Manchester City secured bragging rights over their neighbours with a comfortable 2-0 victory against Manchester United on Saturday. The Red Devils had a torrid time against their rivals, having to spend most of the game without the ball and only managing to fashion one or two good chances. As if to underline Manchester City’s dominance, one interesting stat to come out of the game was that David de Gea stopped more shots from his own players than his opposite number Ederson did.
The representatives of the red half of Manchester lined up in a 5-3-2 formation, with the intention of having their wing-backs push on a become a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 when in possession. The plan was for one of Fred and McTominay to drop deep and collect the ball from the central defenders while Fernandes pushed on and supported the front two – however, thanks to the amount of time spent without the ball in the first half, they ended up playing with a flat back 5 with Fernandes dropping in to the right side of the three in midfield.
Man City were deemed to have lined up in a 4-3-3 formation to start with, but were in reality rarely set up in that layout. With the ball, Foden and Jesus pulled out wide to their respective wings, while De Bruyne was given a completely free role to roam around the pitch and support the play from defence through to attack. During the opening exchanges, the Belgian preferred the right flank, where he combined with Jesus and Walker, leaving Gundogan to support the left-hand side. In effect, Manchester City played in a 2-3-5 formation when with the ball during most of the first half, with the two aforementioned midfielders free to push up high and support the forwards.
On the few occasions they didn’t have the ball, they defended with 5 across the back, with Jesus tracking back into a wing-back position and Kyle Walker tucking in to become a third centre-back. Foden also dropped very deep at times on the left flank, clearly in an attempt to prevent Manchester United getting crosses into the box.
First Half: City Come Out Pressing
Man City came out pressing high up the pitch from the kick-off, successfully preventing United playing out from the back. Their plan to “asphyxiate” their opponents on the ball was evident throughout the first half, and led to United struggling to hold on to the ball and, more importantly, to advance up the pitch.
Man Utd 0 – 1 Man City: Bailly OG
In a pattern similar to the one we saw from Chelsea when they played Newcastle last week, Manchester City looked to create space for their advancing full-backs on each flank by focusing play on one side and quickly circulating the ball to the other side of the pitch. They often looked to create a 3v2 situation on the wings, with Gundogan and De Bruyne supporting Foden and Jesus along with the advancing wing backs.
In the build-up to Bailly’s own goal, De Bruyne comes over the the left-hand side, shifting the Manchester United defence over and creating space for Kyle Walker to run forward into. When the ball in circulated over to him, he has the time and space to put in an excellent cross. As the cross is cleared to Manchester City’s left flank, United fail to reorganise quickly enough and Joao Cancelo, similarly to Kyle Walker just a few seconds earlier, is left in space and is able to get to the byline unchallenged to put in a cross that is sliced into the net by Eric Bailly.
Although the last touch from Bailly is what put Man City 1-0 up, it was the space created first on the right-hand side and then the left, and the inability of the Man Utd defence to shift across adequately that put them out of position and led to the goal.
The Pressure Builds
Man City continued to push forward in numbers, and often packed the centre of the pitch, again with the aim of opening up space on either flank for their wing backs. This unpredictability led to Man Utd having to chase the ball rather than be able to mark spaces as they weren’t able to cover the space on the wings while chasing the ball in the centre.
Bruno Fernandes, so often a key player for United, was often found playing on the edge of his own box, and had to resort to buying soft free-kicks in order to slow the game down and try to get his team on the ball. With Ronaldo leading the line, United started to press more intensely, especially in their opponents’ half, but despite winning the ball back a few times their back 5 and central midfield two were simply not composed enough on the ball and made too many mistakes.
This was exacerbated by Manchester City having superiority all over the pitch. With United’s three centre backs being completely inflexible, they were often left marking one player between the three of them, while the flexibility of Man City’s system allowed them to get 5 and at times 6 players into the forward line, while also dropping a combination of forwards Silva, Foden, and Jesus into midfield to outnumber United’s three there. The ability of Man City’s players to switch positions, and the inability of United’s back three to support their own midfield, effectively allowed the Citizens to play with 5 v 3 in centre midfield and 5 v 5 in forward areas.
During most of the first half, United looked to keep possession rather than exploit Man City’s fluidity to attack exposed areas. City’s right flank looked weak thanks to De Bruyne’s free role and Jesus’s poor defending, but United seemed unable to identify this. The one good chance they managed to create after 25 minutes came from a cross from the left as Jesus got caught out too high up the pitch and Ronaldo got a decent volley on goal. Instead of isolating this weakness, United seemed to want to try and slow the ball down as much as possible and pass through the midfield, although they were clearly not comfortable doing so.
As if to highlight this, the only other chance that Man Utd created was on 40 minutes after a turnover in midfield. Wan-Bissaka got forward and came central and fed Ronaldo who was offside. For one brief moment, Wan-Bissaka and Ronaldo were 2v2 against Man City’s centre-backs, thanks to them moving the ball forward quickly after recovering it, but they just didn’t look to do this enough.
City’s Superior Numbers Tell
Man City managed to create a couple more chances by isolating United’s full backs during the first half. De Gea made an excellent save from Jesus on 28 minutes, which came from the Man City left after they isolated Wan-Bissaka and actually managed to a create a 3v1 situation against the full back before playing a through-ball down the line for Foden to put in the cross.
Just a few minutes later, Lindelof almost scored an own goal after Foden was once again able to get a cross in thanks to Wan-Bissaka being left to defend a 2v1 situation. These opportunities were caused by Bruno Fernandes playing too centrally and not going out to meet Cancelo as he pushed forward from wing back. This meant that often when Cancelo got forward, Wan-Bissaka was overloaded on his flank and unable to prevent them getting close to the byline.
Man Utd 0-2 Man City: Mistakes Galore
Ironically, Bernardo Silva’s goal on 45 minutes came from a deep cross from Cancelo, who wasn’t able to advance down the because Wan-Bissaka came out to meet him. The ball is first circulated from Man City’s right flank, and Manchester United are slow to react and close down the ball as it moves into the space left on the other side of the pitch. Cancelo finds himself 1v1 against Wan-Bissaka but has time to put in a cross from deep, which ends up being poked home by Silva after Maguire and Shaw both decide not to clear, and de Gea fails to keep the ball out of the net.
Second Half: Positive Changes for United
Sancho replaced Bailly at half time for Manchester United, as they changed to a 4-3-3 system. This allowed United to get the ball out of their half more often as well as creating more space for McTominay and Fred to receive the ball from their defence. This change also allowed United to copy what Man City had done in the first half and get their front two wingers (Sancho and Greenwood, later Rashford) back to defend in a “wing back” role.
This change was effective for the first 10 or 15 minutes of the second half, helping United get up the pitch. They drew a few fouls but rarely threatened, and Manchester City were increasingly happy to slow the game down and get numbers behind the ball.
City certainly didn’t commit the numbers forward in the second half that they did in the first, and this led to them having long spells of possession but few shooting opportunities. When they did lose the ball, they reorganised into a 4-6-0 formation and made it increasingly difficult for United to get the ball forward quickly enough. At some points during the second half, United enjoyed a decent amount of possession, but they failed to really trouble Man City’s centre backs.
Although I would say it was something of an off day for Manchester United, who failed to identify Manchester City’s weaknesses and adamantly stuck to trying to play the ball out from the back and through the midfield when it wasn’t working, I also have to say that Manchester City won comfortably and could have added more if they had extended themselves.
Had United changed their game plan during the first half to try and stretch Man City by getting the ball forward quickly when it was turned over, they may have been able to their defence under pressure and added to the one good chance Ronaldo had. As it turned out, City managed to bundle in a second goal before half time that effectively ended the game as a contest.