Manchester United – Manchester City: Working On The Outside Blitzs Through United (0-3)

Not since the first weeks of last season has Erik ten Hag felt such pressure. Manchester United desperately tried to keep things familiar, in a familiar formation, but Pep Guardiola slightly tweaked his wingers’ roles to brutally punish their dysfunctional rivals.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

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Whilst Manchester City have shown ways to adapt and create solutions over the years, United appear stuck in their pragmatism.

Big wins under Erik ten Hag have arrived with United still working on the counter, with long phases against the ball. They may have filled holes with their summer transfer policy, but things have come to a boiling point with United falling backwards and unable to connect through possession play. Ten Hag has been bailed out by late winners from Scott McTominay and Harry Maguire, players that United appeared to try and move away from. A boiling point has been reached and a win in the derby, a game that United usually does well in, would relieve huge pressure on the coach.

City has also found themselves with a few issues in shot-taking; not in the Champions League at least, eighty-one shots in three group stage games. However, Guardiola has always been fixed on control. John Stones and Rodri have returned to the team selection, with Julián Álvarez in excellent form, a striker whose role has him connecting deep inside Pep’s box method. 

Three changes were made from the 1-0 victory over F.C Copenhagen in midweek. Casemiro was still unavailable, whilst Victor Lindelöf and Jonny Evans came in for Sergio Reguilón and Raphaël Varane. Antony came out of the team, with Christian Eriksen taking his place.

Guardiola made six changes from their win over BSC Young Boys. Manuel Akanji was suspended after being sent off against Brighton. This saw Kyle Walker, Joško Gvardiol, Stones, Bernardo Silva, Álvarez and Phil Foden all return.

Age-old United pragmatism

Lined up in their narrow 4-2-3-1 defensive block, it came as no surprise that United were going to have to bank on their counterattacking work to inflict harm on City. They attempted to step high on City’s backline, with Rasmus Højlund encouraging City to build down one side, McTominay and the farsided winger shuttling inside to manmark Rodri and Stones.

The aggressive nature of United’s man-marking did leave a big disconnect between the front four and the rest of the block, but it did not stop them from entering good transitional phases inside of City’s buildup in the early stages. Gvardiol was guilty in this regard; in the first minute, turning back towards the defense, Bruno Fernandes followed him into the center and Højlund picked his pocket. With players in proximity, McTominay was able to move the ball around Gvardiol with Marcus Rashford and Højlund on either side. However, this is a defensive phase that City is well prepared for: Stones and Rúben Dias were set in perfect positions to stop the forwards from receiving and facing play, whilst Rodri and Walker recovered to interact with a potential second phase. A tame shot was taken right into Ederson’s gloves.

1st minute: United transition inside of City’s buildup. Fernandes forced Gvardiol central and Højlund to set up the counter, with attackers in proximity of each other.

United attempted to connect with Højlund from deeper play, which worked a little better towards their left side of the field with Rashford free on the outside if Walker had moved infield to interact. Gvardiol was put under pressure by Fernandes once again, a forward pass intercepted by McTominay and the front four could spring into action again – Gvardiol redeemed himself by blocking the pass, even if he left McTominay free and onside behind him. Bernardo Silva scrambled towards the loose ball.

Despite the hosts working into good early phases, once the game is more settled and pressing situations are more infrequent, opponents start to get themselves back into gear and United’s vulnerabilities start to show. Already in this period, Harry Maguire was forced to clear the ball off the line after Phil Foden’s header was pushed away and Erling Haaland didn’t connect to the rebound. A sign of things to come as City trapped United in their own half.

United suffer in constraints

City forced United into poor backline distribution, as Grealish and Foden blocked the passing lanes out towards the fullbacks, Haaland used his cover shadow to keep Sofyan Amrabat disconnected from the center-backs and Álvarez aggressively stepped onto André Onana or Jonny Evans. An important factor of City’s high block was that their intensity only came from Álvarez (or the forward that would take over in that position). City enabled plenty of passes between Evans and Onana but didn’t let either man settle on the ball. This forced plenty of safety balls backwards as United tried to build until a longer pass would be intercepted.

20th minute: City’s high block versus United’s deep buildup. City encouraged United to engage within their buildup structure but trapped the space down their left side which forced United to keep the ball between the left side of their defense.

Poor distribution out of the backline creates some of football’s more chaotic moments. City applied more pressure from dead ball situations, but their opener would come from a VAR review after Rodri was dragged down in the box from an indirect free kick. Haaland converted the subsequent penalty.

From this point onwards, United continued to be incapable of playing out and City bullied their rivals through their circulation. Stones and Rodri continued their usual adaptations to stop a United press from forming, but it was the wide triangles that made City untouchable.

Down the left side, Grealish would not hug the touchline to create maximum width. He situationally sat in the halfspace as Silva dropped to connect with the deeper build and Gvardiol overlapped to join the attack. Such diverse movements from the trio created huge problems for United, as Eriksen would be detached from the man-marking game plan and Diogo Dalot was constantly forced into one-versus-one/two-versus-one situations. Silva moved from deep to overlap Grealish’s narrow positions or make underlapping runs when the winger was in the outside channel.

The right side created similar issues in United’s backline. Amrabat was tasked with man-marking Álvarez, which included following the Argentine as he made a third-man run, in the halfspace, beyond the receiver. This enabled Walker, when positioned high up, to play the ball back to Stones or Foden and such reactivity from United’s defensive block led to City vertically stretching their opponents and incapable of resetting into their lower defensive arrangement.

38th minute: City vertically stretched United in their circulation, as Amrabat was incapable of stopping Álvarez’s movements around him and with close options free and facing play. In this phase, Álvarez took the ball back around Amrabat and switched to Grealish.

Silva and Álvarez tormented Eriksen and Amrabat through their movements. Follow their marker outside created space inside and vice versa. Guardiola had anticipated man-marking roles for Eriksen and Amrabat on the two, so sitting the wingers more narrow disrupted the defensive positions of both the double pivot and the fullbacks. Silva constantly ran around Grealish and his cross towards Haaland at the back post forced an excellent save from Onana. United did pull one good chance before the first half’s conclusion, a quickfire ball from Rashford, in the deep right of United’s buildup, had City’s backline stretched and a powerful shot from McTominay was saved by Ederson.

City runs through the patterns

Ten Hag replaced Amrabat with Mason Mount at halftime, which saw McTominay drop into the double pivot role alongside Eriksen. Now Eriksen was positioned on the left and McTominay on the right of the duo, but City continued to create and Silva was afforded even more space than what he had in the first period.

Two minutes into the second half, Walker moved the ball into a narrower position and Rodri was able to make a run in Mount’s blindside with no tracker encountering him. McTominay was forced to step inwards and Silva was free to whip an inswinger. Haaland occupied Evans and Foden got ahead of Lindelöf, but the Englishman couldn’t convert from close range.

47th minute: Pattern that City used to exploit United’s defensive block. The movement inside to manipulate the first line of pressure let one of the center-midfielders react and City could move the ball towards the overload.

In the next City phase, a minute later, Dalot was caught far up the field as a United attack broke down. No player was covering the right back spot and Álvarez switched the ball into such area. Grealish waited for Silva to overlap and find Haaland, completely free at the back post, to head the ball in for his second of the game.

City continued to cause havoc with the constant two-versus-one overload on Dalot, as well as Rodri or Stones easily moving into space through a poorly staggered United frontline, with very little defensive support from Fernandes or Rashford. Not only could they evade the first line of pressure, but the angle to switch from right to left was constantly opened as McTominay followed the inside rotation.

Guardiola teams don’t just grind games out through possession play but are incredibly reliable in sitting within their 4-4-2 defensive block and conceding few shots. However, the City opportunities kept coming against a fragmented United structure. The narrow Grealish position created once again, as Dalot frantically stepped out to engage with Gvardiol. His lateral dribble took Evans away from Haaland and Onana was forced into another good save from close range.

The final City goal stemmed from the same dynamics on the channels to get the ball forward, as well as United being far too reactive towards the ball, as opposed to the potential routes around them. City were given another phase within their attack and after Rodri’s ranged attempt was saved, Haaland was far quicker to react than Evans. He squared the ball back to Foden who couldn’t miss. In the second period, City managed fourteen shots at United’s goal, with three of them being inside the six-yard box and six shots being on target. Over 2.5 Expected Goals in that half alone.


A dismal showing from United, in a very desperate state of affairs. Firmly midtable, the underlying numbers show that Ten Hag’s team have earned their place away from the top spots and a Champions League campaign that is well under threat. Of course, injuries have an effect, but United have invested a lot in Ten Hag and all the improvements from last year seem a distant memory. He has a huge task ahead.

City appear back to their brutal best as they comfortably dominated their rivals here. What gives Guardiola huge encouragement is that he can situationally tweak the attacking line, depending on the opponent, of his 3-box-3 formation without upsetting the usual rotations that occur. If he has this collection of players consistently at his disposal, it is hard to see City’s reign of terror stopping soon.    

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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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