Manchester City – Manchester United: City’s Patience Pays Off (3-1)

Marcus Rashford fired Manchester United in front early on, but the pattern in this game was one of Manchester City dominance with their 3-2-4-1 attacking system against United’s deep 4-4-2 defensive block. City were able to open central spaces within United’s block, and eventually were rewarded for it with crucial goals from Phil Foden.

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

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The previous Manchester Derby saw Manchester City enjoying a convincing 3-0 win at Old Trafford as Manchester United’s poor early season form continued. United have found a way to grind out results of late, but City went into this game as heavy favorites.

Pep Guardiola’s side lined up in a 4-3-3 shape, with a back four of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Rúben Dias, and Nathan Aké. Rodri was the deepest midfielder, with Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva ahead of him, while Phil Foden and Jérémy Doku flanked Erling Haaland up front.

Meanwhile Erik ten Hag’s side used a 4-2-3-1 system, with Diogo Dalot, Raphaël Varane, Jonny Evans, and Victor Lindelöf in the back four. Casemiro and Kobbie Mainoo were the double-pivot, with Alejandro Garnacho, Scott McTominay, and Marcus Rashford as the attacking midfielders and Bruno Fernandes as a false nine.

Rashford strikes early

The game took on the expected pattern from the start, as City dominated possession and territory, while United defended from their own half and attempted to carve out chances on the counter-attack.

Less than ten minutes into the game, United were able to get exactly what they wanted in this respect, as Fernandes held the ball up near City’s penalty box and set up Rashford, whose powerful strike from outside the box crashed in off the crossbar to make it 1-0 to United.

This was a rare attack for United, as City’s pressing and counterpressing ensured that they rarely had the ball. The idea with United’s attacking shape was to launch quick attacks, as Fernandes as false nine could drag City defenders forward and open spaces for the likes of Garnacho and Rashford running in behind, but City were usually able to keep this under control.

Lindelöf appeared to form a back three with the center-backs in some possession phases, with Dalot pushing up to join the attack on the right, but United generally did not have long enough possession phases to really see structural development.

City pressed initially in a 4-4-2 shape, with De Bruyne pushing up alongside Haaland. When they went into a high press though, City sometimes shifted into their 3-2-4-1 structure, as Bernardo Silva pushed up against United’s double-pivot, and Stones moved into midfield to provide cover in the vacated space.

City dominate

This 3-2-4-1 structure was also City’s possession shape, with Stones in a familiar libero role, Walker and Aké as wide center-backs, and De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva as number tens. Against this, United defended in a deep 4-4-2 shape with Fernandes and McTominay as the most advanced players.

Ten Hag went to a familiar defensive scheme for United in this game, as United tried to limit the influence of City’s number tens by marking them closely with their own double-pivot. This meant that Casemiro and Mainoo often pursued Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne into deep and wide areas, including sometimes dropping into the defensive line to form a temporary back five or six.

United gave up valuable central space in the defensive shape.

The trade-off for this close attention paid to City’s number tens was the opening of the central spaces which followed as United’s central midfielders were pulled away. The spaces behind McTominay and Fernandes became harder to control, and City quickly began to exploit this.

Stones in his role as libero would often push ahead of Rodri directly into this enlarged central space in United’s shape, and City were able to find good connections for ball progression in this space. Rodri likewise was free to push into this space when possible, and took good advantage of it. Haaland dropping in was also an option, and City were able to use this too when appropriate.

City patience pays off

Despite City’s dominance, it took them some time to get on the scoresheet, as United went in ahead at the break. United had been forced into a lot of penalty box defending, and their goal was peppered with shots, including an inexplicable close-range miss from Haaland. This could not continue forever though, and City eventually broke through courtesy of Foden ten minutes after half-time.

The trends of the second half followed the second, as City continued to be dominant. United were unable to change the pattern of the game, with City’s pressing and defensive transition play keeping the away side pinned back. On a tactical level the problems were similar too, as the opening of the central midfield for United was a persistent issue that they were unable to solve throughout the game.

Guardiola was first to make a change, bringing Julián Álvarez on for Doku. City’s attack reshuffled somewhat after Álvarez came on, and the positioning became more variable. Bernardo Silva popped up on the right wing, while Foden switched to the left, while De Bruyne often found himself as the left sided number ten rather than on the right, as well as occasionally drifting out to the left wing. Álvarez mostly supported Haaland through the center.

Ten Hag’s first change also saw a reshuffle, this time in the backline as Willy Kambwala replaced Evans. Kambwala played at right back, meaning that Dalot had to shift over to the left, and Lindelöf could now play in his more familiar center-back role. Antony also replaced Rashford shortly afterwards.

With ten minutes of regular time left, City got the second goal they were looking for, as Foden once again took charge with a low finish which found the net. United were now behind, and could not continue with their previous strategy of sitting deep and countering.

The away side therefore attempted to press high in order to gain territory and possession. However, their attempts to do so were brushed aside in a very composed manner by City’s well-oiled possession play. Despite the change in game state and strategy, it was still City who had most of the ball and carried the biggest goal threat. In added time, City put the game to bed with Haaland’s goal to make it 3-1.


City were dominant in pretty much every aspect of this match, but needed to be patient in order to see the rewards for their control over the game. They smartly found the tactical solutions in midfield to exploit United’s man-oriented defensive scheme, and their defensive transitions ensured that they rarely faced threatening attacks.

United attempted a familiar counter-attacking strategy, but this time it was to no avail. Rashford’s stunning strike in the first half gave them hope, but they were somewhat fortunate to maintain their lead for as long as they did. United’s possession game was pretty much non-existent against City’s pressing, and much improvement is needed in this respect for United to compete at the top of the table.  

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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