Sané stayed on the left and Raheem Sterling was mostly seen on the right side, although he occasionally left his position when centre-forward Sergio Agüero was moving wide.
Manchester United started in what looked like 4-3-3 with a tendency to turn into a diamond formation, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan was, at first, fielded in the middle of the park and dropped behind Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. Later, Mkhitaryan and Rashford swapped positions, and United started employing a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 shape and continued to do so for the rest of the first half.
As expected, City saw far more of the ball than their opponents. The number fluctuated between 65 and 70 percent for most of the time. And speaking of numbers, when the final whistle blew the Citizens had 19 shots with 6 on target, while United only had a single shot that threatened Claudio Bravo. These stats alone could tell the story of a one-sided encounter between both Manchester sides. That said, it was more complicated than that.
In the first phase of the match, City started out using Fernandinho close to the back four when building up. The Brazilian midfielder often roamed in front of United’s first block and supported the initial ball circulation. Interestingly, both City full-backs were hesitant to move up the pitch early on, while Touré made runs right into the De Bruyne zone, which created a situational 5-0-4-1. Naturally, Fernandinho and his colleagues had a hard time playing the ball behind United’s highest pressing line, without fearing to cause interceptions.
Early on, United sometimes even decided to pressure City, with Ander Herrera moving up and making runs towards Fernandinho. The decision to do that was likely made because of City’s inability to bypass the first block via ground passes through the middle. United saw a chance to push their opponents back and completely neutralise the hosts’ ball circulation. All in all, City certainly dominated the match when you purely look at the ball possession percentages, but, in fact, their attempts to break through United’s lines were not as effective as in other phases of the game.
That also had to do with the positioning of De Bruyne and Agüero and the lack of overloading movements in several situations. Especially, when City could not advance through the middle, De Bruyne was isolated in the no. 10 space, while both wingers were waiting on the outside lanes not intending to drift to the inside in order to disrupt United’s fairly customary defensive scheme. Moreover, as Agüero tended to move to the right frequently and Touré dropped deep increasingly, both left De Bruyne alone in the centre.
City’s attacks were more threatening to United, when De Bruyne or Agüero moved towards one of the sidelines during the second phase of the build-up play, so that the respective winger on that side would drift inwards. City’s full-back now could play a short pass to De Bruyne or Agüero who then was able to forward the ball through a diagonal passing lane immediately. City would move the ball around United’s midfield line and get in between the lines while transforming the own shape to disrupt the opposing man-orientated defence.
If City did not try this play, the lack of overlapping runs from the full-backs led to several long balls out of the full-back zones without any considerable success. The picture slightly changed as the first half went on. Agüero, in particular, improved in terms of being in the right position to receive passes. The Argentinian looked effective when he waited in the ball-far right half-space outside of Marouane Fellaini’s visual field, when City’s initial build-up balance shifted to the left.
Meanwhile, United started becoming more and more passive defensively after the early phase of the game. While the Red Devils tried to pressure City initially, after Mkhitaryan and Rashford swapped positions and United played in a defensive shape with only one player up front and a line of four behind him, City did not have to be concerned about a possible loss of ball possession in the own half of the pitch.
Even in the first few minutes, Rashford and Mkhitaryan occasionally swapped positions, though in that case to create a high three-man block in the middle, involving Fellaini as the third man, in order to guide City’s build-up play to the wings. Later, however, José Mourinho’s side allowed City runs through the middle when United’s defensive shape was less compact. But as the lines moved back and compressed the space in between them and with the lack of presence in the centre shown by City, the hosts only could advance through the wings.
On the other side of the pitch, City’s midfield line was also fairly passive when defending the rare United attacks. But the line stayed more compact horizontally than United’s, which closed the gaps between the plays and did not allow United to move through the half-space. Instead, City gave up space in ball-far zones in which Rashford or Mkhitaryan drifted on occasions.
Guardiola’s team just saw more danger in exposing space in the centre of their formation which could have helped the United side to set up quick combination plays. Sacrificing ball-far zones which were attacked once United moved the ball there seemed like a wise strategy to keep a narrow defensive shape, which is also a key part of Guardiola’s concept to overload ball-near areas, increasing pressing pressure and the effectiveness of transition attacks.
Following the interval, it became clear that Mourinho was now determined to ‘park the bus’, as both Mkhitaryan and Martial were positioned very deep in the second and third phase of defending. United’s shape was, in fact, a 6-3-1 with occasional advancing runs from one of the central midfielders to pressure Touré or Fernandinho.
But, in general, the passiveness of United’s defence was counterproductive to their plan of hitting City on the break, as the distance between the core of the formation and the goal after winning the ball grew to an extent where it seemed unlikely that United would get through City’s counter-pressing and initiate combination plays to reach the opposing box.
In addition, because Touré and City’s centre-backs were allowed to advance and penetrate United’s formation, City could hold up the pressure. On the other hand, the effective pitch became smaller and City’s ball circulation was deep in the opposing half which, of course, reduced the space City could make use of. While the Citizens’ shape was sometimes stretched too much in the first 45 minutes, the opposite was the case after the break—to the detriment of their attacking efforts.
Approaching the end of the game, United started applying man-orientated runs towards the opposing central midfielders. City’s centre-backs, however, remained unmarked and did not feel pressure, while the passing lanes between them and the full-backs were not threatened. Nevertheless, United showed the intention to close down the middle more effectively. This changed when Fellaini was sent off in the 84th minute. Afterwards, United just tried to secure one point which worked out for them.
Until the 80th minute, both coaches did not make changes personnel-wise to expose a particular weakness of the opponent. Instead, both sides followed their initial plans and only adjusted their systems a bit here and there, while not pushing things to the extreme. Seemingly, City feared United’s threat in terms of counter-attacks, and United feared City’s ability to break through the lines. Granted, City had chances to win the match, but the surprising moments and the quick adjustments a Guardiola system usually needs—in addition to a dominant ball circulation—were lacking.