Manchester City – Manchester United: Guardiola’s side dominate with lopsided attack and display sublime possession skills to secure the win (3-1)
Manchester City took an early lead against United with an interesting lopsided team shape and extended their lead just after half-time. United threatened to pull off another of their trademark comebacks when Martial netted from the penalty spot, but City showed their class with a composed display in possession to defend their lead.
Playing away at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium is by some margin the toughest fixture one could ask for in the Premier League these days. Going into this game though, Jose Mourinho might have felt optimistic given his track record. His two previous visits to the Etihad as Manchester United coach earned him a draw with a clean sheet, and last season’s dramatic 3-2 comeback win.
Rescuing games from losing positions has become something of a theme for United in recent weeks as well. The latest, and perhaps most unlikely yet, was in Turin against the usually defensively impenetrable Juventus, where a Juan Mata free-kick and a Leonardo Bonucci own-goal gave United a 2-1 win and a very strong chance of qualifying from their Champions League group.
For Manchester City, recent games was very much business as usual. Six-goal demolitions of Southampton and Shakhtar Donetsk illustrate the level they are performing at this season, as they look to better their record-breaking 100-point haul from last season. Pep Guardiola made just two changes from the aforementioned 6-1 win over Shakhtar – Oleksandr Zinchenko made way for Benjamin Mendy, and Sergio Agüero returned to the side to replace Gabriel Jesus in City’s flexible 4-3-3 system.
Mourinho’s only change from the late victory in Turin was one forced upon him by injury and it involved one of the players he could barely afford to lose. Paul Pogba apparently played through injury against his former club in midweek and had not been able to recover in time for this game. Instead, Marouane Fellaini stepped into Mourinho’s 4-1-4-1 formation.
Manchester City’s 4-3-3 formation in possession against United’s deep 4-3-3 block.
City dominate first half
The flow of the game from the start was how most people would have expected – City dominated possession, United defended deep and looked for opportunities on the counter. City came with an interesting, slightly lopsided, shape when they had the ball. They created a somewhat left-sided focus, mirroring what their opponents United had done in recent matches.
Although being a Pep team, and thus known for lots of positional switches and flexibility, the spacing between the players and the positional rotations were much more structured than what we usually see from City.
Left-back Benjamin Mendy was positioned wider and slightly higher than Kyle Walker on the right, who often tucked in as a third center back or slightly higher as an inverted full-back. The trio of David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero were then very fluid with their positioning.
Silva in particular would drop deeper in the left halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the half spaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. to get on the ball and dictate play. Sterling started wide left but would make darting movements behind United’s defense or drift into central areas. Agüero meanwhile often drifted to the left halfspace, offering for a pass into feet with his back to goal.
It wasn’t long before this arrangement paid off for City, as it earned them their first goal, in the twelfth minute. Silva and Agüero were both occupying City’s left halfspace, with Sterling on the wing. Silva’s presence drew Ashley Young inside, which left more space for Sterling when he received the ball from Silva’s lay-off. Sterling delivered a quality in-swinging cross which reached the back post for Bernardo Silva to play back across goal for his namesake David, who calmly put the ball away for 1-0.
David (left) and Bernardo Silva positioned themselves in the half spaces, high up the pitch and were constantly open the receive passes from the center backs, from Fernandinho and from the full-backs.
On the right, Bernardo Silva was usually the one occupying the right halfspace, but he could also swap positions with Riyad Mahrez, who started wide on the right wing. Mahrez’s role was clearly designed for him to be able to use his tricky dribbling in one-versus-one situations against United’s left-back Luke Shaw.
To supplement this, Bernardo Silva could make diagonal runs in behind Shaw as the defender closed down Mahrez. If Silva was marked by Nemanja Matić, that would open up space for Mahrez to cut inside. If Silva got free, then Mahrez could play him in behind United’s defense.
These kinds of diagonal movements to the wing from David and Bernardo Silva caused problems for Ander Herrera and Matić, as following them opened up larger central spaces within United’s defensive shape, and not following them left them free to receive the ball.
In short, City’s intelligent positioning and movement in either halfspace always offered them options to play around the defense, whatever choices United made.
Playing between Herrera and Matić was Fellaini, who had a mixed role. Sometimes he stayed deep to try and break up the play, other times he was the one to push forward to press Fernandinho. He shared the duty of dealing with Fernandinho with Rashford, who would stay close to the Brazilian when United were deep in their own half. This came at the cost of a reduced counterattacking potential due to Rashford’s deeper starting position, as opposed exploiting his pace and timing by making runs on the shoulder of the defenders when the ball was won.
City defend with the ball
United went in 1-0 down at half time, and whatever ideas they had about staging another second half comeback instantly seemed further from their reach in the 48th minute when Agüero fired into the roof of the net. This happened due to a poor kick from David De Gea which fell to Bernardo Silva in the center circle. One pass later Agüero was driving at the United defense, going on to finish with power after a quick one-two with Mahrez.
Worse still, United were finding it incredibly difficult to access central areas against City’s press. David and Bernardo Silva pushed out of midfield when United’s center backs had the ball and looked to block any passing lanes through the center, and force United wide. So United often looked to progress through long balls to the likes of Fellaini in order to bypass the pressure from Guardiola’s team.
Mourinho made his first change in the the 57th minute, as he brought on Romelu Lukaku for of Jesse Lingard, moving Rashford to the right side of United’s attack. The Belgian striker made an instant impact, latching onto Anthony Martial’s through ball to nudge the ball past an onrushing Ederson and earn United a penalty. The penalty kick was was scored by Martial as United’s usual penalty taker Pogba watched from the sidelines.
At 2-1, United did look to build an offensive of their own and press higher against City’s buildup. In the last thirty minutes though, Manchester City showed their ability to suffocate an opponent with possession which sets them apart from every Premier League team at the moment, and perhaps every team in Europe, with the possible exception of Barcelona.
The strong positional structure of the team in possession, plus the incredibly rational decision making and high individual ability of each player, means that they are almost impossible to press. This was epitomized first by United just getting a single – poor – shot off after their penalty, and then by City’s third goal in the 86th minute, where İlkay Gündoğan’s incredibly composed finish was preceded by a move consisting of 44 consecutive passes without United even touching the ball.
City showed yet again that they are a class above most, if not all team in England at the moment. Many teams would have been vulnerable after United made it 2-1, and most likely ended up being pinned back by United and inviting pressure. But City’s ability to keep control of the game by simply taking the possession away from the opponents, is almost unmatched. This is probably one of the most difficult, but also most valuable things to be able to do as a team, especially against other top sides.
Mourinho was keen to stress after the game that United had gone through two gruelling away games in the past week, while City had two home games, which they were able to make relatively light work of. He has a point, but the gap between these two teams is much wider than could be explained by fatigue. Despite United’s threat to come back into the game with Martial’s penalty, the truth is that City looked comfortable for the vast majority of the game, and very much deserved their win.
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