Manchester United – Manchester City: A Fluid City Cruise To The Final (0-2)
Manchester City invoked an extremely fluid formation, which saw them buildup in a nominal 3-2-2-3 shape. The freedom of the front five made it nearly impossible for Manchester United to get near the ball for the better part of seventy minutes, with the guests eventually snatching their first goal, settling back into a comfortable defensive block and seeing out the fixture.
Match report and tactical analysis by K.T. Stockwell.
Heading into the match against City, Manchester United had not lost in seven straight fixtures in all competitions. The string of victories propelled manager Ole Gunnar Solsksjær’s side to second in the table – behind Liverpool on goal difference. One of those victories was a late two-nil win over Everton in the quarter-final, which gave them the pass to meet Pep Guardiola’s side in the semis.
United earned a hard-fought win over Aston Villa over the weekend and the victory was enough to convince Solskjær to stick with the same 4-4-2 diamond formation against City. In defense United lined up with Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka at fullback, while Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf slotted in at center-back. Fred got the start at the base of midfield with Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba playing behind number ten, Bruno Fernandes. As strikers Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford were given the nod.
It was a vintage Manchester City performance against Chelsea over the weekend that saw Guardiola’s side leave Stamford Bridge 3-1 winners. City had yet to look their foreboding best this campaign, but the win over Chelsea seemed to serve as notice to the rest of England that the sleeping giant had finally awoken.
Despite the convincing win, Guardiola altered his formation ahead of the clash with Manchester United, switching to a very nominal 4-3-3 shape. Central defense featured Rúben Dias and John Stones, while Oleksandr Zinchenko and João Cancelo started at fullback. Fernandinho got the start at the base of midfield and was supported by Ilkay Gündoğan and Kevin de Bruyne. A fluid front three was led by Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden.
Rotation, rotation, rotation
Manchester City owned the lion’s share of possession in the first half and built up in an incredibly fluid 3-2-2-3 shape. In order to achieve the formation, Cancelo moved inside from right fullback to play in a double pivot Two central midfielders next to each other. with Fernandinho, while the remaining defenders shifted across to form a back three. Ahead of the double pivot, De Bruyne and Gündoğan were given plenty of freedom to float around the middle of the park and find openings to receive the ball. The width on the left was held by Foden, while Sterling was largely responsible for stretching the field on the right.
This can only be considered an approximation for how City lined up as there was so much rotating, particularly on the right wing, that their shape was nearly indefinable. Sterling, De Bruyne and Mahrez changed positions with frequency. One of the most common rotations saw De Bruyne drift wide – taking up a position more closely associated with a fullback – here he was able to help progress the play slowly. Alternatively, once the ball moved to the opposite side of the park Sterling moved aggressively into a central position – dragging his marker with him – and opening up the wing for De Bruyne.
One example of a Manchester City right-wing rotation.
The formation also made it easy for City to create overloads When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. on the wing, bringing the three aforementioned forwards over to the right flank, while Cancelo pushed up. This left the United center-backs marking air, as City tried to find gaps in the halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces 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 the 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. or looking for Gundoğan to make late runs into the box.
The lack of presence through the middle did seem to affect City’s ability to complete a high quality pass into the box and may have let United off easy. The home side struggled to force recoveries in the center of the park, as the guest’s fluidity made possession a foregone conclusion.
This limited United’s offense, which is heavily reliant on transition scoring. What is more, the base of a back three plus the two screening midfielders – Cancelo and Fernandinho – made City solid in defensive transition when put up against their rival’s front three, something that had been painfully lacking in recent times. The one area United looked as though they might be capable of exploiting was on the right flank where Zinchenko had a difficult matchup with Rashford.
Despite all of City’s territorial dominance and stylish play they were unable to come up with the crucial go-head goal and the match entered half-time tied at zero.
City Sit Back
The guests began the second half much as they ended the first, but with a more concerted effort to get Sterling in central position. Guardiola’s side continued to own the ball and in the fiftieth minute Sterling earned a free kick on his opposite flank. The set piece was delivered and ran across several United defenders – including a stoic Maguire – before meeting Stones at the back post. The England international finished with his thigh past a helpless Dean Henderson.
From there the match began to more closely resemble the two club’s previous meeting: a sleepy nil-nil which took place just before Christmas. City seemed resigned to sit back and force United to try and break them down.
The guests settled into a 4-1-4-1 medium block, A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. which saw Sterling pay close attention to Maguire – pressing his compatriot each time he was in possession. This forced Fred to drop deeper and put the onus of progressing play on the less astute Brazilian and Lindelöf.
The by-product was a hapless United, who – unable to play on the break – were bereft of ideas when trying to unlock the City defense. Fernandes slowly found his way into a more shallow midfield position where once on the ball he was largely ineffective at playing the penetrating passes United that so heavily relied upon.
It took until the 75th minute for Solskjær to make a change: bringing on Mason Greenwood to replace Scott McTominay. The move switched United to a 4-2-3-1 shape – pushing Rashford back to his more comfortable left flank, while Martial moved into the lone number nine position and Pogba joined Fred in a double pivot.
Guardiola later countered by bringing on Rodri and taking off Mahrez. The adjustment put City in a more traditional 4-3-3 formation: De Bruyne taking up the false nine A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. position, while Fernandinho and Rodri provided plenty of steel in central midfield.
Four minutes after the change City earned a corner, which was delivered by De Bruyne and flicked out of the area only to land at the feet of Fernandinho, who sealed the victory for his side with a lovely volleyed finish from outside the box.
A derby loss though it might be, it is unlikely United faithful will lose much sleep over their slip up against City. The visitors were the better side for the duration of the ninety minutes and Solskjær and company have more pressing matters to take care of in the league. And yet, the match served as a prime example of Solskjær’s limitations as a manager: unable to develop a plan B when Fernandes is not at his best, or the opponent is unwilling to allow his side to play in transition.
While less lethal than against Chelsea over the weekend, City continued to look more like themselves. Guardiola’s side was extremely flexible in possession and while they lacked a true goal scoring threat through the middle, they flummoxed their opponents on the ball and showed signs of the creative and malleable force that was so difficult to beat two seasons ago. Given Liverpool’s recent struggles in the Premier League, this may make for an intriguing title race this season.
Match plots will be added as soon as possible.