April 30 has been on the minds of many for quite some time because the fixture between Manchester United and Manchester City on that day always had the potential to be a title-decider. There's been some dramatic tilts in the title-race: the 1-6 derby disaster at Old Trafford, City going 8 points ahead -- albeit with a game in hand on the occurrences when it happened, United swinging it around to build their own 8 point lead, and now the advantage for the champions has dwindled down to 3 ahead of a Manchester derby that Sir Alex Ferguson has labeled to be the biggest he's been involved in during his 25 grand years at the club. The stage is set -- squeaky bum time indeed...
This is perhaps the world's most obvious statement -- along with water is wet or that Luis Suarez is a c***hammer -- but it certainly won't be an easy task for United to earn a victory at the Etihad or to leave with a draw. That isn't a statement of fear, it's merely a realistic and humble understanding that there's a massive task at hand if we want to firmly position ourselves in the driver's seat for a 20th league title. The 'noisy neighbours' certainly wobbled and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely at their expense when Mario Balotelli unsurprisingly went... well, all Mario Balotelli on everyone -- but keep in mind, they are a formidable foe. Roberto Mancini's squad is talented and versatile and they've recently put in some impressive performances since the desperate (*) return of Carlos Tevez to City's starting lineup. The intention of this piece is to provide a breakdown of our Monday night opponents.
(*) I feel obligated to use the word 'desperate' because that's the obvious joke here and I'm simply not that creative.
City's preferred system
More often than not, Mancini likes to deploy his side in a shape that can simply be described as 4-4-2, or in an attempt to provide more detail, 4-2-2-2/4-4-1-1... ish. As many of you regular readers might be aware, I'm not too fond on labeling a team's system in a traditional formation sense, but rather, I prefer to discuss individual roles and how those players fit into a whole systematic approach. 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both sides use a typical back four, two relatively deep central-midfielders, and a forward partnership where one is withdrawn from the other.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 defenses.
Diagram 1: MB = Mario Balotelli, ED = Edin Dzeko, SA = Sergio Aguero, DS = David Silva, SN = Samir Nasri, AJ = Adam Johnson, YT = Yaya Toure, GB = Gareth Barry, NjD = Nigel de Jong, MR= Michah Richards, PZ = Pablo Zabaleta, GC = Gael Clichy, AK = Aleksandar Kolarov, VK= Vincent Kompany, KT = Kolo Toure, JL = Joleon Lescott, JH = Joe Hart
For the majority of the season, it's been Sergio Aguero deployed as a secondary striker behind either Balotelli or Edin Dzeko -- the mercurial Italian though has mostly been preferred for City's most important matches. Whereas Wayne Rooney, as a secondary striker, likes to drop deep into the space between the lines -- and even into midfield to pick up the ball -- so that he can spray a long diagonal ball out wide for a winger or provide an incisive pass in the attacking third, Aguero simply drops deep into the space between the lines in order to link play and quickly combine when City's wide attackers come inside. The Argentine's movement also tended to take him wide when these wide attackers would come inside.
With the return of Carlos Tevez to the starting lineup in recent weeks, Aguero's role has changed slightly. He still drops deep at times in order to link play -- although to a lesser extent -- but he stays higher and looks to make runs in behind the defense and receive passes that are threaded through the channels by Tevez, David Silva, or Samir Nasri. Although it's far from a perfect comparison, think about how Steven Gerrard used to supply passes through the channels for Fernando Torres at Liverpool. When Tevez is Aguero's partner, the former United attacker drops deeper into the space between the lines -- in comparison to Aguero's movement when he is deployed as a secondary striker -- and he's also able to play with his back to goal. Being able to play facing away from goal allows Tevez to combine quickly and more effectively in tight spaces and this is important when the attacking space is narrowed due to the wide attackers coming inside.
Diagram 2: I realize this diagram is busy but here's the explanation -- 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.
During the 1-6 derby nightmare in October, it was Silva and James Milner that were the key players in their roles as 'interiores' that day. Not only did they come inside and cause problems between the lines, but they also darted across to the other side in order to create overloads. The genesis of many of their goals that day resulted from these overloads. Milner and Silva often created 2 v 1 situations versus a United full-back or a 3 v 2 situation when a City full-back would get forward and a United winger tracked back. City's wide players are free to roam across the pitch as this chalkboard indicates:
This chalkboard is for Silva during a match versus Tottenham Hotspur in January. The takeaway from this is to notice how Silva received all over the pitch and then distributed as well from either flank or through the middle. He was deployed that day as the wide right-sided attacker but he obviously had a license to roam anywhere he pleased in the attacking half of the pitch.
Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry tend to be the preferred in central-midfield over Nigel de Jong and the versatile Milner. Barry holds a bit more and provides structure in his usual left-central role in the center of the park. From here, he helps keeps possession with his metronomic passing while he also provides cover for City's left-back -- usually Gael Clichy -- when that player surges forward into attack in order to provide width. Yaya is bit more adventurous as his driving runs from deep provides support to the attack. He's skillful enough to combine with City's wee attackers when he gets forward for late-arriving runs but he's also powerful enough to provide thrust against structured opponents.
As just mentioned, City's full-backs can be asked to get forward in order to provide width in attack with overlapping runs. Clichy is typically preferred to Aleksandar Kolarov at left-back but both have pace and are capable of motoring forward in order to provide crosses. The former is certainly the better defender as he specializes in cutting out passing lanes by intercepting passes. On the opposite side, the choice is between Pablo Zabaleta and Micah Richards. The Argentine is typically preferred at right-back when Mancini seeks more defensive reinforcement as his work-rate is impressive, his tackling is tough, and he's very aware tactically. Richards is a capable defender as well but he's more prone to lapses in a positional sense when he gets forward in support of the attack.
The Englishman is very strong in the air and when deployed at right-back -- he's also capable of playing center-back -- he provides an aerial outlet down the right touchline for Joe Hart when the goalkeeper is forced to punt the ball long (*). If Richards starts on Monday night, look for Hart to send the ball towards the right-back whenever United close down City's other defenders and their central-midfielders. None of Tevez, Aguero, Nasri, nor Silva are optimal aerial duel options due to the obvious reason of them being short.
(*) Even when he's not forced to send the ball long, Hart's distribution and decision-making with the ball at his feet can be dicey.
City's alternate systems
The other system used by Mancini this season on a number of occasions is a 4-2-3-1ish one. It's been deployed when City feel the need to drop an attacker slightly deeper so that they can better compete for possession. Any of Yaya, Milner, Nasri, Silva, or Tevez can be deployed as a central-attacking-midfielder in place of a secondary striker. In addition, it's used at times in an effort get Yaya more involved in the attack so that his drive can provide influence further up the pitch. This was a role that he played more of last season when Mancini preferred more structure then by having an extra man in the center of the park.
Diagram 3: MB = Mario Balotelli, ED = Edin Dzeko, SA = Sergio Aguero, CT = Carlos Tevez DS = David Silva, SN = Samir Nasri, AJ = Adam Johnson, JM = James Milner, YT = Yaya Toure, GB = Gareth Barry, NjD = Nigel de Jong, MR= Michah Richards, PZ = Pablo Zabaleta, GC = Gael Clichy, AK = Aleksandar Kolarov, VK= Vincent Kompany, KT = Kolo Toure, JL = Joleon Lescott, JH = Joe Hart
4-3-3 is seen rarely by City this season but it was used versus Arsenal in a recent match. Mancini felt the need to drop an attacker firmly into the midfield zone so that they weren't overrun by the Gunners. It failed though as Arsene Wenger's men controlled the midfield battle that day. City is unlikely to use this approach versus United but it could be deployed late in the match if City have a lead that they wish to protect. Mancini needs three points from this match so at the start, he'll likely be proactive rather than reactive.
City has a devastating attack but at times, it can become predictable when it's narrowness causes them to get bottled up against well organized defenses. If an opponent can compact the middle -- particularly in the space between the lines -- and not have defenders get dragged out of position when City reach the attacking third, then opponents are capable of frustrating Mancini's side. Barry, Yaya, de Jong, and Milner are all tidy distributors but none of them are capable enough as deep-lying playmakers to force their counterparts to come out and close them down in their relatively deep-midfield zones. These City midfielders simply don't possess the passing range to consistently spray long balls -- such as a Paul Scholes, Andrea Pirlo, or Xabi Alonso -- that penetrate a deep-defending side from their own deep zone. Thus, opponents can park the proverbial bus versus City and minimize the threat of their attack by staying compact and narrow while defending.
Dzeko and Adam Johnson do provide an alternative approach though. The latter is the most natural winger on the City squad as he tends to receive near the touchline. Johnson prefers his left-foot so he also falls into the trap of coming inside when he's deployed on the right but at least his positioning allows him to stretch the opposition by staying in wide areas while waiting to receive. Dzeko provides an aerial threat for crosses and a route one outlet in attack when City's defenders need to clear the ball. If City are chasing a goal late, they might send Richards up front in order to provide an aerial pivot in attack and the wee attackers will then look to get on the end of knockdowns.
City arguably have the Premier League's stingiest defense and they are the owners of it's best defensive record. With Nemanja Vidic injured, most would agree that Vincent Kompany is the best central-defender in England. Joleon Lescott and Kolo Toure are solid enough defenders as well. City's box is like a fortress when a side tries to break them down in normal build-up play or through the air. However, these defenders have been prone to pace at times so any side that defends deep and then finds space to break into can make City vulnerable. If de Jong is used, this typically means his central-midfielder partner is free to get forward more. However, the Dutchman has failed to break up counterattacks this season when he's been exposed in space as the lone holding player. Zabaleta is a tireless worker and intelligent with his positioning but if he's caught out, he doesn't have the blazing pace to get back either. City can be had on the break.
City are very focused on playing through the middle and looking to find a final killer through ball in attack. However, if defended properly against, they can be flustered due to their narrowness and predictability. Their lack of a deep-lying playmaker is their team's biggest weakness because they don't have a player that forces a deep-defending and counterattacking side to come out and close them down in their deep central-midfield zone. In addition, when their attacks are broken up, City is prone to being hurt on the break. This will be the reason for their undoing if they fail to win the title this season. Even if they do, their first priority in the summer transfer window should be to look for a deep-lying playmaker so that their attackers can be liberated by having more space provided for them by such a player. They could also use a more direct winger as well.