Tales from the Touchline: United need to stop Fernandinho, while targeting Otamendi

This Saturday sees the Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium, with a coronation of Manchester City awaiting if they manage to beat Manchester United. Jose Mourinho’s record against Pep Guardiola is poor, with only four wins from twenty meetings, and while Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool may have (again) shown the world how to get at and beat this City side, Mourinho is unlikely to follow that template, with United expected to sit deep and attempt to frustrate the home side. That said, there a few things that United must do in order to stop the City juggernaut, otherwise Saturday will see City crowned champions in front of United, an outcome every one of United’s fans will want to avoid.

Hound Fernandinho

This was a tactic that worked superbly for Liverpool as well during midweek, and United must try to replicate at least some part of it. The Brazilian is the conduit through which City’s attacks flow; he is regularly the one to receive the ball from the defence, and then to start a potential attack by making an astute pass to his fellow midfielders or out to the flanks. Against Liverpool, however, especially in the first half, Fernandinho was panicked, misplacing a number of passes, while also being dispossessed. Liverpool’s midfield and attack worked extremely hard to shut him down, while also cutting off his passing options, and while Romelu Lukaku will not drop deep to pressure him as much as Roberto Firmino was, one can see Jesse Lingard in the #10 role hassling and harrying the Brazilian. He will have to be backed up by his fellow midfielders in shutting down passing lanes to Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, or else it would be too easy for them to break down United’s press.

Pack midfield

Pep Guardiola has to always have superiority in midfield; it is fundamental to his style of play, and he has often altered his team based on how many midfielders the opposition is playing, always trying to have one more. While United do not need to attempt to play four or five central midfielders, they should try and make it difficult for anything to flow through the centre of the park. Admittedly, this is something Mourinho is well versed at, with a compact midfield the basis of his tactics. But the Portuguese needs to get his selection correct; I would advocate for a diamond formation, with Matic in front of the defence, Pogba and McTominay as the shuttlers, and Lingard at the tip. This provides enough bodies to cope with City’s midfielders, while also having the players in Pogba and Lingard who can spring forward quickly on the counter-attack. Winning the midfield battle, or at least competing in that space, is key to stopping any Pep Guardiola side, and United must attempt to achieve this if they are to win tomorrow.

Use the flanks

City’s fullbacks are generally well advanced up the field, especially on the right with Kyle Walker. This leaves a lot of space behind which can be used to “get” at them on the counter, although this also depends on the identity of their left-sided fullback. While United’s fullbacks need to concentrate on shutting down the threat of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, they could profit by counter-attacking through quick balls out to their wide men, who would have space to run at City’s central defenders. The midfield configuration I proposed does not leave space for wide players; however, Romelu Lukaku is adept at drifting out to the right wing before storming infield, while Alexis Sanchez could perform the same role as a wide forward on the left. Alternatively, Sanchez could play at the tip of the diamond, where his natural style of play would allow for Fernandinho to be harried, with one of Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial taking over on the left. This is one potential weakness defensively, as Lukaku would theoretically be able to physically dominate whoever played as the left-sided fullback, while the pace of the player on the opposite flank would be ideal to surge into the gaps left by Walker.

Target Otamendi

The Argentinian looked to have tentatively regained some form and composure as the season progressed, looking confident on the ball and imperious in the challenge. However, Anfield saw him revert to his early-season form, mistiming tackles and making the wrong decision almost every time, and United need to target him if selected. Otamendi is not comfortable against pace, and as he would probably start on the left-hand side of his defence, Lukaku’s role will be vital, both in running at him as well as looking to dominate aerially against him. He is also prone to giving the ball away, which necessitates a targeted press, ensuring that the other City defenders are shut down, while covering Otamendi’s passing lanes. Otamendi is prone to wobbling when put under pressure, and United’s players must make sure they do everything they can to pressurize him, as it is likely to induce a game-changing error.

In conclusion, United need to be brave with their tactics and team selection. While Jose Mourinho will never go out all guns blazing in a tie of this magnitude, especially away from home, some amount of ambition is necessary to cause discomfort to City. They possess far too much creativity and quality to be repelled with a simple defensive approach, and a little ingenuity in terms of tactical decision-making could go a long way in providing a result on Saturday.