Manchester United 2-1 Manchester City: Tactical Review


Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Young; Herrera, Matic; Martial, Lingard, Rashford; Lukaku

Manchester City (4-3-3): Ederson; Walker, Kompany, Otamendi, Delph; Fernandinho, De Bruyne, Silva; Sterling, Sane, Jesus

Jose Mourinho sprung a bit of a surprise with his lineup, playing three attackers behind Lukaku, instead of the widely-expected back three. Paul Pogba began his three-game domestic suspension after his red card at Arsenal, which meant that Ander Herrera partnered Nemanja Matic in midfield. Marcos Rojo started instead of Victor Lindelof at the back, with Phil Jones back on the bench after his injury troubles.

Manchester City lined up as expected; David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne flanking Fernandinho in midfield, while the only surprises were the exclusion of Sergio Aguero and the inclusion of a fit-again Vincent Kompany.

Major tactical themes:

United too passive

This was always going to be a massive test for Mourinho and United; how do they set up to play against what might arguably be the best side in Europe this season? Mourinho’s default setting in big games is to sit deep, deny space and hit on the counter-attack; it’s what some of his greatest wins have been based on. United countered brilliantly away at Arsenal the previous weekend, but were quite open defensively. Here, United were too timid and passive, shunning the ball and any attempt to attack. Anthony Martial looked lost on the right, often ending up playing as a fullback, while Romelu Lukaku often had nobody in a red shirt anywhere near him. Herrera and Matic failed to screen the defence effectively enough, with Silva and de Bruyne easily able to play around them. United’s only tactic when they managed to get hold of the ball was to lump it long in Lukaku’s general direction. Jose Mourinho missed a trick here; City’s defensive weaknesses were there to be exposed, as Rashford’s equalizer showed all too briefly.

David Silva magnificent

The Spaniard was the best player on the pitch, constantly drifting about in order to find space. While he is rightly lauded for his work on the ball, another impressive facet of his game is his spacial awareness and his understanding of which runs to make when. Silva was a constant menace, always popping up in dangerous areas to receive the ball before playing it to a teammate, and it was fitting that he both scored City’s first goal and sent in the freekick from which Nicolas Otamendi retook the lead for the Citizens. At one point in the second half, he made a brilliant decoy run to open up space for a Kevin de Bruyne shot; at another, he played the most delightful reverse pass to Leroy Sane down the left flank. Silva even showed the spikier side of his game, getting booked for going in late on Ander Herrera, while late in the game he could be seen pointing and directing Sterling and Sane, like a conductor in front of his orchestra. United had simply no answer to the Spanish maestro.

Mourinho’s gamble does not pay off

There was a ripple of excitement when the teams were announced, as most people did not expect Mourinho to start four attackers against City. Yet that is what he did, Martial, Lingard and Rashford starting behind Lukaku. However, simply having more attacking players on the pitch does not equate to attacking football. United’s wingers were, either by design or under duress, effectively playing as fullbacks, at least in the first half an hour of the game. Lukaku was isolated, while there was not enough pressure in midfield to allow United to win the ball back. Mourinho’s hand may have been forced through Pogba’s suspension and Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick’s unavailability through injury; nevertheless, this felt like the wrong game to play with that lineup. United were crying out for an extra central midfielder, as they rarely managed to string two passes together before booting it towards Lukaku. The striker had a nightmare as well, culpable for both of City’s goals and shooting straight at Ederson’s face late on, when anywhere else would’ve got United their second equalizer on the night. However, Mourinho’s tactics did little to help the Belgian, and this defeat has surely put the title in City’s hands.