At the beginning of last season, I wrote an analysis of the first Guardiola-Mourinho Manchester derby, a game that now seems remarkably distant, a relic of a bygone era. The only real point of connection between that game and this one was Claudio Bravo’s uncalled high tackle on Wayne Rooney in the box, a foul mirrored by Ashley Young’s late tackle on Sergio Agüero.Embed from Getty Images
Despite playing with a reduced side in anticipation of their Champions League return leg against Liverpool on Tuesday, City absolutely dominated the first half, dismantling Mourinho’s game plan. United set out to press City in the manner of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, with Ander Herrera tasked (as he has so often been under Mourinho) with man-marking City’s most notable play-maker, in this case David Silva. But Silva simply drifted wide, and fairly quickly Herrera opted to protect the center of the pitch instead. Guardiola set out a 4-3-3 with a false nine, starting Bernardo Silva in this role before switching to the more expected Raheem Sterling after 21′. It was around the same time that United gave up on their original gameplan and dropped from a high-pressing 4-3-3 into a deep-lying 4-5-1. City’s goals and Sterling’s wasted chances followed those changes in a half where United did not even register a shot, let alone a shot on goal (City, by comparison, had 9 shots, 5 on target).
Post-match analysis has focused on how different a team United was in the second half, but I wonder how much of that perceived difference was influenced retroactively by the significance of the result. Mourinho’s one clear instruction was for United to return to their initial high pressing, and this certainly led to an impressive opening 5′. But even in this particularly bright spell, City was able to sweep forward majestically, Ilkay Gündoğan’s 50′ chipped shot beating David de Gea but hitting the top of the right post.Embed from Getty Images
The other clear difference was Paul Pogba, whose positioning was clearly higher in the second half (many commentators also emphasized his willingness to make runs into the box, but how much that happened outside of the critical 90 seconds from 53′ to 55′ is unclear). It would be hard to overstate his impact on the second half, however. He was also an important disruptor once City had regained control late in the game, getting in a fight with Fernandinho over a nasty tackle on Jesse Lingard and then scything down Niclolás Otamendi in a controlled (and tactically effective) retaliation.
Guardiola brought on Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne immediately after United’s third goal and Sergio Agüero not long after, switching his side to a 4-4-2 with much time left. There is no doubt that Agüero deserved a penalty for Young’s violent over-the-ball tackle, which in all likelihood should have produced a red card as well. It is this genuinely dangerous play (and others like it) that should elicit the self-righteous diatribes generally reserved for diving.
Deserving of some comment, even in defeat, is Fernandinho’s impressive midfield display. In De Bruyne’s absence, it was Fernandinho who became City’s most impressive play-maker despite his deep-lying role. His passes in the attacking third were stunningly accurate given their average length. Danny Murphy was right to devote his Match of the Day analysis segment to the Brazilian midfielder.
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