That was simply a great game of football, less so for the technical skill and beauty of it, but for the passion and atmosphere that was evident for all 90 minutes. Some rivalry games tend to disappoint because the players just don’t care as much about it as the fans do. This game was far from that and it was easy to sense the emotion on the pitch, manifesting itself in a gritty, physical match.
Part of the reason why I’m pumping this game up is because I’m a Manchester City fan and they won, but fans of any team should appreciate this type of football. The implications could not be bigger with both Manchester teams sitting atop the Premier League table. With a City win their lead would extend to 11 points while a United win would cut that lead to a 5 points and you would hear shouts of “the title race is back on!” immediately. Fortunately the result went just the way we wanted and Manchester City came out on top, continuing the best winning streak the Premiere League has ever seen.
In the lead up to this game, many expected José Mourinho to play very defensively, absorb attacks from City, and look to counte rattack through striker Romelu Lukaku. United certainly did rely on this gameplan, but not as much as many, myself included, would have thought despite City maintaining 65% possession. Mourinho started with a 4-2-3-1 formation and an attacking midfield of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard. Mourinho included as much pace as he possibly could in his attacking unit to expose a City backline that would be unable to match their speed with the sole exception of Kyle Walker.
United were able to create dangerous opportunities through this strategy, often using Lukaku as a target man to drop off clearance passes with his head or feet. The attacking midfielders were then free to run into space left by Lukaku’s ability to draw in defenders. Fabian Delph was arguably the biggest victim of United’s pace, getting beat by attackers on more than occasion. In fact, Delph was quite bad on United’s lone goal when a diagonal ball over the top was misread by Nicolas Otamendi. It fell into the path of Delph, who should have been able to clear it, but flubbed the opportunity giving Marcus Rashford a clear shot on goal and past Ederson.
However, United’s willingness to take the attack to City was disjointed and ineffective for the most part. United looked like two separate groups on the pitch for long stretches, with the front four pressing to attack while the defense and holding midfielders stayed deep. This dysfunction was a hindrance for the United defense and attack. The attack was challenged to break down City, who play great transitional defense and track back well, with limited passing options.
Having a large chunk of land between the defensive and attacking midfields also made it impossible for United to recycle attacks and keep the ball in City’s final third for more than the initial buildup. City were not forced to defend for long periods of time until later in the game when United were desperate and successful in transitioning from defense to attack.
United’s defense was also disadvantaged by this setup and Pep Guardiola’s tactics were designed to exploit that. Pep’s lineup was announced as a traditional 4-3-3 with Gabriel Jesus on top. However, Pep added a wrinkle into his team that was ultimately the key in effectively breaking down United. To put it simply, Manchester City did not play with a central striker in this game.
City’s formation is often a fluid thing and features a variety of interchanging, but this was an active desertion of the traditional center forward role. Gabriel Jesus operated down the left wing while Leroy Sané played on the right, with Raheem Sterling released into the center of the pitch as a third attacking midfielder.
With six United players consistently dropping well off the ball, they were forced to stretch their backline with the primary attacking presences out on the wings. United’s front four were regularly caught upfield on the press or after a failed attack, giving the City midfield loads of space to run at the defense uninhabited through the middle third.
This forced United to pull defenders out of position and disrupt their defensive structure. The City attack was often funneled down the wings before being cut in across the edge of the 18. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva bossed this game per usual, yet it was much easier to do this because City were consistently outnumbering United in the middle of the park with the inclusion of Sterling.
Granted, both of City’s goals came from set piece opportunities created by City’s efficient attack. City have struggled recently in breaking down ultra-defensive formations, but were much better in this game. They had gotten into a habit of possessing without purpose, slowly moving the ball around and allowing the defense to comfortably rotate. Against United City moved the ball quickly and covered ground in possession, which did not let their opponents get too comfortable in their defensive positioning.
For Manchester City, their quality offense put them in positions to win set piece chances. But we really should thank United for botching both of those clearances. With all the tall players United have, you would think they would be better at set piece defense but I guess that’s not always a direct correlation. Both goals were eerily similar, as Romelu Lukaku did an awful job of clearing a ball played into the box, and a City player (Silva and Otamendi) was left alone to finish it off easily.
Lukaku had a game he would certainly like to forget. On top of getting a large amount of blame for the City goals, he missed the best chance either team had all game when a quality buildup released Anthony Martial down the left wing, who played the ball low across the 6-yard box to Lukaku. He was tightly defended but should have done better with the finish, shooting the ball directly into Ederson’s throat from point blank range. Ederson then followed this up with another amazing save on the rebound chance by Juan Mata. This was the scariest moment of the game by far and I’m pretty sure my heart stopped throughout the situation, but needless to say Ederson is pretty good.
It’s also worth mentioning that Vincent Kompany had to leave the game at halftime with another injury which is just sad for the team and the player. This guy just can’t catch a break. That being said, Eliaquim Mangala came on later in the second half and was phenomenal. He gets a lot of flack from City fans, and often for good reason, but if he can step up and play like he did against United then the Blues will be blessed with some serious depth at the center-back position.
Overall, this game was extremely satisfying for a variety of reasons which I would guess most of the people reading this can understand. You never want to count your eggs before they hatch, but an 11-point deficit will be hard to overcome, especially considering City’s consistency all season.
Pep’s boys have a long way to go before they can be claimed champions of England but we have no reason to doubt them at the moment. Surely we all have friends that are United fans and surely those friends will complain about time wasting or not getting a penalty call or that our goals were undeserved. That's fine, let them talk because when you sit on the throne you can let the results speak for themselves.