Editor's note: This was originally published prior to December's derby. Most of this, though, is still applicable for Monday's derby. Ignore the opening paragraphs and focus on the description of City's various systems -- 4-2-2-2, a direct 4-2-3-1, and 3-4-1-2 -- and on their set-piece tactics.
During this same fixture last season in late April, Manchester United entered the derby at the Etihad with a three point lead in the title race over Manchester City. The 'noisy neighbours', though, held the advantage in goal differential. The situation is the same ahead of Sunday's clash but the circumstances are obviously quite different this time around. We're all painfully aware of what happened in April and also on last season's final day. No result on Sunday will be that decisive since there will still be nearly six months left in the current Premier League campaign.
This upcoming derby, though, is still massive as these are clearly the two best sides in England*. These two clubs finished level on points last season so technically, a better goal differential is what won City the title. However, had United been able to simply get a result in either of the two league encounters, they would have won their 20th top-flight league title. In both matches, the Red Devils were outclassed. Can they rectify that this season?
It may be difficult for some United fans to admit this, but if they were to take off their red-tinted glasses and sip on some truth serum, most would likely admit that City have the slightly better squad (this doesn't make City the better team though). Roberto Mancini has an incredible collection of talented footballers and despite him winning the FA Cup and then the Premier League the past two seasons for a previously trophy-starved club, he has not found the cohesion to propel City to the heights many feel he should have by now. Will Sir Alex Ferguson be able to get his tactics right for the derby in order to earn a result? Here's a scouting report on City and what the legendary United manager is up against.
City's most typical system: 4-2-2-2
The system Mancini uses most often is what some would describe as a 4-2-2-2 -- although others will describe it simply as a 4-4-2 or as a 4-2-3-1. Describing the exact formation, though, is less important than discussing the individual roles. Ahead of last April's derby, here's a description I gave of this system:
"City's preferred shape actually resembles United's in that both sides use a typical back four, two relatively deep central-midfielders, and a forward partnership where one is withdrawn from the other. Where it differs, though, is that United tend to prefer traditional wingers that receive near the touchline in order to stretch the attacking space -- whether that be through a winger that gets to the byline in order to send in crosses or one that prefers to cut inside onto his stronger foot near the box -- while City tend to have their wide players come inside for combination play so that an eventual through ball can slice open the opposition's defense."
That description still holds. Up front, either Sergio Aguero or Edin Dzeko are typically deployed as the lead striker. In this role, the former plays on the shoulder of the last defender as he tries to get in behind the defense while the latter acts more as a target-man and as a reference point. Mario Balotelli has been out of favor as of late but he can offer strength, drive, and technical ability in this role. The withdrawn role is typically left to Aguero or Carlos Tevez. Both Argentines drop into the space between the opposition's defensive and midfield lines in order to link play and to play quick combinations with the midfielders. Aguero will also drift laterally as well -- more often to the left -- while Tevez is extremely good in tight spaces and is able to act as a wall with his back to goal for devastating 'one-two' passes.
The wide players -- David Silva and Samir Nasri are usually first-choice -- tend to play as interiores. Both float freely from nominal wide positions in search of pockets of space between the lines. This allows them to create overloads in midfield and if they drift to the opposite side of the pitch, they can create 2 v 1 or 3 v 2 advantages on that flank -- the overloads on the flanks is something City did to devastating effect during the 1-6 nightmare last season at Old Trafford. Width is often provided by marauding full-backs as they're encouraged to get forward and join the attack.
Overall for the front four, they tend to work the space between the lines before attempting to thread through balls (see Diagram 2 below). Last weekend, Everton defended deep, narrow, and in a compact shape. This effectively allowed them to force City wide and pumping in crosses for wee-sized attackers -- with the exception of Dzeko -- is not an optimal strategy. Mancini's men average 24 crosses per game in league but against Everton, they attempted 32 of them and the Toffees had little trouble clearing them. City's attack has the tendency to be predictable as they often run out of effective ideas against sides that are organized in their shape.
Diagram 2: The box is the space between the lines where City's attackers tend to gravitate towards, the solid arrows indicate player movement, the dotted arrows indicate the through balls that are attempted from this space between the lines.
In midfield, either Gareth Barry or Javi Garcia sit deep while providing a calm presence with tidy distribution and sound positioning. The powerful and mobile Yaya Toure ventures forward in order to provide drive and thrust in attack with his late-arriving runs into the box.
City's direct 4-2-3-1
An alternative system for City, one that they often switched to late in games last season when they were chasing a goal, is a more direct 4-2-3-1 -- this was usually defined by Toure being pushed higher up the pitch in behind a lead striker. One might reason that bringing on a central-midfielder (such as a Barry/Garcia/Jack Rodwell/James Milner type) for an attacker is counterintuitive when City need a goal. The idea, though, is to replace Toure's deeper central-midfield role with a like-for-like replacement (the player coming on as a substitute) while the Ivorian provides a more a more direct and powerful presence higher up the pitch in place of another attacker (the player that was substituted off). Toure can complement the tricky and technical attackers that usually feature for City or he can be joined by a direct winger like Scott Sinclair. The former Swansea City man used to do well taking on his marker for the Welsh side but he hasn't done this as successfully for City.
Diagram 3: This is what City's shape might look like if Toure is pushed higher up the pitch and if Sinclair is brought on in this direct 4-2-3-1.
City's new back three system: 3-4-1-2
Mancini deployed his side in a back three during the Community Shield and it was generally effective versus a a ten-man Chelsea side. Since then though, City have been mostly poor in this 3-4-1-2 shape and it's alarming how often Mancini has used it when one considers how they've become worse in both attack and defense in this system. Perhaps the genesis of this idea came from the FA Cup clash between United and City last season. After Vincent Kompany was sent off in the first-half, Mancini instructed his ten-man side at half-time to play in a 3-4-1-1 shape. They impressively stormed back from a 0-3 deficit to a narrow 2-3 defeat.
Diagram 4: This is the typical 3-4-1-2 shape City use when Mancini goes with a back three.
Kompany usually anchors the back three as the central-defender while the likes of Matija Nastasic, Joleon Lescott, Pablo Zabaleta, or Gael Clichy usually are deployed as the outside-center-backs (Micah Richards apparently hates this back three system and Roberto Mancini apparently hates Micah Richards). The wing-backs are usually any two of Maicon, Pablo Zabaleta, James Milner,and Aleksandar Kolarov. Either David Silva or Samir Nasri is the playmaker behind the strikers, although the former is likely out for this derby.
Like most systems, 3-4-1-2 can be a fine one but there are both pros and cons to it. In fact, it's typically very effective against a shape that's very familiar in Britian -- the 4-4-2. What's necessary, though, to make any system effective is an understanding, cohesion, and the right personnel. City arguably have the players for this back three system but they clearly are disjointed when deployed in this shape.
City often look vulnerable defensively because the gaps between the back three are often too large when the wing-backs don't consistently track back when necessary. In midfield, the passing is often too slow and Toure sometimes gets too passive in charging forward. Silva and Nasri both are used to drifting inside from wide positions so maybe this is why both have been mostly ineffective in a central-playmaking role. Unfamiliarity may be City's undoing in this system. I'd be quite surprised if Mancini started with a back three but he could switch his side into this shape later in Sunday's match.
Set-pieces are worth a mention (albeit, a brief one here) because both City and United are vulnerable to conceding from them. Both sides also score a lot of goals from them as United lead the league thus far this season in scoring from set-piece goals while City are second -- the champions led the league last season. City, just as United generally do, use a hybrid marking system on corners as certain zones are guarded in the box while key opposition targets are man-marked by City's two center-backs, Toure, and Dzeko when he's on the pitch. Be sure to read this fantastic zonal marking analysis by Lankeyguy blog.
Mancini offers this explanation on why he uses zonal-marking:
"We are not strong enough to mark man-to-man, and every time we do there is a risk of conceding a penalty. If we work, we can improve the system. We have let in goals because of it, but we can change that. We are working on it, but we need to work more."
What the Italian is implying is that because City have so many short players on the pitch (i.e. Silva, Tevez, Aguero, Nasri, etc.), he doesn't have enough players to adequately man-mark. Against Everton last weekend, this is probably one reason why he started Dzeko. Does Mancini feel United are enough of a threat on set-pieces to start the Bosnian over one of the more talented Aguero or Tevez? Keep in mind that United were terrible in defending set-pieces last weekend at Reading so Dzeko provides the added benefit of being a goal-scoring threat from them alongside Kompany, Nastasic, and Toure.