Manchester City 2-3 Manchester United: possession versus counter-attack

December 9, 2012

The starting line-ups

Manchester United stormed into a 0-2 lead, City got it back to 2-2, then United pinched the win very late on.

Roberto Mancini went with Mario Balotelli upfront rather than Carlos Tevez – the rest of his side was as expected.

Antonio Valencia was surprisingly declared fit, so Sir Alex Ferguson chose the same XI he selected in United’s most comparable fixture this season, the 3-2 win at Stamford Bridge in October.

In one sense United were fortunate to win the match because of the manner of their late winner, in another they were unfortunate not to be 3-0 up earlier in the second half. In a match of contrasting approaches, United carried out theirs more effectively.

City start brightly

However, City were unquestionably the better side in the opening 15 minutes. The game was more open than expected – although United were counter-attacking rather than seeking to dominate possession, their positioning was positive. Wayne Rooney dropped back onto Gareth Barry or Yaya Toure, rather than playing as a permanent midfielder (as rumoured) while United’s defence started high up the pitch, rather than close to their own penalty box.

This caused them problems, however, as the Aguero-Balotelli combination threatened to sprint in behind. Both players actually started in deep positions, in the space between United’s midfielders and defence. With Samir Nasri and David Silva both drifting into the middle and overloading Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, United’s centre-backs were tempted higher up the pitch but found themselves forced to turn and sprint quickly. Rio Ferdinand and Aguero had a small squabble when Aguero went to ground after trying to get in behind Ferdinand, while Jonny Evans wasn’t similarly exposed in this match, but had history to think about – having been sent off for bringing down Balotelli in the 1-6 last season.

With those two providing pace in behind the defence, Silva and Nasri tried to find pockets of space to play through-balls.  United’s closing down in the first five minutes was very effective, but when the game settled down and the tempo cooled slightly, both had too much space. Nasri didn’t move the ball quickly or play ambitious passes, but Silva had license to move where he wanted, and was a clear threat. He was happy to drop deeper than Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley to get space, and lofted a good ball over the top of the defence from that position.

United counter-attack

But while this was causing United problems, they weren’t trying to win the possession battle – they were concentrating on playing on the break. Their opener was a classic counter-attacking goal, featuring all the elements you need when playing on the break; van Persie drew a centre-back out of position, Young stormed forward past his man, and United hit City before their midfield was in a position to protect their defence.

Their second goal was extremely similar to the way United attacked in the aforementioned win over Chelsea. Rafael broke unmarked past David Silva – just as he’d done past Eden Hazard – to combine with with Antonio Valencia, whoselow cutback found Rooney for the second. Valencia hasn’t been at his best this season, but his combinations with Rafael are very promising – the wide midfielder is a good defensive player, the full-back is excellent at overlapping. Carrick always directed play to the right:

This allowed United to defend a little deeper. Trying to play exclusively on the counter-attack would have been foolish at 0-0, considering their terrible performance in the 1-0 defeat here last year. But at 0-1 and 0-2, United had something to protect, and therefore caution was more appropriate. Evans and Ferdinand played deeper towards the end of the first half, while Michael Carrick occupied the space in front of the defence effectively.

Second half

Despite starting in a very interesting manner, there was no progression to the tactical battle. Two changes were made because of injuries to centre-backs, but with the exception of substitutions made in the final five minutes, the only significant move was Mancini replacing Balotelli with Carlos Tevez.

Tevez floated around in the hole while Aguero moved higher up, but while Aguero and Balotelli had combined literally in the first half, Aguero and Tevez’s relationship is more indirect and based around space – Tevez thrives in the spacecreated by Aguero’s acceleration forcing the opposition defence deeper. The type of passes Aguero received changed after the substitution:

After half-time City moved the ball quickly, and penetrated United’s defence when Ferdinand and (substitute) Chris Smalling were still high up the pitch. Their first goal may have been a scramble, but even the initial move came from a very direct attack – the initial chance, for Tevez, came after three consecutive vertical balls, taking City from defence to attack within seconds, slicing through United’s lines quickly. The pattern continued – first Tevez was getting space between the lines and released Aguero running up against Chris Smalling, then the move was reversed when Tevez came under pressure from Evra after an Aguero pass.

Closing stages

At this point, you wondered why United were being so proactive – every time they got two banks of four behind the ball, they looked solid. Every time an initial pass was allowed to bisect Carrick and Cleverley to a man in space, they looked nervous. By attacking more readily, they left themselves exposed to counter-attacks.

Dzeko’s introduction allowed City to play longer, but the late flurry of set-piece activity decided the game. Valencia had been occupying the space near the ‘D’ when United were defending corners, but was replaced by Phil Jones and no-one took over Valencia’s duty. Jones was spare on the edge of the six-yard box, glancing around for someone to mark, for the corner that led to Pablo Zabaleta’s equaliser. Meanwhile, United’s winner was down to Nasri’s laughable understanding of what constitutes being part of a wall.


The broad pattern was a clash of hugely contrasting approaches, but the result eventually came down to the basics of defending set-plays in the final ten minutes. And not even tactical debates like ‘man marking versus zonal marking’, or ‘men on the post versus no men on the post’, but simple, elementary factors like passing on set-piece responsibilities at substitutions, and standing up properly in the wall.

That said, the first goal was crucial in this match. In being scored by United, it confirmed the pattern of the game – they’d play on the counter, City would dominate possession. The only caveat was United’s surprising level of ambition in the second half. Playing deeper would have made it more difficult for City to penetrate, and might have allowed more space for Ferguson’s side to break into. In big games, the first half approach appears to be United’s best bet.

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