Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City won their first derby against José Mourinho’s Manchester United this past Saturday in a game that was more tactically conventional than had been anticipated, at least in the first half.Embed from Getty Images
Though much of the pre-game analysis had focused on how the managers might alter their tactical approaches, City and United lined up largely as they had in previous games. Missing striker Sergio Agüero because of a three-game suspension, talk had focused on whether a rejuvenated Raheem Sterling might start up top, allowing Leroy Sané to play on the right. Guardiola, however, kept faith with his young striker Kelechi Iheanacho, leaving Sterling out right and Sané on the bench. Newly arrived goalkeeper Claudio Bravo started, but otherwise Guardiola went with his established team.
Mourinho did give starts to Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the wings, but retained a 4-2-3-1 formation with Wayne Rooney playing underneath Zlatan Ibrahimović and holding roles for Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini. Although Lingard was a surprising choice in place of Anthony Martial, Mkhitaryan was widely believed to be Mourinho’s long-term replacement for Juan Mata at right wing.
This emphasis on the flanks was at odds with most of the pre-game tactical discussion, which had focused on potential changes in the center of United’s midfield. From the beginning of the season, commentators had suggested that Mourinho might shift to a 4-3-3 to get the most out of Pogba, who did not look at his best when France employed a 4-2-3-1 this summer. Moreover, one would have thought that a defensively-focused Mourinho would be particularly interested in disrupting City’s control in the middle of the pitch, and it was just this problem that led many to expect a more disciplined player (like Morgan Schneiderlin, Michael Carrick, or even Ander Herrera) coming into the side, whether to partner Pogba, replace him, or sit at the base of a midfield three.
Instead, Mourinho left the spine of his team unchanged and made a pre-match point of noting that he hoped Guardiola would bring his fullbacks inside, as had been the case in City’s first two games this season (though not against West Ham right before the international break). These comments seemed odd given that both Lingard and Mkhitaryan were inclined to drift inside rather than to challenge the wide spaces that inverted fullbacks would have created.
Whatever his intentions, the game was pretty clearly won and lost in the middle, where Pogba and Fellaini did a very poor job of containing City, David Silva and especially Kevin De Bruyne. While Ibrahimović’s public feud with former coach Guardiola made the pre-match headlines, it was De Bruyne, spurned by Mourinho at Chelsea, who proved decisive on the day. Given their history, one wonders if Mourinho had simply underestimated the midfielder’s potential influence when preparing for the match.
Despite Ibrahimović’s lovely opportunistic goal at the end of the first half, City were clearly in charge for the opening 45′. Mourinho’s response seemed primarily focused on that imbalance in the middle of the pitch, as he brought on Ander Herrera to play behind Pogba and Fellaini in a 4-3-3, with Rooney moving out right to replace the departing Mkhitaryan. He also brought Marcus Rashford on for Lingard, and the young striker looked direct and dangerous immediately; but the bigger change was that United now looked capable of competing in the midfield with an effective high press and with De Bruyne marked by Herrera. With a more effective press in place, Bravo looked much more nervous playing out from the back and arguably should have given up a penalty for his studs up tackle on Rooney.
Guardiola was forced to respond by taking Iheanacho off for a defensive midfielder, Fernando, who played at the base of the midfield triangle, with Fernandinho pushing up and De Bruyne shifting into a false nine role up top. When John Stones would push up alongside Fernando to help distribute the ball, City resembled a W-M (or 3-2-2-3).
For the final ten minutes, Mourinho brought on Anthony Martial for Luke Shaw and pressured City back into a 4-5-1, and eventually into a 5-3-2 when Pablo Zabaleta replaced an injured De Bruyne. United might have edged the second half, but City’s clear first half domination made them deserving winners.Embed from Getty Images
In his post-match press conference, Mourinho again focused on Lingard and Mkhitaryan when explaining the loss. It is difficult to know what to make of this claim, as the situation in the center with Fellaini and Pogba seemed much more critical. Assuming for the moment that Mourinho was not simply involved in misdirection, it would be interesting to puzzle out how he intended his formation to counter-act City. Perhaps he over-prepared in anticipation of Guardiola’s inverted fullbacks, though I do not see how Lingard and Mkhitaryan’s qualities would have particularly lent themselves to this project.
Given Mourinho’s reputation as a master manipulator, one could be tempted to think this game was meant to convince others at the club of the necessity of reformulating the team without Rooney at its center; but in truth it is hard to imagine Mourinho ever willingly losing to Guardiola, whatever the potential long-term gain. One thing is for certain: he will need some new tricks if he expects to beat City at the Ethiad with Sergio Agüero back in the side.
Further Reading (from least to most geeky)
Michael Cox, Guardian.
Tom Payne, City Watch.
Miles Olusina, Outside of the Boot.
Judah Davies, Speilverlagerung.de (especially good on how City worked the ball out from the back).