Man City 4-1 Man United: Nasri’s narrowness and Kolarov’s overlapping put City in charge

September 22, 2013

The starting line-ups

Manchester City dominated from the opening moments, and completely outplayed Manchester United..

Manuel Pellegrini named Alvaro Negredo rather than Edin Dzeko upfront, the first time the Spaniard has started alongside Sergio Aguero. Down the left, Gael Clichy and David Silva were out, so Aleksandar Kolarov and Samir Nasri played.

David Moyes was without Robin van Persie, who was out injured with a thigh strain – so Danny Welbeck partnered Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young played on the left.

City played better in almost every respect, but it was down the left where they really excelled and took command of the game.

The key issue #1: Nasri’s narrowness

Samir Nasri isn’t the most universally popular player, and other more powerful, physical individuals might get more praise for their performances in this match, but the Frenchman has proved to be particularly useful in Manchester derbies. In City’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United a fortnight from the end of the 2011/12 season, City’s debut title-winning campaign, Nasri’s narrow positioning and combination play with Pablo Zabaleta was the key part of the game, and repeated pressure down that side eventually resulted in City winning a corner and Vincent Kompany heading in.

Nasri was also superb in City’s fine – if futile – 2-1 win at Old Trafford late last season, again drifting inside from a wide role.

He did something pretty similar here, and in a match that wasn’t far off 4-4-2 against 4-4-2, he was the only player who varied his positioning to drag opponents around. His clever positioning was in stark contrast to the other wide players on the pitch – Antonio Valencia and Jesus Navas both stayed wide against their full-backs, while Ashley Young endured an extremely difficult afternoon on the left flank, continually conceding possession. Nasri wasn’t playing as a winger, and instead received passes in inside-left positions.

The first impact of this was obvious – in a fast-paced, physical match with two midfield duos against each other, Nasri helped overload the centre and ensured City won the possession battle in the opening stages. Fernandinho and Toure always had an obvious forward pass – Nasri received the ball most frequently from that duo.

His passing was crisp – neat, tidy and unspectacular. He didn’t attempt many through-balls but he helped move the ball quickly and rarely conceded possession.

The key issue #2: Kolarov’s overlapping

Strangely, the two players that proved the difference were the two who might not have started had Pellegrini had a fully fit squad.

This zone should have been Manchester United’s area of strength – they went into a 2-0 lead here last year by counter-attacking down the right, and Antonio Valencia has been in good form recently. Against Kolarov, who often looks poor defensively, United would have hoped for promising opportunities down that flank.

Instead, City’s dominance of possession meant Kolarov was attacking Valencia, and surprisingly, Valencia performed extremely poorly defensively. He’s become renowned as a disciplined, committed defensive winger – to the extent that he’s frequently been used at full-back – but he repeatedly switched off and allowed Kolarov to run past him.

Kolarov actually completed the joint-fewest passes of any player who was on the pitch for 90 minutes (along with Nemanja Vidic) and had the poorest pass completion rate of any outfield player. But he timed his runs excellently, and United were exposed down that flank.

The result: Kolarov’s runs cause problems

Five minutes into the game, Nasri could be seen in a central position, helping City construct an attack down the right. Chris Smalling had no-one to mark, and as the left side of United’s defence became drawn up the pitch, Smalling narrowed his position to help out. This left space for Kolarov to attack on his own down the left flank, and his dangerous cross forced Vidic to head behind from inside the six yard box.

On 16 minutes, City went ahead. Nasri’s part in the goal wasn’t spectacular – but it was extremely intelligent. He collected the ball towards the left, and dribbled with it towards the corner flag. Then, he immediately checked to see where Kolarov was – some 20 yards behind him, but ready to sprint past on the overlap.

Rather than attempting a penetrative pass, Nasri holds the ball up with a clever trick, waits for Kolarov to make up the ground, and then plays a neat backheel into his path. Kolarov had run past Valencia, and his cross found Sergio Aguero, who volleyed home.

On 23 minutes, Kolarov again stormed past Valencia and had a half-hearted appeal for a penalty turned down by Howard Webb.

City were dominant across the park, of course, but down the left was the one zone where they seemed truly capable of creating chances in the first half. When United were behind, they moved forward and City found room on the break in a variety of situations, but at 0-0 with United playing cautiously, it was that Nasri-Kolarov combination that proved most effective.

Other points:

- City were extremely impressive, but their own formation still doesn’t look entirely cohesive. In the first half, Danny Welbeck and (in particular) Wayne Rooney kept finding space in behind Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, who were excellent at imposing themselves on the game physically and playing good forward passes, but often left too much space behind them. Both players like charging forward, and City have looked vulnerable between the lines this season. It was no coincidence that Rooney was United’s best player – he was simply given too much room.

- Manchester United looked much better when Moyes changed things, introducing Tom Cleverley for Ashley Young, putting Welbeck left and Marouane Fellaini at the top of a midfield triangle, and using Rooney alone upfront. They retained the ball better in midfield and attacked well down both flanks – but realistically, City were already 4-0 up and it was impossible to judge whether they were still attempting to play.

- Vincent Kompany had an excellent game, sticking extremely tight to Rooney and preventing the forward from turning. But United could have exploited Kompany’s advanced positioning with some runs in behind him – when United used to play away fixtures like this on the counter-attack under Sir Alex Ferguson, they sometimes used Rooney as a false nine and had midfielders sprinting past him into the space he created. Indeed, that was the entire point of their gameplan. Pulling Kompany 15 yards out of his defence isn’t particularly bad for the opposition – that’s where he’s weakest, when forced to turn and sprint – but United seemed to lack the intelligence to make the most of this situation.

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