OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS
Manchester United played in a 4-4-2 sort of shape. David De Gea was in goal as the No 1 while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were selected as the center-back tandem -- captain Nemanja Vidic was not selected for the starting XI nor the bench. Patrice Evra was at left-back with the captain's armband and Chris Smalling was the right-back. Anderson and Darren Fletcher were the duo in the center and they were flanked by Nani on the right and Ashley Young on the left. Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were the strikers.
Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini played his side in a similar shape -- although it may be better described as a 4-2-2-2. No 1 Joe Hart was in goal while captain Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott were the center-back pairing. At left-back, Gael Clichy was selected over Aleksandar Kolarov while Micah Richards was chosen at right-back over Pablo Zabaleta. In central-midfield, Nigel De Jong was a late scratch from the starting XI and it was Yaya Toure who replaced him to line up alongside Gareth Barry. David Silva was the wide player on the left while James Milner was the wide player on the right -- both drifted inward rather than act as wingers. Mario Balotelli and Sergio Aguero were the duo up front.
City's 'interiores' were the key players
While it was City's strikers -- Balotelli, Aguero, and Edin Dzeko -- that combined for five goals, it was their 'interiores' -- Silva and Milner -- that were the key players in the match. When City were in possession, each freely roamed from their wide positions and it was inside where they flooded the middle and linked play. Both often found space between the lines -- from here they did well to operate in tight spaces and provide incisive passes. Silva provided an extraordinary 6 key passes (defense-splitting passes) while Milner provided 4.
Another added benefit from this was that it often dragged a defender into that space because United had no true holding player occupying that area. Early on, United's central-midfielders did decently well in keeping things compact between themselves and the back four. However, as soon as they went down a goal and began to chase the game more, this space began to increasingly open up. On City's 3rd goal (when United were down 2 goals), Milner roamed into this space between the lines and dragged Ferdinand (left-center-back at the time) out too high. Balotelli did well to drag his marker (Evra at left-back) inward with a diagonal run. Balotelli received from Toure and quickly laid the ball off for Milner in this space while continuing his run towards goal. Silva was also in this area and Richards was surging forward with an overlapping run -- the latter exploited the open space that Balotelli created on the right and crossed in for an assist on Aguero's goal. The genesis of this all was Milner drifting into a central position between the lines -- where United had no natural foil -- and forcing Ferdinand out too high. Here is a chalkboard of the goal sequence:
That third goal also exhibited the other added benefit of the interiores free-roaming -- City simply overran United on one flank of the attack at times. It was a common sight to see either Silva or Milner drift from one flank to the other. This would result in United being short on the number of defenders to deal with the extra attacker. Both of City's first two goals had something in common besides having the same goalscorer -- both Silva and Milner were operating on the same side in the build-up and helped overrun United on that particular side.This chalkboard of Silva's and Milner's passing displays how City's wide players were active on both flanks.
How could United possibly have exploited this tactic by City? It is difficult to say for sure but having a holding player or a deep-lying playmaker occupying that space would have provided a natural foil when United were defending. When United won the ball, having a deep-lying playmaker like Paul Scholes (yes, I realize he is retired) or Michael Carrick may have allowed United to quickly swing the ball opposite to the side where City attempted to overload and thus make them vulnerable to the counterattack on that side. Neither Toure nor Barry were coming forward to press United's central-midfielders. Thus, a deep-lying playmaker -- one with the range of passing of either Scholes or Carrick -- may have been well-suited for this match and they would have had the added benefit of having time on the ball.
United fail to open City up
First off, it should mentioned that City defended very well. Positionally, they were very sound and both Toure and Barry did well to shield their back four -- both played roles that resembled that of double pivots. In fact, the deep positioning by this duo did well to explain the first 20 minutes of this match. United were given time on the ball and early on, they dominated possession. However, they failed to open City up and much of this was due to City's sound positioning. This is also why it felt like City had scored the opening goal against the run of play.
As goals often do, the opening goal changed the complexion of the match. City began to come forward more and the game became a bit more open. However, United still lacked a final product. Darren Fletcher was fine in his role -- use energy to keep structure, defend, and not give the ball away (a surprising 3 key passes were contributed) -- but Anderson failed to influence the match. Perhaps an in-form Tom Cleverley could have helped United breakdown a defiant City defense. It was also interesting to see neither Carrick nor Giggs on the bench for this match -- although it is rumored that the latter has a hamstring injury. Both partnered well last season for the run-in when Carrick provided protection for the back four as a deep-lying playmaker while Giggsy had a more free role to provide incisive passing in attack. Both of these roles were missing versus City.
Further up in the attack, United's chief creators this season -- Young, Nani, and Rooney -- failed to create enough genuine goalscoring chances. Young looked lively throughout the match -- 7 fouls won can attest to this -- but his final product was poor. He was able to impressively attempt 13 crosses in this match but only 2 of them found a United attacker. In addition, none of his three attempted shots were on target. Nani was simply poor and he was surprisingly dealt well with by Clichy -- someone he has tormented in the past when the left-back was with Arsenal FC. Rooney dropped deep in the 1st half but he failed to provide the incisive passes to breakdown City (0 key passes). Perhaps credit should again be given to the double-pivot of Barry and Toure. Each did well to compact the space between the lines in the 1st half -- space that Rooney typically operates in.
In a way, it was a tale of two halves for Wazza. When Evans was sent off in the 46th minute, Rooney dropped into the central midfield and he began to the pull the strings. Before City scored their 2nd goal in the 60th minute, United began to look a bit more lively with Rooney in the center of the park. He increased the tempo of play for United by often swinging the ball out wide in quick fashion. This was even more impressive when considering that United were attacking with one less attacker. This chalkboard compares Rooney's distribution as a 'false-nine' during the first 46 minutes of this match and his distribution as a central-midfielder in the final 48 minutes (including stoppage time). It shows his difficulties in finding the final killer ball as a striker but it also shows his 'Scholes-like' distribution as a midfielder.
Welbeck was a positive for United
A mention should be made of Welbeck's solid performance in this derby. The Manchester native was chosen over Chicharito for this tie and he was one of few United players that played decently well. Apart from his recent goalscoring displays, Welbeck does well with his off-the-ball movement and his ability to link play. This fits in well with Rooney, Nani, and Young in United's fast and fluid 4-4-2 this season. Because this match was at Old Trafford, Ferguson possibly anticipated having enough of the ball in attack to attempt this style of play. Hence, his selection over Chicharito -- whose strengths involve crafty movement to slip his marker in the box rather than in build-up play. This chalkboard below shows Welbeck's impressive link-up play all throughout the pitch:
Another added benefit that Welbeck provides is his versatility. Both Chicharito and Dimitar Berbatov have struggled in their opportunities to play as a lone striker -- each appears better suited to having a partner. When Evans was sent off, Welbeck did well as the lone striker -- just as he did last weekend versus Liverpool -- with his movement into open space and with his competent ability to hold the ball up. Unfortunately, a few promising attacks died when United had ten men on the pitch because they simply could not get enough numbers forward quickly into attack. Welbeck further displayed his versatility when he moved out to the left flank when Chicharito came on as a late substitute.
United's poor defending
Much of United's troubles in defense came from the lack of a holding player to deal with City's interiores. However, the back four were poor as well. The most obvious culprit is Evans. His foolish tackle that sent him off in the 46th minute left his side in a perilous situation. Even prior to this, he failed to mark Balotelli tight enough on his opening goal. To his defense, he has played well this season but this shocking red card only adds to the belief by some that "he always has a mistake in him."
Ferdinand defended bravely in the 1st half but he was caught out of position numerous times in the 2nd half -- including the previously mentioned 3rd goal by City. In addition, the other experienced defender -- Evra -- was also caught out on too many occasions. It was disappointing that neither could rally their sides to defend with more intelligence. Smalling had a disappointing match as well and he failed to mark and provide clearances in the box on a few of City's goals.
Adjustments after Evans sent off
United essentially played the entire 2nd half with a man down. Ferguson responded by predictably switching to a 4-4-1. Fletcher moved to right-back while Rooney dropped into the center of the park. The substitutions in the 66th minute provided no tactical changes -- Phil Jones came on at right-back, Fletcher moved back to the central-midfield in place of Anderson, and Chicharito moved Welbeck to the left flank with Young switching over to the right. Soon after, City effectively sealed three points with their third goal.
Mancini wisely substituted the mercurial Balotelli off -- who was sitting on a yellow -- and brought on Nasri for Aguero to seemingly keep the ball in order to kill off the match. Only if City were so merciful. Mancini's side had a go and as the world is well aware by now, they demolished and humiliated United. It was shocking to see United -- a side known for such resolve -- concede three late goals near stoppage time. Referee Mark Clattenburg couldn't have blown the final whistle soon enough.
The match started brightly for United at Old Trafford but they failed to breakdown a disciplined and deep-defending City side. The 'noisy neighbours' then used their interiores to overrun United down the left side of attack and Evans failed to close down Balotelli -- who then in a cool fashion slid the opening goal home to the far post. Silva and Milner continued to wreak havoc between the lines and also by overloading United's full-backs -- the result was a constant source of incisive supply for City's strikers. In contrast, United could never find a final product and they were loose with their defending in the back. The result is a famous victory for City and a statement that they have arrived. The interiores were the key players. United are still a force but Ferguson will need to find a way to generate a free-flowing attack along with a sound shape in defense. The Reds don't face a City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, or Spurs again until January. It will be interesting to see how United adjusts tactically in the coming months.