Manchester United 1-2 Manchester City: City’s attackers combine well throughout

April 8, 2013

The starting line-ups

Manchester City produced a fine performance to record a rare victory at Old Trafford.

Sir Alex Ferguson played two attack-minded wide players, with Ryan Giggs in the centre and Tom Cleverley only on the bench. Phil Jones continued alongside Rio Ferdinand in the centre of defence.

Roberto Mancini left out Sergio Aguero, favouring Carlos Tevez as a lone striker with David Silva just behind.

City were significantly better here – they dominated the first half, took the lead in the second, and Mancini used his bench better too.


The first few minutes were played at an extraordinarily high pace, with closing down, fierce challenges and the ball travelling from end to end quickly.

Once the match settled down into a much slower tempo, the approaches and formations became clear. City were their usual 4-2-3-1ish shape and seeking to dominate possession, while United – with Wayne Rooney high up, as more of a second striker than a proper link player at times – were more 4-4-2ish. Rooney dropped onto one of City’s midfielders, often Yaya Toure, when City had the ball – although he did so casually, as if it wasn’t a major part of United’s gameplan. At the other end of midfield, Silva dropped back onto Carrick.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether a side is simply being outpassed, or are deliberately playing a reactive, counter-attacking game. For United, it was probably a bit of both – Ferguson surely didn’t intend to allow City continual possession in great space close to the United box, but the use of two direct wide players indicated a desire to play on the break. Welbeck had a good counter-attacking opportunity early on, but took the wrong decision, failing to play in Rooney down the right.

City down the left

From early on in the first half, there was one obvious theme – City’s focus on playing down the left. Their recent league victories against United have always been based around overloads in wide areas. They took control in the 1-6 because Silva and James Milner crossed the pitch diagonally to combine with each other, then they dominated the crucial 1-0 at the Etihad when Ryan Giggs was sucked in from the left, allowing Pablo Zabaleta and Samir Nasri to create 2 v 1s against Patrice Evra.

There were a variety of positional reasons for the dominance down the left, suggesting it was a deliberate tactic from Mancini. Silva played as a central playmaker, but always drifted to that flank in the first half – Tevez did the same from higher up, playing up against Ferdinand rather than Jones.

Then, there was movement towards that side from others – Gareth Barry generally played in advance of Yaya Toure and moved out very wide to the left…

…while James Milner (after getting in behind Patrice Evra a couple of times in the first ten minutes) made a couple of runs that replicated his movement in last year’s fixture. With Welbeck often taking up surprisingly narrow positions, Gael Clichy had time on the ball, too.

Equally crucially, United gave City space to play in. At Stamford Bridge last week, while the game was 0-0, United minimised the space between the lines and denied Chelsea’s playmakers time on the ball. This match couldn’t have been more different – Jones and Ferdinand sat particularly deep, while Carrick and Giggs seemed overrun in the centre of the pitch, forced to get through a lot of running rather than protecting the back four solidly. City were penetrating the space either side of Ferdinand too frequently, and Jones was frequently forced to cover.

City simply had space to play – Silva darted into the space between Rafael and Ferdinand, Nasri into the space between the lines. Barry’s movement towards the flank was, understandably, tracked by no-one – but it was still a crucial role in asserting City’s dominance, as the most frequent passing combination was between him and Clichy.

The only surprise was that City didn’t lead by half-time. For United’s part, there was barely a chance to assess the quality of their counter-attacks, because the first pass out of the defence was so frequently poor.

Second half

The second half was more open than the first, and probably more balanced – but there were few significant tactical shifts, with only one substitution occurring before Aguero’s winner – and that was his introduction.

City’s goal originated from the left flank, and a Giggs error. It was hardly a typical pattern of play, but it somehow summed up the game nicely – City were always attacking down that side, while Giggs was arguably the game’s weakest player, unable to deal with City’s movement in the centre of the pitch. Milner’s strike was deflected, but it was the second consecutive season he’d had a decisive impact at Old Trafford.

United equalised with Vincent Kompany’s unfortunate own goal, following a Van Persie free-kick. Maybe the key tactical feature of that goal was Toure conceding the free-kick in the first place – it was a good example of how he was often playing a more defensive role, as Barry was in an advanced position.


At 1-1 there was great crowd noise, a succession of strong tackles and attacking intent from both sides. The momentum was with United, who pushed higher up the pitch.

Then came the only important substitution – Mancini bringing on Aguero for Nasri. The Frenchman hadn’t played badly, but he was certainly the least effective of City’s attacking quartet. With Silva moving left and Tevez dropping deep, City now had renewed energy upfront, and a player with incredible acceleration to sprint in behind a defensive partnership that sometimes appears vulnerable to pace, although the goal came in a much ‘tighter’ situation.

Maybe there’s nothing clever in throwing on a £40m striker to increase your attacking threat – but Mancini got his decisions right. Tevez started upfront and linked with Silva nicely, helping City to assert their dominance, then Aguero was introduced to provide a sudden spark.


City started better, with their attacking players linking nicely, particularly down the left. Clear goalscoring opportunities were rare, but City put United’s defence under pressure – and with the home side barely counter-attacking to test Joe Hart, for the majority of the game City looked more likely to score.

United’s approach saw them overrun in the centre of the pitch, and it was surprising Ferguson persisted with his starting shape for so long – bringing on Cleverley, to narrow the midfield and help United compete in the centre, seemed an obvious move, while Kagawa could have been introduced significantly before the 92nd minute.

This could be Mancini’s final Manchester derby. Some have questioned precisely what he brings to City – but in head-to-head clashes against United, he’s generally outmanoeuvred Ferguson.

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