Now that the Manchester Derby is a few days into our rearview mirrors and we can view the result without the stress and emotion we all felt on matchday, it is clear how the tactical strategy of both managers impacted the outcome. Coming into this game, everyone knew what both managers’ overarching gameplan would be. Pep Guardiola obviously focuses on fluid positional interchange, ball possession, and aggressive pressure while Jose Mourinho would implement some sort of ultra-defensive scheme that looked to exploit counterattacking chances. And both of these predictions came to be true but the way in which Mourinho handled his defense can be pointed to as one reason why City came away with 3 points. Clearly, City have better players (particularly in the midfield, more on this later), but the players on the field for United were not put in a position to succeed on Sunday. Furthermore, Pep Guardiola is one of the best, if not the best, managers in the world at recognizing opponent strategies in-game and making adjustments. The derby was no different and showed, once again, why the Guardiola vs. Mourinho narrative is a silly argument.
The first criticism you can throw Mourinho’s way is in his team selection. Specifically, going with a midfield three of Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera, and Nemanja Matic is simply never going to work. I’m not quite sure what United should have done here without arguably their best player, Paul Pogba, unavailable, but we all knew from the moment the lineup was announced that this was not it. Then to compound the issue, Mourinho implemented a man-marking scheme with the midfield being central to its execution. Roughly speaking, Herrera was assigned to check David Silva while Matic was on Bernardo Silva. These two assignments, especially Herrera, were the ones United was most committed to throughout the game, but I think Mourinho wanted to expand this defensive philosophy throughout the lineup, at least in regards to City’s attacking threats. He even had right back Ashley Young and center back Chris Smalling tracking Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero, respectively, deep into the midfield in the opening minutes! Granted, man-marking can easily tire a team out and is hard to maintain for 90 minutes so many managers will turn it on and off for short stretches throughout. Based on those first 5 - 10 minutes of the match, I think Mourinho wanted to similarly switch this on and off to keep City’s attack unsure of the defense but had to abandon it (with the exception of Herrera and Matic) due to City’s approach.
Manchester City might be the worst team in the world to try to man-mark because of their extreme positional fluidity and lack of attacking structure (I mean this in a good way). It is much easier when you have a rough idea of where your marking assignment will be, but can easily introduce chaos into the team when your man pulls you well out of position. So Pep Guardiola took the two players Mourinho was most worried about (Silva & Silva) and moved them almost anywhere that wasn’t the central midfield. David Silva was routinely the most advanced attacker or out wide on the left wing while Bernardo moved similarly on the right. This was coupled with Aguero drifting wide and into the midfield while Raheem Sterling operating centrally for stretches. This created a vacuum in the midfield where City had their backline and Fernandinho as one group a lot of space separated them from the attacking force, comprised of the remaining five players.
Introducing a gap like this tends to make it more difficult to build from the back, but the Blues did a good job of having players flash towards the ball and create one-two combinations with Fernandinho or the fullbacks to take up this space. Doing so also disrupted any hope for a United counter by creating the exact same separation between United’s attacking three and their midfield. Marcus Rashford started as the central striker and his main focus was occupying the passing lane between the City center backs and Fernandinho. Simultaneously, United’s wingers Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard checked their fullbacks, looking to funnel the ball back to a center back or Ederson. So with those three worried about the interface between the backline and Fernandinho while the midfield was pulled deeper, United had their own gap to deal with when they won the ball back in their defensive third when launching a counter.
This brings up the problem with Mourinho’s team selection once again. United’s three midfielders lack athleticism and playmaking, as a group. Herrera is the best passer of the three while Fellaini and Matic have a strength/size advantage over their City counterparts. But counting on any of them to orchestrate a length-of-the-pitch attack is misguided to say the least. Herrera’s first responsibility was marking Silva, so he tended to be initially out of the play, resulting in many occasions where Matic and Fellaini were carrying the ball out of the back. As you would expect based on their lack of pace and aptitude for quick passing, City’s counter press ate these two alive and won possession right back with ease. Transition turnovers only compounded United’s struggles, often forcing their wingers to track back down the wing where they clearly were not comfortable defending.
City’s three goals each came from a slightly different set up. The first was a direct result of United’s overcommitment to man marking the Blues’ attackers, allowing Aymeric Laporte to walk the ball into the attacking third. The ball was played out wide to Raheem Sterling and the rest is history. Sergio Aguero’s goal started with a David De Gea free kick that was turned over in the midfield. City found themselves with an odd-man break and Riyad Mahrez made a smart run from the wing towards the penalty spot (a run the wide players made frequently). This pull Luke Shaw inside and forced Victor Lindelöf to stay with Aguero as the two City attackers put together a one-two combination. Lindelöf was forced to turn while Aguero could maintain his run, giving him just enough space to get behind and fire it home. The final goal doesn’t really need explanation, it was the epitome of Pep Guardiola’s philosophy. A 44-pass sequence, the majority of which were in the middle third, ultimately led to a inch perfect ball from Bernardo on to the waiting foot of substitute Ilkay Gundogan. It was a masterpiece not only for the sheer ability to methodically pick a defense apart, but also within the context of the match, it is so rare to see a team dominate the ball while leading late against a side in a similar weight class.
Offensively, United were completely inept. Even their “good” stretches of the match lacked any real chances and was essentially purposeless. Much of this was due to what I discussed earlier, particularly the isolation of the attack and inability of the midfielders. Regardless of the reason, Rashford, Lingard, and Martial could not get involved at all. The heat map below combines the touches for the three attacking players for both sides.
It doesn’t take a genius to see how few touches United’s attacker had anywhere near the City goal. That heat map represents how disjointed their offense was perfectly. Marcus Rashford, the center forward, had a total of 0.00 expected goals (xG)! Jesse Lingard, Romelu Lukaku, and Alexis Sanchez also combined for a grand total of 0.00 xG! The only United attacker with a non-zero xG total was Anthony Martial (0.81 xG) and 0.76 of that came from the penalty. So just to wrap this segment up, all of United attacking players (I’ll count Juan Mata in this calculation to be nice), combined for 0.09 xG from open play. Yikes.
Really, the narrative of this match focuses even more on City’s domination that it already is if Ederson doesn’t make the same mistake he did against Southampton. Fouling Lukaku in the box when the defense was in good position to recover allowed United to get with a goal of City, and allowed for a “United are in this match” mindset. To a certain extent, that mindset is not inaccurate because another penalty or set piece goal levels it up and you could be looking at a draw. But if you take a step back and analyze this game over 90 minutes, Manchester United were outclassed in every aspect of the game. If that team wasn’t wearing those uniforms, you might mistake them for some run-of-the-mill mid table side.
I realize I spent a large chunk of this article criticizing United, but I firmly recognize City’s class as well, but I can’t keep writing about how amazing this squad is every single week. Each player on the field for the Blues played well. The only blemish may be the Ederson penalty, which is honestly unfortunate because it may overshadow what was an incredible game from him in terms of distribution. Bernardo Silva was fantastic too, on both sides of the ball, providing two assists and continuing to show a surprising defensive strength. Fernandinho deserves a shoutout as well, because he was perfect at destroying the counter any time United did manage to put a few passes together in transition. We were all nervous coming in, and rightfully so, derby day is always stressful and our most recent memory of it is a painful one. But Pep Guardiola and Manchester City reminded us once again of how far ahead of the competition they really are. I’ve said this before so apologies for redundancy, but we are witnessing a truly special team here, so we should all appreciate being witness to it.