Manchester City cleared the largest remaining hurdle in their quest to retain the Premier League title on Wednesday, defeating bitter rivals Manchester United by a 2-0 score. The Blues were far more dominant than the result would indicate, and a healthy percentage of the credit has to go to Pep Guardiola, who identified and exploited United’s weaknesses incredibly well.
To say United weren’t playing well coming into this match is quite the understatement. Their last match was a 4-0 loss to Everton, putting a cherry on top to a drop in form that is a far cry from the glory days (albeit brief) of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s managerial tenure. United’s recent poor play has coincided with a shift back to the negative football that the team exemplified under Jose Mourinho.
Solskjær leaned right into that trend for the derby, setting his team up in 5-3-2 that prioritized a defensive low-medium block and counterattacking. Yet that structure had its vulnerabilities, and City’s strengths matched up ideally to take advantage of them.
United’s midfield three tend to play very narrow, but the five-man defense is reluctant to break their shape and fill the wide space ahead of them. This leaves a ton of room to operate on the flanks and in between the lines, which just happens to be where City prefer to generate the attack anyway.
There was a concerted effort from the Blues to move possession to these areas quickly, forcing urgent movement from either United’s wingback, outside midfielder, or both. City could threaten a compromised defense if United failed to recover appropriately, or otherwise unleash the wingers to dribble at defenders or laterally across the face of the backline.
And with United’s group of fullbacks collectively breaking down over the past month, Guardiola did unleash Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva. The attack was heavily focused on the left flank, where Sterling resided until Leroy Sane came on in the second half, with 49% of the offensive action occurring on that side of the pitch.
This simple strategy was clearly done with the intention of isolating Ashley Young, and it’s easy to rationalize that tactic. You could clearly see how poor Young has been playing if you were watching from Mars, to the point where many didn’t think he deserved selection anymore. Either way, City were relentless about attacking Young, and Shaw to a lesser extent, with the comfort that the United midfield often gave themselves too much distance to lend cover.
City’s utilized their counterpress to its full force as well, and it was especially usually against a United side who not only lose their shape in defensive transition, but release onto their own counters with reckless abandon. Because of this, City forcing a quick turnover after the ball had been lost in the attacking third leaves the United defense in chaos. Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho were clearing looking to jump into passing lanes at every opportunity to keep the pressure on, and a number of great chances occurred as a result.
The space the Blues could work in/through only grew as the match progressed, as United’s attempt to defend up the field was poorly executed. It was a schizophrenic battle between knowing they had to press to get back into the match and also being afraid to let runners in behind. The dueling mentalities meant the backline didn’t step forward as much as the midfield, which failed to do the same relative to the attackers. Ultimately, that led to acres of space in between the lines for City to enjoy and they did just that to comfortably close the match out.
Though City were the superior team for about 90-95% of the match, they did balance a high wire act for the remaining moments when United could get out in transition. Prioritizing the counterpress left Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte in tough spots when United managed to sneak through, though the physicality and desperate recovery runs were there to keep United from generating more than the 0.51 shot based expected goals they finished with.
A large part of the defense’s success must also be attributed to how Guardiola approached marking Pogba. The Frenchman, who played mostly on the left side of the midfield three, was bracketed closely by Bernardo, Kyle Walker, and Gundogan/Fernandinho. One would jump in to try and win the ball back while another would stand off to contain one of those dangerous dribbling runs that Pogba is so capable of. When City did get stuck with only one defender on, that player would sit off to avoid getting beat off the dribble and shade Pogba’s right side, so he didn’t have a clear window to spray long balls forward into the attack. This strategy made Pogba quite ineffective despite being second on the team in touches (75).
This was a match comprised of two teams with opposite trajectories. The Blues continue to improve in this rivalry while United have become a stepping stone on City’s hopeful path to a domestic treble. The Ole Gunnar Solskjær era is still in its infancy, but it is evident he’s not on Guardiola’s level tactically. Pep was more aware of Manchester United’s flaws in this match than Solskjær was, and that is why Manchester City made a 2-0 victory look like a 6-0 one.