The Manchester Derby – A Tactical Analysis

The Manchester Derby – A Tactical Analysis
Sep 14, 2016

Featured Manchester City Manchester United

For 90 minutes, on Saturday 10th September, Manchester stood still. Friends became foe, family became enemies. The city was torn apart by a rivalry which flows through every Mancunian’s blood. It’s one or the other, there is no in between.

The game certainly did not disappoint. The ongoing tactical battle between Guardiola and Mourinho was immense, both managers tweaked throughout the game yet Guardiola once again came out on top. City dominated the first half, with a performance quite like no other we’ve seen in the premier league for the last five years. City struck first, before United managed to claw their way back into the game thanks to a Claudio Bravo mistake just before half time. From that point, United had momentum. They knew that Guardiola’s men were beatable, it was just a case of too little, too late.

Line ups


United lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Valencia and Shaw were there to provide width to an attack which looked set to focus through the centre of the pitch. The impressive Bailly and the still-out-of-position Blind were tested and often outnumbered in the heart of defence. Pogba was played out of position as a defensive midfielder alongside Fellaini and had no real impact on the game, aside from a few impressive runs into City territory. Rooney again struggled, the game almost seeming too quick for him at times, frustrating him and leading to rash decisions. Lingard and Mkhitaryan were quiet while Ibrahimovic showed moments of brilliance at the forefront of a disjointed United attack.

Mourinho’s line up surprised me. I was expecting to see a pacey front line with Martial and Rashford pinning back City’s full backs; quick transitions from defence to attack with the dominating presence of Pogba in the centre as the foundation of United’s counter attacks; and a focus on getting the ball out wide to Shaw and Valencia. This would’ve stretched City’s defence and offered more passing lanes for United, who instead insisted on attacking through the crowded central areas with short, unsuccessful passing.

City lined up in an extremely attacking 4-3-3 formation, essentially with seven attacking players and three defensive. Kolarov and Sagna took full advantage of the space left behind Lingard and Mkhitaryan, while Nolito and Sterling stuck to the byline to provide width. Fernadinho protected the backline, while Silva and De Bruyne took turns to offer themselves as an outlet pass or make runs beyond Iheanacho, who played upfront.

Guardiola’s line up came as some surprise too. Taking nothing away from Iheanacho – who had a good game and is a top young talent; I had a feeling City might line up in a 4-6-0 with De Bruyne as a False 9. A “strikerless” formation would’ve given City control over the centre of the pitch by sheer numbers, with Sterling and Nolito allowed the freedom to roam beyond De Bruyne when in attack.

City create pressure zones early on

  Straight from kick off, City had United on the back foot inside their own half. Within seconds, Stones played a long ball up towards Sterling on the right wing. Kolarov moved into a central position and City pushed up. Stones knew that Sterling would not win that ball, but the positioning of City’s players meant that they could win the second ball. If Luke Shaw wins that header, he can either put it out for a throw, corner or clear it up the pitch. However, the six Manchester City players stood within 30 yards of the ball means that even if his header clears the ball up the pitch, City are already in advanced positions and are immediately on the attack. This particular process happened many times throughout the game and it meant that United were constantly under pressure. It was also important in the build up to City’s first goal – winning the second ball.


(Sterling is outnumbered trying to win the first ball, but City have five players ready to win the second)

The advanced positions that the City players found themselves in means that they were able to create a pressure zone around the ball in United’s third. Forcing United to get rid of the ball quickly or face losing it in a dangerous area. It’s simple yet effective if the opposition does not have a reliable outlet – a wide player or a roaming midfielder who is capable of finding enough space and creating a passing lane for the player under pressure. With no true wingers on the pitch or any real pace upfront, United were limited to simply clearing the ball towards Ibrahimovic and hoping the outnumbered forward could hold the ball up.

United attack wrong areas, City’s movement off the ball crucial

  United were extremely narrow in attack, for reasons which I pointed out before – Mkhitaryan and Lingard preferring to drift inside meant that the players seemed to stand on top of each other, often with no option to pass outside of 10 yards when on the counter, in turn allowing Stones and Otamendi to slow down the attack and allow their defensive midfielder – Fernandinho – to intercept the ball from United’s blindside. The width of Sterling and Nolito kept Valencia and Shaw at bay and forced them to stay back for the majority of the first half.

It’s that width which caused United so many problems during the early stages of the game. Despite City playing the ball through the centre for the majority of their attacks, Sterling and Nolito hugging the touchline could not be ignored and it kept both Valencia and Shaw honest. This meant that United’s defensive line was stretched. The forward runs made by Kevin De Bruyne created a 4-on-4 matchup with the defence, something which gave City a huge advantage, and was the reason for De Bruyne picking up Man of the Match. His movement was impeccable.

City focused primarily on United’s right hand side of the defence, on the impressive Eric Bailly and Antonio Valencia. The reason for this, is that if De Bruyne is running between Bailly and Valencia, and Nolito is out wide, Valencia has to mark Nolito, and Bailly has to follow De Bruyne. Now that Bailly is focused on De Bruyne, there’s space for an onrushing midfielder to move into, or for Iheanacho to occupy – who of course is now 1-on-1 with Daley Blind, the weaker of the two centre backs. That’s what made the difference for City on the day. They created 1-on-1 matchups in which they had the advantage, they drew United players out of position and created passing lanes between United’s press. It wasn’t just De Bruyne’s runs in behind, either. In defence, John Stones and Fernandinho often swapped position when City were looking to build from the back. Stones simply ran across Rooney and Ibrahimovic, drawing them towards him and creating a passing lane for Fernandinho. It’s worth noting that United wised up to this, by having their defensive midfielders cover the half-space between the centre back and full back. Though, it was too little, too late.

Both teams make key substitutions going into the second half

  After the break, United looked like a different team. Rashford and Herrera came off the bench and added a new dynamic to their attack – one which they had been crying out for throughout the first half. They pressed higher, their defensive line sat higher up the pitch and forced City to play long balls out of defence. They essentially gave City a taste of their own medicine. United focused their attack down the wings and looked to get the both Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw on the ball in wide areas – where they are most dangerous.

City, on the other hand, subbed off Iheanacho in favour of Fernando – a defensive midfielder. The change gave them more control over the game. They still had the pace of Nolito, De Bruyne, Sterling and eventually Sané to keep United’s defence honest, though they looked to hit United on the counter. City were happy to sit back and allow United to attack, keeping numbers behind the ball and pressing United’s players in the middle third.


  We all knew it would be a close game. United fans could argue that they should’ve had a penalty after Bravo’s horrendous tackle on Rooney, and I’d have to agree. However, City simply outclassed United for the first 40 minutes of the match. Mourinho took a tactical risk that simply didn’t pay off. United did well to get back into the game, Rashford changed the game completely, and Pogba had a good game despite being played out of position. However, it was not to be. City were simply the better team and deserved to win on the day.

Visit my blog at for more football content.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.