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United 4 - 2 City: Tactics and Trends

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Or, An Ode to Defensive Transitions: How United exploited City's disjointed and uninterested defensive transitions

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Pellegrini couldn't rescue City from an Old Trafford nightmare.
Pellegrini couldn't rescue City from an Old Trafford nightmare.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Well, then.

Not exactly the derby result the blue half of Manchester was hoping for, and coincidentally not the "perfect" time to go to Old Trafford as

Kompany had claimed earlier in the week.

Aguero’s 99th goal in a Manchester City shirt looked like it might put City on the way to another derby win, but United, in cooperation with City’s lethargy and overall general lack of interest, had other intentions.

Prior to Ashley Young’s early equalizer (that was a weird thing to write considering its 2015 and you know, well, Ashley Young scored), City were something of a tactical treat: there was a high press that forced United to skip their short passing "philosophy" and launch long-balls to Fellaini – unfortunately something that worked as well Sunday as it has since United’s thrashing against Tottenham four weeks ago; a specific plan to exploit Blind’s lack of pace by playing through Navas down United’s left side; and a slight tweak to City’s 4231 that saw Milner play behind Aguero, with Silva out wide on the left – presumably because Mata was again deployed (in van Gaal’s own words) as "a false right winger," consistently drifting inside, leaving United’s width on the right to Valencia.

And for 13 minutes, it worked like a charm. City pushed forward with and without the ball, pressing Carrick deep into his own half, effectively forcing United to transition forward without his on the ball presence. Prior to Aguero’s opener, it was Navas who had the first opportunity to put City ahead. Having been played in by a brilliant (and equally surprising) through-ball from Demichelis, he sped past Blind and forced De Gea into a smart save, shooting for the same place as Mata did later, to an obviously different result.

After Young’s equalizer, United began to revert to the more comfortable and confident side they’ve been for the better part of a month. In possession, they added to the Fellaini long-ball tactic, a short and sharp ball retention philosophy and on the occasion they lost it, there was a clear and obvious tactical plan to transition to defence. It’s been so long since this applied to City, you’d be forgiven for feeling confused and even melancholy at this point.

On Sunday, I was again reminded just how lost (and disinterested) City seem to look when possession is lost: often with seven players in the opposition half, leaving Fernandinho to somehow dictate which positions the opposition will be afforded to move into, while simultaneously asked to protect the centre-backs. Meanwhile, Yaya’s physically imposing frame can be seen gently sauntering back, as if on a morning stroll to contemplate the change of seasons.  I’m not interested in defending Kompany through his "lack of form" because I’m of the opinion he’s been well below his form for more than just this season, but it’s hardly a coincidence that he’s now completely out of position and jumping into tackles in terrible positions on the pitch. Pellegrini, for all his strengths, now appears rather naïve when it comes to coaching defensive shapes and transitions.

Consider United’s transition defence in Sunday’s game from Young’s goal on: Carrick, a constant shield for his still young centre-back partnership of Smalling and Jones; Herrera, always quick to hurry back to his midfield partner; Blind, aware of his lack of pace and making conscious tactical choices to not be caught up-field; Young, (like Navas, to be fair to him) always willing to sprint back to assume his defensive position. Even Fellaini, like an Ent caught in a forest fire, can be seen running for his life to cut out the opposition’s counter.

Below is a two-still example of United’s transition defence against City, the pictures showing United’s shape between a six second period on one of City’s counters.

In image one we see a rather dangerous counter attack in the making: Navas isolated on the right with Blind; Jones, forced to step to the ball to mark Aguero; Yaya, pulling Smalling away from his centre-back partner; all told, it’s three City players behind United’s deepest midfielder (Carrick).

Defensive Transition 1

Image two gives us an entirely different picture. Young, previously unpictured, has made his way all the way back to the edge of his box to offer Blind protection; Smalling has properly marked Yaya, with additional help from Valencia who’s in the perfect position to protect his centre-back and still not be exposed by Milner; Carrick has dropped into the space between his centre-backs and Herrera is in position to pick up the late run from Fernandinho; even Mata has tracked Silva. And there’s Fellaini, ready to perform a flying elbow on Aguero if need be.

Transition Defense 2

Where’s the danger here? This move ended with Navas attempting a cross-field pass to Yaya (maybe?) that was deflected onto the chest of Herrera for Smalling to clear.

You’d probably like a picture or two of City now, but sadly those pictures are NSFW and will leave you feeling sad and lonely. So I’ll leave you instead with Wayne Rooney’s own words on the sad state of City’s defensive transitions: "We know some of them are not the best at getting back. We felt like we could capitalize on that."

And capitalize they did.

*shudders and logs off*