Opening Lineups and Formations
Manchester United defended deep and played in a 4-2-3-1ish shape during the 1st half. Anders Lindegaard was once again picked ahead of David de Gea as the goalkeeper while Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling paired at center-back. Phil Jones was deployed at right-back while Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back. In front of the defense sat Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs as a central-midfield duo and it was Wayne Rooney ahead of them as a central-attacking midfielder. Nani was deployed on the left side in attack and Antonio Valencia was on the right. Danny Welbeck was the striker up front.
Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini fielded his side in a 4-3-3 shape, or perhaps more specifically, a 4-1-2-3 shape. Joe Hart was apparently rested and it was Costel Pantilimon that was between the posts at the Etihad Stadium. Captain Vincent Kompany was at center-back and he was partnered by Joleon Lescott. It was Aleksandar Kolarov selected at left-back over Gael Clichy and it was Micah Richards preferred at right-back over Pablo Zabaleta. Nigel de Jong shielded the defense as a holding-midfielder while both James Milner and Samir Nasri played ahead of him in central-midfield. David Silva was the wide left player in attack and opposite of him on the right was Adam Johnson. Sergio Aguero was the lone striker up front.
The opening 12 minutes of the match
During the 1-6 derby disaster, United left themselves too open in the space between their back four and their central-midfielders. As a result, Silva and Milner ended up being the key players in that match as 'interiores' by continually drifting into the space between the lines and wreaking havoc. It was quite clear from the start of this match that manager Sir Alex Ferguson had instructed his side to defend deep and keep it compact between the lines. United's back four were not necessarily defending much deeper than usual but the midfielders were sitting deeper and they weren't closing down their counterparts until City reached the attacking third of the pitch. This meant that United were fine with conceding possession and were looking to hit City on the counter -- a tactic that has worked well against Mancini's side this season (e.g. Napoli, Bayern Munich, Sunderland).
City controlled possession in the opening stages of the match but despite this, United looked fairly comfortable and well-organized in defense. As soon as United lost possession, they quickly compacted the lines and Rooney worked hard to get goalside of de Jong -- it was a common sight to see him level with Carrick and Giggs in terms of positioning and thus, he often gave United a band of 5 in midfield when they were defending. In a few instances when City were patiently swinging the ball around while looking for an opening in attack, Welbeck could even be seen getting goalside of City's deep-lying midfielder.
United's first penetrative opportunity came during the 10th minute of play and it was Rooney that had slipped de Jong and got behind him in the space between the lines. Giggs did well to find him and play him the ball in that space and from here, Rooney swung the ball out wide for Valencia -- the result being Valencia's cross that found Rooney for his brilliant header for United's opening goal. United were defending deep and looking to counterattack -- Rooney's work-rate and genius in attack allowed him to be the key player of the first half in regards to both.
City's lack of a deep-lying playmaker hurt them from the start of the match and the player patrolling that space -- de Jong -- was poor in his defensive responsibilities as well. If City had a player effectively spraying balls around from deep, this would have forced United's midfielders to come out higher in an effort to close down this player. Thus, this could have opened up space for City's attackers higher up the pitch. This is the sole reason why United should be hoping that City does not land Daniele De Rossi during the current transfer window.
City reduced to 10-men after Kompany is sent off
Moments after Rooney's opening goal, City captain Kompany was controversially sent-off for leaving the ground with both feet up on a challenge versus Nani -- despite no contact occurring, that is the letter of the law. The result of this was City being reduced to 10-men: Richards slid inside to center-back alongside Lescott while Milner moved from central-midfield to a right-back role -- the hosts now had one less man than before in the center of the park. Perhaps in an effort to compensate for this, Silva began to come inside more in search of the ball and in the instances when Jones was dragged inside, Kolarov provided width by getting forward down the left touchline.
Despite their '11 v 10' advantage, United still went a cautious approach: they continued to defend deep, they kept it compact between the lines, and they patiently swung the ball from side-to-side when they gathered possession. This approach paid off as United began to gain control of the match. They were preventing City from creating chances and they began to enjoy more of the ball for the last half-hour of the 1st half.
United's 2nd and 3rd goals highlighted the vulnerabilities that City had with only 10-men. On the build-up to the 2nd goal, Rooney was deep again and in combination with Giggs and Carrick, he provided United a '3 v 2' advantage in the center of the pitch. The trio simply passed around their counterpart duo before swinging the ball out wide to an open Nani. When the winger came inside, Evra overlapped and played in the ball that eventually led to Welbeck's sublime finish. On United's third goal, de Jong was tracking Rooney while Milner was in the vicinity of Carrick -- the result was a free Giggs intelligently slipping into open space forward and when he was closed down by a defender, he played the ball off for Welbeck before the striker was taken down in the box by Kolarov.
United did very well to keep it tight in the back, patiently build an attack, and finally look for opportunities to overload City in dangerous areas in attack. It was a perfectly executed 1st half and despite their fortune of having City go down a man, Fergie's side did well to take advantage of their opportunity. Fergie's humble tactics was a brilliant response to the derby nightmare from 3 months prior and to City's biggest weakness in their squad -- the lack of a deep-lying playmaker to break down deep-defending sides. United were fully deserved of a multiple goal lead.
Mancini's half-time changes
When Pablo Zabaleta and Stefan Savic were introduced as substitutes for Silva and Johnson at half-time, it was reasonable to assume that Mancini was trying to limit the damage and prevent his own 6-1 nightmare. However, Mancini's substitutions were tactical and the functional changes that he made allowed his side to compete much better. The introduction of Savic -- a natural center-back -- allowed Mancini to switch to a back three while both Kolarov and Zabaleta provided industry and width as wing-backs. Elsewhere on the pitch, Milner provided more than Nasri as a partner to de Jong in a central-midfield duo while Nasri himself provided a link further up the pitch from midfield to Aguero up front. The resulting shape was a 3-4-1-1.
It's possible that United smelled blood -- perhaps seeing attackers Silva and Johnson come off created a belief -- as they appeared intent on vengeance for their 6-1 defeat. Rooney began to play higher up the pitch but because Kolarov and Zabaleta did well to restrain United's wide attackers, the visitor's shape resembled more a 4-4-2 than their 1st half 4-2-3-1. This played into the hands of Mancini's tactics.
What resulted was that United lost their numerical advantage in the center of the pitch -- this coincided with City beginning to control possession in the 2nd half's opening stages. What also occurred from Rooney playing higher up the pitch was that City had a perfect '3 v 2' defending scenario in the back -- the fundamental wish by most managers to have a spare man in the back. Lescott started as the central defender but after about 5 minutes, Savic moved centrally while Lescott slid over to play as the left-sided central defender. Both Richards and Lescott were intelligent when choosing to break forward. In the instances that Rooney did drop deep, one of the outside center-backs did well to get forward as this still resulted in City having a '2 v 1' scenario in the back. City's first goal was a result of Richards marauding forward and earning a free-kick just outside the box -- a free-kick which Koralov superbly finished.
2nd half adjusments -- Scholes comes on to play 'keep-ball'
The introduction of Paul Scholes during the 59th minute perhaps hints at the role the legend will play this season -- coming on late in order to help his side kill off matches by helping keep possession. In this linked piece discussing what Scholes' role might be this season, I highlighted the following about the maestro:
"While Scholes did give the ball away in the lead-up to City's second goal, it was one of only two misplaced passes during his 73 pass attempts. As Opta's Twitter personality Opta Joe pointed out after the match, Scholes incredibly completed 71 passes at a 97% completion rate during the 33 minutes he was on the pitch -- this was more passes completed than any City player. 48 of those passes were played forward so it wasn't as if he was simply playing square passes."
With Nani coming off, Giggs moved out wide to the left while Scholes sat deeper than where the Welshman previously positioned himself in central-midfield. Rooney was instructed to drop deeper while Scholes and Carrick formed a 'double-pivot' in United's restructured and possession-based 4-2-3-1. While Mancini's half-time changes were astute and inspired his side to their deserving two goals, Fergie made a nice adjustment to this by having Scholes come on to restore command in the midfield zone. During the match, Carrick impressively completed 105 passes at a 96.2% success rate. Passing statistics can certainly be misused, but the statistics in regards to Scholes and Carrick in this particular instance hints strongly to their success at completing their tactical mission of playing 'keep-ball' for the final half-hour of the match. This perhaps was the most reason for United being able to kill off the match.
Each manager made one more substitution. Mancini brought on the (formerly?) ball-winning Owen Hargreaves for an ineffective Nasri as this perhaps was an adjustment to City having difficulties winning the ball back after Scholes came on. Fergie brought on Anderson and this resulted in Rooney moving higher up the pitch as his side's lone striker. Ando alongside Carrick and Scholes provided fresh legs and a player less likely to drift forward as Rooney did in the early stages of the 2nd half. Towards the end when City were desperate for an equaliser and were resorting to hoofing the ball forward as time was running out, Richards moved forward to provide an aerial target. The equaliser wasn't to be.
It was a very interesting match tactically and it quite obviously was a fascinating one that provided storylines in so many other ways. Fergie adjusted well to the 6-1 defeat by having his side defend deep with discipline and this likely will provide a tactical template to use when United visit the Etihad again in late April -- a match that could potentially decide the league title. It would be interesting to see how this would work 11 v 11 over a full 90 minutes. Rooney was the key man in this match as his industry was hugely important in combating the midfield zone while his intelligence to continually slip de Jong and link the midfield to attack was vital. Mancini's astute adjustment to use a back three in the 2nd half was helped by Rooney drifting forward for a brief 20 minute stretch or so -- during this time, City were able to pull two goals back. But the return of Scholes was not a ceremonial one, but a vital one that helped his kill off the match by playing keep-ball. A tremendous match and scoreline that feels deserving.