Manchester City 2-3 Manchester United: Narrowness and patient possession v. width and quick breaks

13 Dec
Starting line-ups

Starting line-ups

It took a free-kick deflected off of the cowering Samir Nasri in the final moments of the match to win the derby but in truth Manchester United probably should have won by a more comfortable margin. United executed their game plan more effectively than City, whose own tactics played into their opponents hands, and should have been 3-0 ahead but Ashley Young’s strike was wrongly ruled out for offside.

Starting line-ups

The only real surprise in Roberto Mancini’s line-up was the selection of Mario Balotelli. Prior to this match, Balotelli had only managed 1 goal in 12 league appearances (a statistic he never came close to improving on during this game) and, considering the comparatively superior form of both Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko, it was strange to see him start in City’s most important league game of the season so far as both his form and appearances have been so sporadic.

City lined-up in a broadly 4-2-2-2 formation with the roaming of inverted wingers David Silva and Samir Nasri making the midfield particularly narrow.

United too had just the one surprise inclusion of Antonio Valencia who was thought to be out injured.

Alex Ferguson went with his preferred 4-4-2 with two out-and-out wingers and, in spite of speculation that he would play in midfield, Wayne Rooney played close to Robin van Persie but would still drop deep to pick up possession or close down City’s centre midfielders on occasions which made United’s shape more like a 4-4-1-1 at times (but that’s just splitting hairs).

City control early on but United counter well to score twice

City in fact started the better of the two teams. Silva and Nasri’s drifting in field overloaded Tom Cleverly and Michael Carrick in the United midfield. Balotelli and Sergio Aguero’s preference for dropping deep to receive the ball further contributed to this problem which drew United’s defence forward opening up space in behind for City to attempt through balls. United’s defenders were frequently running towards their own goal in a frantic opening.

However, this was only a problem for United until the first goal went in. After that United were able to sit back and spring counter-attacks and City’s narrowness made it especially easy for United to stay compact, squeeze the space and cut out the through balls which had been so threatening.

The two sides attacking styles were in stark contrast to one another. City’s play focused primarily on short patient passing while United took a quicker more direct approach.

City’s narrow midfield, which created been so effective at creating overloads in the middle, became a problem whenever United countered. The lack of cover in front of City’s full-backs meant that United were able to create one-on-ones and two-on-ones in wide areas which were the main cause of United’s first two goals.

United’s first goal came about as a result of Pablo Zabaleta being drawn high up the pitch to challenge Ashley Young who then played a one-two with van Persie which opened up the space behind the full-back for him to run into and eventually set up Rooney.

Pablo Zabaleta advances high up the pitch ahead of the rest of the defence to challenge Ashley Young.

Zabaleta advances high up the pitch ahead of the rest of the defence to challenge Young.

Young plays a one-two with van Persie, who has drawn Kompany (circled 2) forward as well, to get goal-side of Zabaleta (circled 1).

Young plays a one-two with van Persie, who has drawn Kompany (circled 2) forward as well, to get goal-side of Zabaleta (circled 1).

Young advances to exploit the space he had created behind Zabaleta.

Young advances to exploit the space he had created behind Zabaleta.

Young finds Rooney...

Young finds Rooney…

...who finishes smartly.

…who finishes smartly.

United’s second came from the opposite flank but again exposed City’s lack of width. Rafael’s untracked overlap gave United a easily worked two-on-one against left-back Gael Clichy who was unable to prevent the cross for Rooney’s second goal.

Silva (circled) is caught upfield and United have a two-on-one with left-back Clichy.

Silva (circled) is caught upfield and United have a two-on-one with left-back Clichy.

Rafael (circled) overlaps Valencia.

Rafael (circled) overlaps Valencia.

Valencia plays in Rafael who gets his cross in before Clichy has any chance to stop it and Rooney scores to make it 2-0.

Valencia plays in Rafael who gets his cross in before Clichy has any chance to stop it and Rooney scores to make it 2-0.

Second half – Tevez makes the difference

The second half started surprisingly slowly. City continued with their patient approach and seemed to be waiting for their manager to make a change while United remained content to defend their lead and hit on the break. City only came back into the contest once Tevez was brought on for Balotelli who had exhausted his managers patience with a final misplaced flick.

Balotelli received the ball on the flanks and in relatively deep positions, which didn’t threaten United’s centre-backs, and played short lay-offs to his closest teammate, which didn’t stretch the defence.

Tevez, on the other hand, received the ball centrally which enabled him to attack the heart of the United defence.

Balotelli’s preference for getting the ball to feet and holding up play had made it easy for United to sit back and stay compact but once Tevez was introduced the United defence became stretched for the first time since the opening 15 minutes. Aguero was pushed further forward onto the shoulders of the defenders and his pace forced United to defend even deeper. This opened up more space in between the defence and midfield for Tevez to drop into and exploit.

In the build-up to City's first, Tevez collects the ball between United's defence and midfield and breaks forward into space.

In the build-up to City’s first, Tevez collects the ball between United’s defence and midfield before he breaks forward into space.

Once Tevez came on (after 52 Minutes) City’s passing was less patient, more incisive, and at a higher tempo. Note how there were fewer total but comparatively more in more dangerous central positions in front of the defence.

Tevez increased the tempo of City’s play, which has previously been patient and not very incisive. They capitalised on some good fortune when Young’s goal was wrongly ruled out for offside by immediately going down the other end and scoring. City were fortunate not to be 3-0 down and scored immediately afterwards. Tevez received the ball between United’s defence and attack, played a one-two with Aguero and broke into the box. His shot and a rebound from Silva were both saved but in the ensuing scramble he managed to smuggle the ball out to Yaya Toure who scored.

The second came from a half cleared clearance after no United player thought to mark Zabaleta who was lurking on the edge of the box. At this point it seemed United had thrown away the points. The period following the equaliser was frantic and their was little control from either side.

Fortune had originally robbed United of a third goal but it gifted them one as van Persie’s free-kick deflected off of Nasri as he cowardly tried to hide behind Dzeko in the wall.

Conclusion

This game showcased the contrasting styles of these title contenders. City preferred patient build-up play and a narrow midfield while United attacked quicker and with more directness. City’s tactics played into United’s hands. The lack of any cover on the flanks made it easier for United to attack down the wings, which is historically United and Ferguson’s strong suit, and the narrowness of City made it easier for United to stay compact when defending their lead and spring counter-attacks. This only changed once Tevez was brought on which added some pace and directness to City’s attacks and he was the driving force behind their comeback.

United created and used space more efficiently, played the smarter game, and deserved to win more comfortably than they did.

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