Manchester United – Manchester City: City Assert Total Control on Detached Neighbours (0-2)

In a dominant display, the Manchester Derby truly demonstrated why a top coach is so important, even at the highest level. City flexed their muscles in the buildup, whilst United’s new shape set the stage for Guardiola’s team to control.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker. 

In the crazy world of football politics, Ole Gunnar Solskjær may have won El Sackio, but United lost Derby Della Conte. With his back to the ropes, it seemed a good time for Solskjær to face a coach he genuinely has a good record against, Pep Guardiola.

Man United have relished the Manchester Derby in recent seasons, mostly by making the game’s ugly. The ‘McFred’ partnership often deployed to define a compact block, followed by transitional attempts to give City a sucker punch. Solskjær has found his ways round before, but with his job at Old Trafford on the fringes, a performance versus their nosiest of neighbours would come at a crucial time.  

Nonetheless, Guardiola’s team are also in need of points, against a side that they haven’t beaten in their last four league meetings. With fellow title challengers in imperious form, defeat to Crystal Palace was not required when trying to keep tabs with the rest of the elite. City have remained creative powerhouses, but the yearning for a suitable finisher has grown.  

Solskjær’s formation change to a 5-3-2 shape has reinforced the usual narrative of United performances, rather than changing them to a more consistent and long-term solution to their structural problems. United were without notable first team members, Raphaël Varane and Edinson Cavani had picked up injuries, whilst Paul Pogba was still suspended. Three changes were made from the team that drew to Atalanta, Victor Lindelöf returned to the backline, whilst Fred and Mason Greenwood were also included.

City have continued to be flexible in their buildup approaches, with a change of roles for João Cancelo at left-back and Gabriel Jesus on the right, which has been seen since the start of the season. Both started, as Guardiola also made three changes to the team that defeated Club Brugge. Aymeric Laporte was suspended, whilst Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez started on the bench. Rúben Dias, Kevin de Bruyne and Jesus were the inclusions.

 Approach made null and void

It’s fair to say United have never escaped the ‘big game’ approach against Pep, popularized by Solskjær’s predecessor. From the kick-off, this was set to be the game that we all anticipated, medium-to-low block versus ultimate ball control, but Man City was already finding routes.

With United so central, City were able to exchange around and on the flanks of the defensive block. Guardiola’s team were given the license to combine and continuously switch the ball into space. After six minutes, City had taken a deserved lead. After İlkay Gündoğan’s miss-hit, City was able to keep pressure with Cancelo, who delivered a dangerous low ball inside the six-yard box. Eric Bailly read the play, but his attempted clearance hit the back of the net.

 United forced out of their shell

An early goal was not desired for United. Not only was their original approach flawed, but now they were forced to react to their opponent’s never-ending passing plan. What we witnessed was a half-baked press and a high set-up, which City easily bypassed through their regular patterns on the ball.

Greenwood was tasked with tracking Rodri’s movements off the ball, which saw Cristiano Ronaldo leading the frontline on his own. With Fred and Bruno Fernandes, the wide center-midfielders, stepping up, United’s press resembled a 5-1-3-1 shape at times, with no pressure on the center-backs, nor the full-backs.

9th minute: Man City recycled possession through Man United’s 5-1-3-1 defensive shape. De Bruyne moves the ball to Rodri (Grey ball, first pass), who has a direct lane open to Gündoğan (Black ball, second pass.) Maguire steps up on Silva, who has dropped deeper, which distorts the defensive line. Gündoğan moves the ball back to the left (Pink ball, third pass) for City to progress further.

With Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus, pinning Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw to the last line, City’s full-backs were constantly in acres of space to receive, turn and take touches before being confronted. Although Greenwood tracked Rodri, this didn’t stop the defensive midfielder from being a passing option, as he constantly moved into spaces where a teammate could have occupied, whilst following would have opened United up even further.

As a result, City could move the ball up the field very quickly. Solskjær’s side was forced deeper and deeper, whilst City could break into usual Pep-fluency, with the amount of space they were afforded.

 City dominate down the flanks

Cancelo and Walker enjoyed a lot of space in their half, but this also continued when they entered the opposition’s. City got into great positions, thanks to the rotations by their midfielders. Kevin de Bruyne roamed in and out the halfspaces, but his most effective moves would drag Harry Maguire far out of the defensive line, to create space behind the center-back.

Gündoğan and Silva could also participate in such rotations, which was effective in keeping the ball in the opposition half, pinning United’s wide midfielders more central and opening space between the lines for the free man to receive.

However, what created City chances was the switches of play that were so accessible. When against a 5-3-2/5-3-1-1 defensive block: how you utilize your full-backs is important as they are already in a lot of space, but even then the defensive block is expected to apply pressure at some point. This would not be the case for United, as their full-backs were pinned deep, and the pressure from the wide central-midfielders opened lanes infield.

In particular, Phil Foden’s movements gave Wan-Bissaka a torrid time in defense. When switching to Cancelo, the full-back would be against a two-versus-one overload, with one of the City midfielders in the halfspace, making a run in the blindside.

45th minute: Buildup to City’s second goal. Combination to find the free man in the center. Walker found Jesus between the lines (Grey ball, first pass), whose wall pass (Black ball, second pass) arrived at Gündoğan’s feet behind the midfielders. This enabled Shaw to be pinned more centrally, for Silva to receive, switch and get on the end of Cancelo’s cross.

A number of De Gea saves had kept United in the game, but City doubled their lead with these patterns entwined in the buildup. A heavy passing move, City moved the ball from right-to-left, back to the right, with a neat wall pass combination to get the ball forward. Silva switched to a free Cancelo, whose cross to the back post was met by Silva, a goal which most of the ground hadn’t registered that it had gone in.

 Solskjær’s switch to Plan A

With United miles behind their neighbours, Solskjær switched back into the 4-2-3-1 system that we have become accustomed to when associated with his United team. Eric Bailly was replaced by Jadon Sancho, who moved onto the left, with Greenwood on the right and Fernandes back in his usual ten position.

To this point, the hosts had displayed no transitional threat. With no progressive passing moves happening, Greenwood and Ronaldo dropped to try and move the ball forward, with no runs or pressure on the defensive line to provide an alternative route. After the break, Solskjær’s team enjoyed more of the possession for the first fifteen minutes but encountered the same issues that had forced their plan A to be scrapped in the first place.

Man United’s buildup shape, as seen in the second half, versus Man City’s 4-4-2 medium block.

United’s frontline was expansive, Ronaldo often dropping left, Fernandes to his right, but was constantly forced to come to collect the ball. With no movements behind or around them, access between the lines was not available and City could remain in their 4-4-2 medium block without being pulled out of position.

With no forms of pinning City, Guardiola’s side was able to follow the play and break moves up very easily. United’s best spell in possession concluded with nothing being created, or even getting near their opponent’s penalty box.

 City spare their pity

The switch to their 4-4-2 defensive structure enabled United to provide more pressure on the City full-backs, but it wasn’t enough to break their patterns from deep. City held onto their two-goal lead with alarming ease.

When higher up, Fred was responsible for stepping up to Rodri, but this created a two-versus-one on substitute Marcus Rashford, for City to move the ball into. As a result of their positional advantage, City constantly recycled the ball around and through their opponents’ block, almost in first gear throughout the last half hour.  

Solskjær made changes to desperately try and change the game state, even a cameo for Donny van de Beek, but City continued to exchange freely through their buildup patterns. Play down the left still created chances for City, whether that would come from the switch or in transitional moments, Foden hitting the post from one of these chances, but Guardiola’s team saw the match out in a very controlled fashion.


United have hit a wall with Solskjær. The make-up-bust-up cycle has hit its lowest point, yet the concept of a process being implemented has never looked as distanced. United need a change to compete with the elites again.

Guardiola’s team hasn’t hit the relentless form that they reached last season, but in possession, perhaps their patterns and moves are even more refined than what they were last season. As their domestic fixture list eases, perhaps we will see them reach such heights once again.   

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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