Manchester United vs. Manchester City

Match Analysis
Carlo Alessandro Valladares

Carlo Alessandro Valladares

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It was a match with loads on the line. Last Sunday’s Manchester Derby featured two clubs that failed to seriously challenge for the Premier League crown last season but were ready to exchange blows with both in contention for the title this campaign.

Coming into the match, Manchester City held an eight-point advantage over second-place Manchester United, which put the pressure on Jose Mourinho to get the three points, close the gap a bit, and put some pressure on Pep Guardiola and co.

As it happened, the Red Devils lost 2-1 at Old Trafford – the Theatre of Dreams. This, of course, given the Citizen’s hot form, makes the now 11-point gap a massive deficit for the red side of Manchester to overcome.

Here are both XIs:

With that said, it should be noted that every goal in this match was gifted via an isolated individual mistake from dead-ball and dead-ball-like situations. So, while City were certainly superior overall, I can hardly say they “dominated” the whole match, by any means (United did trouble City’s backline in brief patches, especially in the second-half). We’re here to explain why. Regardless, this piece will go in-depth at the tactics, phases of play, and the likely reasoning each manager took behind the implementation of some of their strategy.

In the build-up to the match, many people asked whether Mourinho would catch his opponent by surprise and high-press as his side did against Arsenal (successfully) the previous weekend. What I and many other people knew, however, was that Mourinho’s sides rarely ever high-press a side of a high ‘BarcAjax’ philosophy calibre. Sure, he high-pressed Ajax for five minutes in the 2017 Europa League final last year, but that Ajax side, while supremely structured and drilled in the ways of positional-play and counter-pressing, didn’t have the talent and experience City have.

Mourinho knew this.

As a result, the thought of high-pressing City for long periods of time hardly ever crossed his mind. City are trained to build up from the back in rain, sleet, or snow – high-press, man-to-man press, passing lane press – it doesn’t matter! That ball is going from the defence to midfield; short, quick passing. No debate. They’re not changing. (Well, maybe for certain goal kick situations).

Now, United did press (rarely), but it was done in a supremely cautious manner with only two or three players implementing one wave of pressure. The pressing wasn’t done collectively. Mourinho was afraid to commit Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic away from their strict man-marking near their backline.

Manchester United’s defensive strategy and City’s positional rotation.

Anyway, the hosts were deployed in a 4-2-3-1:

The visitors, unsurprisingly as well, were set up to play in an ever-fluid 4-3-3:

The formations aside, right from the onset of the match it became clear that Mourinho was reverting to his classic 4-2-3-1 man-marking system. [Tactical roundabout: Eibar’s manager, Jose Luis Mendilibar, used a similar 4-2-3-1 man-marking strategy against Barcelona earlier this season, but applied a high-pressing strategy]. Per usual, it effectively cancels out Barca’s entire midfield, both full-backs, and at least one central defender.

As you can see above, Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard were instructed to crowd around Fernandinho and make potential passes to the Brazilian defensive midfielder ‘high-risk.’ They did this, of course, by staying compact in the central-axis and staying tight on the Brazilian.

Here are some in-game examples of Lukaku and Lingard doing just that:

However, what if one of City’s centre-backs decided to dribble up the half-space if space was open? Well, it was usually Lingard who then left his marker on Fernandinho to mark the opposing central defender. Have a look, below.

Now, while Manchester United’s forwards had their defensive duties, their wide attacking-midfielders and both defensive midfielders had duties of their own, too. Below, we see how United’s man-marking system worked.

Above, again, we can see how Lingard and Lukaku stay tight on Fernandinho. Next, we see Fernandinho passing to Nicolas Otamendi. In addition, we also see Gabriel Jesus and David Silva drop deeper upon the switch to Otamendi.

As a result, above, we also can notice how Marcos Rojo and Herrera track them both with even Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford locked onto City’s full-backs; man-marking everywhere. However, as Otamendi gets the ball, we see that Martial doesn’t tuck inside next to Herrera in the central zone. This leaves the Argentine defender with plenty of time and space to go forward.

Although a direct scoring opportunity doesn’t come about due to the space opening above, we can see how United’s strict man-marking can leave big gaps due to players being locked onto their man-markers.

Thankfully, though, Lukaku was there to put in the defensive work and track Otamendi. It should be noted and will be noted with examples later, that while City did take advantage of United’s strict man-marking, Mourinho’s side did win many 1v1 battles around the lower-third.

Nearly 10 seconds later, we can see another big gap forming. Below, we see Vincent Kompany (yellow) with the ball and Matic following Kevin De Bruyne into the wider half-space.

Fernandinho then sees the open space in United’s central axis and advances forward.

Lingard, rather unsurprisingly, given United’s strict man-marking system, follows Fernandinho leaving an space open in the central axis again.

One second later, Kyle Walker passes back to Kompany.

With Kompany on the ball in the central axis, City left-back Fabian Delph drifts into the central area taking up an inverted full-back role.

In theory, the movement above could have used a Kompany through-ball into Delph’s central run but it appears, due to Matic and Martial becoming more zonally aware and ready to collapse into where Delph is looking to receive a pass, that Kompany decides the opening may be high-risk. And, it could be justified. City are very spread out in the screenshot above and if the ball is lost in the middle then Lukaku could very well have an easy chance on an isolated City backline. Either way, Kompany doesn’t make the attempt to Delph.

Regardless, it shows how fluid City’s positional play is. But it also illustrates how United’s strict man-marking, despite leaving gaps, really makes it hard for City’s midfielders to find space. I think Mourinho trusted his central defenders, and if it meant they had to cover more spaces ahead of the line, then that was okay because it was often City’s defenders who were taking advantage of the big gaps of space. Otamendi and Delph with time and space aren’t as good Silva and De Bruyne with the same openings; just a thought.

Player Decision Making: Why Manchester United’s central defenders had to constantly leave their lines and go into midfield

Given that Matic and Herrera were locked onto strict man-markers with their zonal radars shut off, for the most part, Manchester United’s central defenders had to often leave their line. Why is this?

Well, it is common for centre-backs to leave their line into the space between their own backline and midfield line. However, given that there wasn’t really a midfield line due to not having much zonal compactness, that meant that against City they had to track forwards deeper into midfield due to a lack of cover from Herrera and Matic who were focused on other players.

Below, we see a scenario where, given the fact that Herrera, Lingard, and Matic are all focused on man-marking, Chris Smalling has to make an important decision: do I leave my line or do I stay back?

Above, we can see how Gabriel Jesus drops deeper into the central axis with Lingard, Matic, and Herrera all locked onto other players in midfield.

Now, this is where Smalling has to make a decision. If he doesn’t leave his line and track Jesus, he knows that the Brazilian will have plenty of time and space to turn and attack the backline unchallenged by United midfielders. Smalling knows Matic, Herrera, and Lingard’s current positioning allows for Jesus to be free in the pocket.

So, Smalling leaves his line knowing it’s better than staying back as neither Matic nor Herrera are in a position to quickly mark Jesus.

The scenario above is a great example to show central defenders, especially if their own midfielders are in more of a man-marking system against a side that is good with possession. The example can show them there are times where it is necessary to advance up into midfield if there are no other teammates in midfield who will do it. But also tell them to be mindful of where their full-backs are in correlation to the backline. If they’re high up, and can’t tuck inside after you track the opposing forward, then it is almost always better to stay back.

Manchester United’s attacking strategy (long-ball first-half)

Okay, well, to put it simply – Manchester United did not build up from their defence to midfield. In fact, they almost exclusively used long balls to Lukaku, Martial, and Rashford.

Now, we don’t need to put up 20 screenshots of long-balls in the air for you to get the picture, but we will try to educate on you on why Mourinho instructed his side to use it non-stop. There are a couple of reasons why:

1. Mourinho knows Guardiola’s sides, due to their very expansive style, can become very unbalanced in terms of transitioning from attack to defence. Sometimes Pep’s teams, due to their heavy rotation and passing risks, can lead to easy passages for the opposition to score. Now, if you have players with pace, power, stature, and technique like Martial, Rashford, and Lukaku have, then their isolated 1v1 battles against City’s central defenders favour the red side. But, of course, it requires a very accurate pass to get a realistic chance.

2. The biggest reason – City’s counter-press is so good that Mourinho doesn’t like to give his backline (who already aren’t the best at overcoming high pressure through short, quick passing) the chance to lose the ball in their own half. Mourinho doesn’t train his defenders to be ball-playing centre-backs like Guardiola. So, when an opposing side is good at pressing, Mourinho knows it’s better to play directly because his defenders are more prone to possession mistakes when up against a potent high-press. In conclusion, by going long constantly, Manchester United can cancel out one of City’s biggest strengths with one pass. City’s counter-press can’t work if you pass via long-balls over the press everytime. 

People forget that in big games the Special One doesn’t like to play ‘football.’ He likes to set up his sides to cancel out as many of the opposition’s strengths and wait for a mistake. Against City, he failed in some ways. But, let’s not forget that City scored via gifted, isolated mistakes. Despite his man-marking getting figured out sometimes, City’s pressing was hardly a talking point. Why? It’s because of those long-balls.

How City’s rotation and United’s man-marking helped De Bruyne find an open window of space

Above, we can see United’s strict and tight man-marking with Kompany about to pass it to right-back Walker. Next, with Walker on the ball, we see Jesus and De Bruyne drifting forward while Raheem Sterling drops deeper.

As a result of United’s man-marking style, we see that Matic and Rojo’s tracking leaves a giant space open behind them.

With De Bruyne knowing what is taking place behind him, he quickly turns around and changes direction toward the open space while Walker feeds him the line-breaking pass forward.

As De Bruyne dribbles up, we see that Herrera is man-marking Silva and is essentially now a part of United’s back line.

Lastly, we see that Herrera leaves his marker on Silva to help Rojo stop De Bruyne’s threat. Herrera angles his body in a way to screen off an easy pass to Silva who is now running into the box.

As we can see from this phase of play, swift changes of direction when large spaces are opened up, due to United’s marking being pulled out of position, can make for easy chances to try and penetrate the opposing penalty area. However, it seems unlikely that Mourinho didn’t know this would happen. He’s a veteran coach.

To me, he knew the gamble he was taking when he set up his side for strict man-marking but also trusted his players and central defenders to win their 1v1 duels. Which they did on many occasions.

Anyway, City did a lot right in terms of their movement and rotations to take advantage of the fact that United’s markers were going to follow them virtually anywhere and with little regard for zonal awareness.


Look, City were better. They’re on fire. And at the time of this writing, they beat Swansea to set a Premier League record of 15 wins in a row. With that said, Manchester United reorganized their attacking strategy in the second-half at Old Trafford and started to string more passes together while timing their long-balls more effectively. They did trouble and get at City’s backline at times.

But in the end, Rashford’s equalizing effort in added time just before the half was for nothing after Lukaku gifted Otamendi another point-blank chance on David de Gea at the 54th-minute mark.

United don’t please many with Mourinho’s brand of “reactive” football and his approach to always cancel out the opposition’s strengths rather than focusing on their own strengths in big games, but they did manage to keep out City in open play. Guardiola, however, is slowly proving that with the right players, perhaps, positional-play football is the most effective. It certainly relies on taking your destiny into your own hands.

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