City went six games without a win last night, but the performance was not without positives.
The starting line-ups were a topic for debate in the days leading up to the game and both teams sprung surprises, although for differing reasons. Manchester United fielded the strongest team they possibly could, with injuries being the only reason for major names being omitted. City on the other hand rotated heavily, making nine changes. The most notable of those changes were Maffeo in at right back and Aleix Garcia slotting into the midfield.
City began the game with a 3-2-4-1 structure when they had the ball, it could also be considered a 3-3-3-1 depending on how advanced Clichy was when holding the width on the left flank. Garcia acted slightly deeper than Fernando within this structure, a clear step to minimise the negative impact that Fernando tends to have when City are constructing play when he plays a pivot. This was nothing revolutionary from Guardiola, it’s a structure we have seen frequently over the last month. The purpose of this structure is to encourage the team to access the midfield early. By pushing his full backs out of their usual positions (Maffeo acting as a third centre-back, Clichy very high and wide) it aims to stop a flat ball circulation around a deep back four and encourage a progressive and more vertical ball circulation.
When out of possession, City organised themselves in a 4-4-2. What is unusual is that the shape remained a 4-4-2 in all phases of play. Normally a midfielder would push up to the first line when pressing high, and then drop back when the ball advances past them. This was not the case during the game as Iheanacho and Sane (and others later) remained well ahead of the midfielders.
Mourinho took his usual big game approach, organising his team in a deep 4-5-1 block which had strong man orientations with players not afraid to move out of position to follow their marking assignment. This changed in the opening exchanges of the second half as they sought to press higher on a more consistent basis; this increased level of defensive activity lead to the winning goal.
Guardiola tried to shuffle the pack after going behind with the introductions of Aguero and Sterling leading to a loose 2-4-4 structure with the ball for the last 20 minutes of the game. Sterling was once again great when he came on, constantly being available to receive the ball and drive the team forward – something that was greatly lacking throughout earlier stages of the game. Maffeo and Clichy advanced more and more (often into the interior channels) during City’s push for an equaliser towards the end of the game but ultimately it yielded very little.
In short, Pablo Maffeo and Aleix Garcia. As someone who hasn’t seem a whole lot of the young Spaniards I was enthused by their performances. Both of them displayed composure in a tough environment and neither seemed flustered by the occasion of a derby game in a cup competition. Garcia really stood out though; his passing was on point, a few errors were made but that is to be expected from such a young player. Overall though, he really bossed the midfield and was the only player who was always readily available to receive the ball and constantly looked to probe the defence with his pass selection.
Another positive should be how many one on one opportunities we were able to generate in the wide areas, particularly for Navas. This is a key part of Pep’s approach to the game: qualitative superiority. If you have players that are capable of beating their opponent in a one on one or two on two situation they should be handed as many opportunities to do so as possible. City achieved this perfectly through out the game as Navas was isolated against Shaw frequently and beat him consistently with ease.
What Didn’t Work?
Vincent Kompany. He seems to be a player fighting against the methods that Pep is trying to install. So many times in the first half he showed an unwillingness to be patient, to circulate the ball; instead he tried to be overly direct and force play forward to no avail. A key principle of Pep’s positional play is that he believes a team needs to play fifteen passes before they are in an appropriate shape to attack and to defend if they lose the ball. If one of your centre-backs, a player responsible for starting the play, is unwilling to circulate the ball then rest of the play falls apart. Kompany was not alone in this though, the whole team was attempting to be too direct when building the play even when under no pressure, something that will have aggravated Pep to no end.
Additionally, City’s defensive shape had an unusual lack of compactness. Perhaps it was the threat of a long ball to Zlatan keeping the back-line honest, but there was simply too much space between the lines when they were defending, especially when pressing higher up the pitch. The evidence for this could be seen time and time again as Manchester United looked slick carrying the ball out of our attempts to press when in reality we were simply affording them a huge (compared to our usual standards) amount of time and space to do so.
Finally, the same issues from the weekend also reared their heads. Poor spacing, lack of options ahead of the pivots and a failure to overload areas around the ball carrier meant that our possession game was stale and bore little in terms of chances. That isn’t to say we didn’t have chances to score, we did and we should have but the same lack of killer instinct and precision that has cost City as of late has cost them again.
A derby defeat always stings and leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth, particularly one in which City should have a had a better result. Who knows, if our attackers were more clinical and Mike Dean wasn’t blind to some obvious fouls then it may well have been City who are still in the EFL Cup.
If there was a moment in the game that summed up the performance and how I felt watching it, it was Pep’s reaction to Iheanacho wasting an opportunity at around the 40 minute mark. The frustration and exasperation on his face as we wasted yet another opportunity really resonated with me.
What is clear though, is that we are frighteningly close to clicking in an attacking sense and when we do, someone is going to take a real battering. Hopefully, it’s West Brom and we can get a much needed boost to morale before Barcelona come to visit.