Manchester City 1-0 Manchester United: City work the ball down right, United fail to test Hart

May 1, 2012

The starting line-ups

Vincent Kompany’s header won the game – and City returned to the top of the league.

As expected, Roberto Mancini named an unchanged XI. That meant Pablo Zabaleta continuing at right-back, and Samir Nasri starting wide in midfield.

Sir Alex Ferguson switched formation to a 4-5-1 with Wayne Rooney upfront alone. Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung were given starts in in midfield, while Nani was used rather than Antonio Valencia on the right. Jonny Evans was ill and Rafael was dropped, so Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were at the back.

This was evidently a completely different type of game from the 6-1 earlier in the season – it was low on technical quality, but high on tension.

Opening blows

City’s formation was predictable, but United’s was more interesting. Ferguson decided to use Park Ji-Sung high up the pitch in a central zone, tracking Yaya Toure, while Ryan Giggs was fielded in a narrow left-sided position. Nani was high up the pitch against Gael Clichy – with Ferguson probably trying to recreate Nani’s excellent performance against Clichy at the Emirates two seasons ago, the game which effectively kick-started Nani’s United career.

With that shape, United seemed to be set up to counter-attack. But they weren’t overwhelmingly reactive – rather than immediately sitting deep, they started by pressing high up the pitch. Whether this was a deliberate strategy or simply early enthusiasm is difficult to say, but it meant the first ten minutes saw plenty of stray passes from both sides, and neither gaining control.

In fact, the game took a while to settle down – both sides looked nervous, and there was a particular lack of quality when midfielders tried to play the ball into the feet of attackers. There was no real rhythm to the game, with neither City cranking the tempo up, nor United controlling the game with patient passing in the centre of midfield.

United tactics

The only goal came from a set-piece, but United didn’t compete well in open play. The first problem was clear: using Park in a central position was disastrous. He didn’t appear fully fit, which is particularly problematic considering his main assets: stamina, energy and work rate. His brief was to nullify the threat of Yaya Toure, but this failed miserably: Toure completed more passes than any other player in the first half, illustrating his influence on the game.

Park has done a good job in this position when up against static deep-lying playmakers (particularly Andrea Pirlo), but Toure is a much more mobile, vertical player. When City had the ball, Park tried to stay goalside of Toure, but this caused a large gap between Park and Wayne Rooney when United regained possession. Rooney became isolated, and United’s transitions were poor – when they play well on the break, the first pass out of defence is usually ambitious and incisive, but here the clearances were rushed.

Centre-backs v centre-forwards

City knew that United’s intention was to play the ball Rooney, get him to come deep and lay the ball off to Nani or Park, and then those three would counter directly. Again, that’s what United did so well in that win at the Emirates two years ago, with Rooney perfecting the false nine position.

Vincent Kompany always has the same strategy against Rooney, though – he’s very brave with his positioning, doesn’t give Rooney any time on the ball, and Rooney becomes frustrated. He can’t hold up play, and his sideways passes out to the flanks become rushed and overhit. Even when Kompany was booked for a tackle on Rooney (which was harsh, but seemed inevitable considering the Belgian’s high-pressure approach), he continued to come out of the defence and chip away at Rooney – although Joleon Lescott played more of an active role after the yellow card.

At the other end, United were also defending successfully against City’s centre-forwards, although the away side didn’t have a spare man, and therefore the situation was slightly different. They didn’t use a specific man goalside of Carlos Tevez, but instead told Michael Carrick to sit deep, squeezing the space between the lines. When Sergio Aguero came towards the ball he was usually tracked by Rio Ferdinand, which meant Smalling became the covering defender.

Key battle

The key battle was down City’s right. This stemmed from Giggs’ narrow positioning, a move intended to help United compete in the centre of the pitch with a lopsided diamond. Interestingly, this is exactly the same system that United used in the 3-2 win over Milan at the San Siro two years ago – the game when Park did such a fine job on Pirlo. In addition to Park at the top of the diamond, Rooney was upfront alone, Nani was wide-right, Carrick at the base of the diamond, Scholes right-of-centre. The only difference was that United had Darren Fletcher playing the shuttling left-sided role that day – here, they had Ryan Giggs.

Giggs doesn’t possess as much mobility as Fletcher. United broadly coped in the centre of the pitch (they had less possession, but this probably wasn’t a battle they were focused on winning, and they were happy to prevent City playing incisive passes through the middle) but were significantly overrun in the left-back zone. Zabaleta had acres of space ahead of him, and could move forward to combine well with Nasri. Sometimes there was a 2 v 1 situation against Evra, other times Nasri could move inside and break through the United defence once Evra had become concerned with Zabaleta.

The diagram of passes into the final third in the first half shows how often City played out to this flank. Before half-time, the two men who played the most passes in the final third were Nasri (18) and Zabaleta (13). The goal, while arriving from a set-piece, came from two corners forced after the Nasri-Zabaleta combination near the by-line.

Neither side defended corners well – City had switched off twice in the first half and allowed United to play short corners. Interestingly, though, City’s goal was the only one of their 26 crosses that found the intended target (summing up the aerial limitations of their attackers).

Second half

Surprisingly, Ferguson made no immediate changes, waiting until the 58th minute. That seemed like a waste of 13 minutes, although perhaps Ferguson was focusing on not conceding a quick second.

Instead, the only change came from Mancini. Silva and Nasri switched sides – odd, considering how well Nasri and Zabaleta had linked up. Perhaps Mancini wanted to let Silva (the better player) enjoy that space on the wing, but then Zabaleta was also told to stay in a more defensive position in the second half.

That meant the only interesting zone from the first half was no longer crucial. Furthermore, since United completely failed to get back into the game (not recording a single shot on target), the tactical battle in the second half was hardly game-changing.

However, that’s because of the way the substitutions happened. Each time Ferguson changed his side, Mancini responded in the same area of the pitch.

First subs

First, Ferguson went for the obvious move –  Park off, Danny Welbeck on upfront, and United moving to their usual 4-4-1-1. Rooney dropped deeper to become the number ten, and now Kompany and Lescott couldn’t move up towards Rooney and still keep a spare man behind, as they had Welbeck to deal with. Instead, Gareth Barry dropped onto Rooney and City retained 2 v 1 against Welbeck.

This wasn’t ideal for City, though – Barry was playing very deep and letting United have control of the midfield. Therefore, Mancini responded by introducing Nigel De Jong for Tevez, and City moved to more of a 4-5-1 system, with De Jong as a holding player on Rooney.

Second subs

Ferguson’s next move was Antonio Valencia for Scholes, with Nani switching to the left and Giggs into the middle. Valencia played in his usual right-wing position.

Mancini was obviously nervous about the threat of Valencia, and went to great lengths to make his defence more secure down that side. Micah Richards replaced David Silva and became the right-sided centre-back, which meant Kompany shuffling across slightly, Lescott becoming a left-centre-back/left-back, and Clichy becoming a left-back/left-wing-back. Clichy stuck tight to Valencia, and Lescott offered support behind.

Third subs

Finally, Ferguson made a straight swap – Ashley Young on for Nani down the left.

Mancini didn’t respond to this until stoppage time – but then, he saw Nasri was slow retreating from an attack, leaving Young in space to pick up the ball. Therefore, Nasri was withdrawn and James Milner protected Zabaleta for the final few minutes.

Each time, Ferguson tried to get a player into space – then Mancini responded by shutting down the space. Since City didn’t concede a single shot on target, even with United trailing for 45 minutes, Mancini’s improvisation deserve praise.


United might not have lost if they’d defended that corner better – but their system still wouldn’t have done the intended job. Park didn’t take Toure out of the game, while Giggs’ narrowness meant Zabaleta and Nasri were free to create overloads down the flank.

This might have been a very different game to the 1-6, but both matches were about City creating situations of numerical superiority in United’s full-back positions.

More general conclusions here

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