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Premier League 2018/19: Manchester City vs Manchester United

This weekend sees the two Manchester clubs face off in another derby. Manchester City have created a mini-gap at the top of the table ahead of Liverpool and Chelsea and go into the derby looking the strongest. But United have quietly found some form with three wins in the last four. That would have been four wins had it not been for that ridiculously late Ross Barkley goal at Stamford Bridge. This tactical analysis will look at what we could see tactically from the two sides on Sunday.

If, having read this analysis, you feel confident you can predict the outcome of the match head over to FootballPredictions.com and have a go at their Premier League predictions game.

Guardiola vs Mourinho – their Manchester Derby records

Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have met in five Manchester derbies so far and have identical records. Both men took charge of their respective clubs in the summer of 2016 and that first 2016/17 season saw three derbies take place. City won the first one, at Old Trafford, with Kelechi Iheanacho (yes, really) and Kevin De Bruyne scoring for the Blues while Zlatan Ibrahimovic got one back for United. United got their revenge from that 2-1 loss by beating City in the League Cup a few weeks later when Juan Mata got the winner. The return leg in the league, at the Etihad, ended goalless.

Last season, City once again won at Old Trafford with the scoreline again 2-1. This time David Silva and Nicolas Otamendi got the goals either side of a Marcus Rashford strike. City looked on course for a league double when they were 2-0 up against United at the Etihad in April but United produced a stunning second-half comeback and won 3-2 due to Paul Pogba’s brace and Chris Smalling’s winner. The five clashes sees both coaches have two wins, one draw and two losses with the identical goal difference of 6-6. Something’s got to give on Sunday.

United –  have they found their way?

After Mourinho were supposedly near the sack during the game against Newcastle in early October with United 2-0 down at Old Trafford, United have found their feet and produced some decent performances and, more importantly, results lately. The 3-2 win against the Toon was followed by a spirited comeback at Chelsea where a win was snatched away in the last second. The European clash with Juve saw United handed a footballing lesson but the response has been good with wins against Everton (2-1) and Bournemouth (2-1). The manner of the performance at Bournemouth at the weekend was really impressive in the second half after a terrible first period.

Intriguingly, with Romelu Lukaku failing to score for months, the Belgian’s injury has forced Mourinho into selecting a more mobile an energetic attack. Against Everton he started with Rashford and Alexis Sanchez got the nod at Bournemouth. Sanchez impressed at times and gave United a lot more movement and clever runs than Lukaku ever does. Then Rashford came on and scored the stoppage-time winner to probably boost his confidence massively.

That second half performance saw United line up in a 4-3-3 but the deployment of the players made United really good going forward. Ander Herrera had a really good game after coming on while his inclusion allowed Paul Pogba to move further forward and really influence the game from that left-sided half-space where he thrives. Herrera’s energy and aggressiveness gave United a real edge (though Fred had a good game too) and made up for the labouring Matic’ motionless performance. With Sanchez through the middle, Rashford on the right and Anthony Martial on the left United had real pace in their attack while all three are capable of fulfilling each other’s positions and therefore had some positional fluidity about the attack as well.

One area where United also did well was abandoning their ineffective attempts at building attacks from their defenders. In the second half in particular, David De Gea would almost always send the ball long. With Luke Shaw Smalling and Victor Lindelöf among the back-four there’s no reason to try and pass your way out of defense. Instead De Gea would go long towards Sanchez, who most often lost in the air, with Pogba, Fred/Herrera and Matic gearing up to win the second ball. With the midfield-three’s physicality they often did and United could then attack in the opposition half where they have been really good lately. An example of the setup can be seen below.

Manchester United Manchester City Tactical Analysis

The below image highlights the setup United will use on Sunday. They will defend in a 4-1-4-1 with the midfield three often very compact. The only change on Sunday will likely be the position of Martial on the left of midfield. Against Bournemouth, he often stayed inside and left the wing to Shaw to defend. Mourinho will probably force the Frenchman deeper against Kyle Walker. This will make United more defensively solid but less of a danger on the break.

Manchester United Manchester City Tactical Analysis

The below image shows you what a more narrow positioning of Martial could give United on Sunday. As Pogba has just received the ball, Martial sets off on the left. Look at the advantage his starting position gives him over Bournemouth’s right-back Simon Francis. Not only is Martial quicker, he also starts five meters further forward. This makes United really dangerous on the break as Martial can instantly combine with Sanchez or Pogba on the break. With City likely to double up in wide areas with both the winger and the full-back, Martial are likely to defend as a left-back in a United shape that will more resemble a 6-3-1 and negate any counter-attacking threat they wish to pose. Mourinho should really consider using Martial more narrow as it was one of the reasons behind their improved performance on Saturday.

Manchester United Manchester City Tactical Analysis

City – all out attack and the best defence in Europe

Manchester City have blown teams away this season. Only PSG (41) have scored more league goals in Europe’s top five leagues than City’s 33 this season. They seem well on course to break the 100-goal barrier again. What impresses most this term, however, is their defensive record. Guardiola’s men have only conceded four league goals so far which gives them the best defensive record in Europe.

In terms of tactics, you can never be sure what Guardiola has up his sleeve. He constantly finds little solutions that others wouldn’t even dream of. He’s mainly used a more classic 4-3-3 this season were his full-backs play wider and the wingers are more likely to cut inside. Hence the use of Riyad Mahrez over Leroy Sane. This has meant City mostly use their two central defenders and the defensive midfielder Fernandinho when trying to build out from the back. This is probably in relation to most teams only using one striker against City since Guardiola believes he should always field one defender more than the opponent has strikers when trying to play their way forward. The below image shows how City have mostly set up this term.

Manchester United Manchester City Tactical Analysis

Another key reason for this approach is the use of Benjamin Mendy at left-back. The former Monaco player can go up and down the wing for 90 minutes and is an excellent crosser which is why Guardiola wants him to attack on repeat. With Walker on the opposite side, City have two of the most attacking full-backs in the league. Their pace allows City to stretch teams horizontally to open up vertical passes through the centre. Last season saw Fabian Delph play left-back and he often moved into midfield with Walker staying in the half-space with Raheem Sterling wide on the right and Sane wide on the left.

After losing the last derby at the Etihad, Guardiola will be looking to get his revenge. Expect City to go all out attack and to press United high to prevent them from even getting close to City’s penalty area.

How can United beat City?

We can expect to see City line up in a 4-3-3. How they interpret that shape is up for debate though as we saw in the last derby. Mourinho has opted to let his three midfielders man-mark City’s three in the last two derbies. At Old Trafford Mourinho kept his team deep in a 6-3-1 while at the Etihad he tried to press higher. Guardiola had anticipated that though, and used Bernardo Silva as an extra midfielder who kept dropping off the front as a false nine. This gave City a 4 vs 3 advantage in midfield which helped to dominate the game.

We can see this in the image below. United’s midfield trio man-mark City’s midfielders. Bernardo Silva finds space behind United’s midfield line.

Manchester United Manchester City Tactical Analysis

The use of Bernardo Silva in this role meant United were forced react. They did by Matic dropping deeper to pick up Bernardo. This meant Fernandinho became the free man at the base of City’s midfield. The Brazilian could then dictate the game from there and United struggled as City raced into a 2-0 lead.

Manchester United Manchester City Tactical Analysis

With De Bruyne and Gundogan out injured Guardiola’s midfield options are limited. This means we’ll likely see a midfield three of Fernandinho at the base behind Bernardo Silva and David Silva. Sergio Aguero will start up front. This means Guardiola won’t use the same approach to dominating possession as he did last year although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Aguero play a more dropping role to give City that numerical advantage in midfield. How can United combat City’s midfield dominance? Roberto Martinez’s Everton from 2013/14 offer an interesting solution.

To combat Arsenal’s possession play Martinez opted to defend in a 4-5-1 where he instructed his furthest player, Steven Naismith, to man-mark Arsenal’s defensive midfielder Mikel Arteta. The midfield three formed a tight unit behind Naismith to congest the centre while Martinez instructed his two wingers, one of them Romelu Lukaku, to be ready to spring counter-attacks. This worked in devastating fashion as Everton won 3-0. What they did was force Arsenal’s central defenders to direct the game rather than Arteta which really hampered Arsenal.

Manchester United Manchester City Tactical Analysis

A similar approach from Untied would be intriguing. They could use Sanchez in the Naismith role to prevent Fernandinho to control the game. Herrera, Matic and Pogba would then protect the back-four without having to worry to much about City’s midfielders. They would force John Stones and Aymeric Laporte to direct the game and they could use Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial as split strikers ready to spring counter-attacks. That could be a devastating way to hurt City on the break. Stones and Laporte are both excellent on the ball but without options to play and with Sanchez pressing while covering Fernandinho they could be forced into mistakes.

Another area United should target is the space behind Mendy. He’s fantastic going forward but as Tottenham showed on Monday, he has limitations defensively. Let’s look at the two situations below. In the first one he’s late in his press and Kieran Trippier plays an easy pass past him into Moussa Sissoko who can attack into the space vacated by Mendy.

Manchester United Manchester City Tactical Analysis

This image highlights some poor decision making from Mendy. Sissoko is making a run in-behind City’s defense and as Trippier is about to play the pass Mendy decides to stop and not continue with the run. Instead he tries to block the pass, misses it and Sissoko can run into the penalty area with the ball.

Manchester United Manchester City Tactical Analysis

If United target the space behind Mendy with runs from Rashford in particular then United will surely get at least one or two chances from that side. That could be the difference in a game of great importance to both sides.


City are big favourites going into this derby with only four goals conceded in the Premier League this season while scoring 33. If United dare a little though, and not settle for a 6-3-1 which will give City too much space in midfield to pass the ball around then United could cause them problems. There are some weaknesses in this City team and United have the players to expose them. Will Mourinho dare to go for it?