Pep Guardiola added to his excellent record against Jose Mourinho and City got a 50th win over their rivals as they edged a 2-1 victory. Whilst the away side were dominant in the first half, the match was much more equal after the interval, due to a change of approach from United.
Claudio Bravo made his City debut in front of a back four of Stones, Otamendi, Sagna and Kolarov. Fernandinho retained the six position in which he has been so excellent in so far. Ahead of him, Silva and De Bruyne would play key roles in the derby win whilst they were flanked by Nolito and player of the month Sterling. Kelechi Iheanacho filled the spot of suspended-Agüero and did so well.
As for the hosts, Henrikh Mkhitaryan made his debut for his new club whilst Lingard had a surprise start in place of Martial. They were organised in the same 4-2-3-1 formation which has been seen under Mourinho’s start, with Rooney acting behind Ibrahimovic in attack.
United’s Defensive Approach
With City having the vast majority of the possession, the defensive strategy of Mourinho would be key in any positive outcome for the home team. Rooney joined Ibrahimovic in the first line, as they defended largely in a 4-4-2 – following in the same manner as their matches prior to the international break.
From this shape, they sat in a rough mid-block, and they would look to disrupt City’s build-up and try to stop an easy advancement of the possession. Although they didn’t always directly press the centre-backs, they attempted to cover any passing lanes into the midfield and minimise the playmaking abilities of Stones and Otamendi.
There were some moments where United looked to press the City build-up, such as when possession was with Bravo, but a poor coordination between the forwards made this rather ineffective. The press was often too individualistic, with a clear lack of teamwork in covering the space and each option during City’s deep possession.
From the opening minutes of the game, City were able to find De Bruyne in midfield gaps after moving past the first wave of United defenders. They particularly struggled to apply pressure in the half-spaces, which Stones and Otamendi tried to move the ball through.
From these areas of the pitch, United had somewhat of an orientation problem, as the ball was between the winger, ball-near central midfielder and striker. The three didn’t seems to know who should move out to pressure the centre-back, and although it was usually done by the striker, they were too slow in reacting. As a result, the City build-up had small windows of time in which to make the penetrative passes into the midfield gaps.
On the other hand, it seems that such situations were encouraged by Mourinho, in albeit a somewhat risky manner. Through allowing space in these areas, they invited the City centre-backs out of position as they moved into the midfield. These moments suited a counter-attacking approach from the home team, as they would look to cause turnovers whilst City’s shape was open and vulnerable in transition. With strong counter-attacking players such as Mkhitaryan and Pogba, it took some intelligent recovery by City’s defenders to nullify their threat.
Guardiola Alters the Build-up
In the build-up to the game, Mourinho played his typical mind-games and stated his hope that City’s full-backs would move into the midfield. Whether he was telling the truth is difficult to deduce, but both Sagna and Kolarov stuck closer to the wings than we had seen in previous outings. Whilst they did support possession inside at times, this was the most orthodox interpretation of their role so far under Pep.
Without the full-backs in the defensive midfield position, the centre-backs had greater room to play in and were more inclined to move forward with the ball into midfield. The wider full-backs occupied more the attention of United’s wingers, which created small gaps of space between them and the central players, which City could use to progress the ball.
The necessity of a ball-playing goalkeeper also showed in their build-up. Bravo was used frequently in deeper positions and helped to add an extra man to their ball circulation, for when United looked to press higher up. Whilst he will receive criticism for United’s goal, Bravo’s influence in deep build-up was crucial in establishing the rhythm of their possession from the beginning of the game.
“The reason we played well in the first half was because of Bravo playing the ball and passing.”
Guardiola – post-game
Aided by their strong build-up play, City dominated the first 45 minutes. They consistently and frequently broke through the United press and midfield line, with Silva and De Bruyne both enjoying space in the midfield. Iheanacho would drop to help create small overloads in the midfield space although he was followed closely by Bailly.
The roles of the two number eights were instrumental in the first half performance and ultimately the victory for Guardiola’s men. De Bruyne was the best player on the pitch, and benefited massively from finding small gaps of space behind the often unaware Pogba. By lurking in his blind side, he created the illusion that he was covered only to appear out of his shadow and receive a line-splitting pass from deep.
Whilst United’s defence has comfortably dealt with the likes of Bournemouth and Southampton, City’s attack posed an entirely different challenge. Their midfield dynamism created space against what had previously been a compact United midfield. Rotations amongst the midfield four helped to disorientate the man-coverage of the home team, whilst Iheanacho had some intelligent dropping movements off of the ball.
Despite their wide positioning during build-up, the full-backs would move inside when the ball was in the final third. Although Graeme Souness questioned the concept of having full-backs in midfield, this was done as a mechanism to restrict United’s counter-attacks. In an inside position, they could help intercept clearances, and offer better support to the centre-backs in covering the likes of Ibrahimovic.
Whilst United were looking to create the majority of their chances in transition, City made their effort in the pressing to stop them from building many attacks. During moments of sustained possession, United were always challenged by some extent by City, who looked to regain control of the ball quickly.
Second Half Rhythm Change
Through changing their pressing tactics, United were able to force a more equal second half. The intensity of their defensive efforts increased significantly, and their man-marking became more extreme during City’s build-up. They retained their shape despite the substitutions. Herrera replaced Mkhitaryan and moved to central midfield whilst Pogba took on the 10 position. Rooney moved the right and Rashford replaced Lingard on the left of the attack.
By upping their pressure, they were able to disrupt City’s build-up much more effective and thus, the entire rhythm of their possession game. It became far more difficult for the visitors to cleanly advance the ball upfield and United were able to be a greater threat in attack too. Their approach became increasingly more direct as the 2nd half elapsed and more of an open, end-to-end game was formed.
In reaction, Guardiola sought more stability in his team and this showed in his substitutions. Fernando replaced Iheanacho in a typical Mourinho-with-a-one-goal-lead substitution whilst later Sané replaced Sterling in a wide position. With the home side having a greater hold of the game, City became more focused on counters, of which they created a number of threatening opportunities despite the lack of a third goal.
Similarly to the West Ham performance, City were excellent in the first half which helped secure the win despite a more even latter 45. Silva and De Bruyne were particularly excellent in finding gaps between the opposition midfield and helped City to create space in a defence which has previously held secure.
By pressing in the second half, United exposed the visitors to some extent, who aren’t yet totally comfortable in such situations. While they were able shift the momentum of the game in their direction, City were able to hold on, boosted by the in-game management of Guardiola.