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A Tactical Rewind Of This Season's Two Manchester Derbies

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About a month ago, when Manchester United rose again to the top of the table after trailing Manchester City for five months in the league title race, I wrote about how there may be tactical importance on being the leaders when April 30 arrives. Basically, the idea was that United could be badly exposed if they were forced to come out and chase three points at the Etihad because their preferred 4-4-2/4-4-1-1ish system is vulnerable against sides that have tricky between the line attackers -- which City have a plethora of. Despite United's recent 8 point lead dwindling down to just 3 now, they are in a position where two of the possible three results -- win or a draw -- can strongly position them in their quest for a 20th conquering of England. Thus, there is an opportunity to minimize vulnerabilities as a draw would suit Sir Alex Ferguson's side just fine in the title race. This tactical rewind of the first two Manchester derbies this season (not including the Community Shield) provides some context into these thoughts and perhaps hints at what tactics can be anticipated next Monday night.

United 1-6 City | Old Trafford (Premier League) | October 23, 2011

I know this is not an afternoon most of you wish to relive but this is a week to have some tough skin because if any of your mates are City fans, they'll surely be reminding you. Ahead of this match, United were playing some fluid and breathtaking football and this was perhaps best epitomized by the 8-2 trashing of Arsenal at the end of August. However, United were showing signs of vulnerabilities in the back and ahead of this match, they had conceded the joint most shots in the Premier League up to that point. City then went ahead and ruthlessly exposed United at Old Trafford.

United were deployed in a 4-4-2ish shape with a fluid and interchanging front four of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Nani, and Ashley Young. Anderson and Tom Cleverley had been an energetic atticking duo as well at the season's beginning as both provided late-arriving runs from the center of the park. In this particular match, Darren Fletcher came in for an injured Cleverley.

City manager Roberto Mancini opted for a somewhat similarly shaped side but his central-midfielders sat nearer to their back four and their wide attackers acted as 'interiores' -- nominal wingers that actually move into central positions when their side was in possession of the ball. Mancini's side could be described as playing in a 4-2-2-2 sort of system.

Early on, neither central-midfield duo came out to close down their counterparts and thus, there was time on the ball for both. City's approach was cautious as Mancini's men sat somewhat deep while United calmly pinged the ball around. However, the home side failed to be incisive and it was the away side that struck first in the 22nd minute after a Mario Balotelli goal -- and against the run of play. There was a tactical reason for this though.

James Milner and David Silva were easily the key players in this match as they freely roamed as interiores and in the build-up to Balotelli's opening goal, Milner had joined up with Silva on the left side of attack and created an overload. As a result, he became the free man to supply the Italian for his clinical finish. Since United were now trailing, they began to chase the game more and as a result, more space opened up between the lines. Milner and Silva made them pay.

It should be noted that the scoreline was still only 0-1 when Jonny Evans was sent off in the 46th minute. Therefore, five of City's goals came when United were down to 10-men -- and three of those goals came in stoppage time. However, United played in a 4-4-1 shape with 10-men so their defensive shape was still two banks of four along with occasional assistance from a forward dropping deep. There was less of an outlet in attack but this doesn't really excuse their horrific vulnerabilities because their defensive structure was essentially the same.

Silva and Milner continued to roam as they worked the enormous space available between the lines. The interiores received in dangerous areas through the middle in the attacking third and just as Milner did in the build-up to the opening goal, both players continued to cross over to the other side in order to create overloads. United's failure to deal with this was their undoing in this derby disaster.

There were two possible solutions to this dilemma: (1) United simply could have used a true-holding player such as Fletcher or Michael Carrick to patrol the space between the lines alongside two advanced central-midfielders. In addition, (2) having a deep-lying playmaker such as Carrick or Paul Scholes (who was retired at the time) may have allowed United to have someone from deep to ignite counterattacks by releasing United's wide players down the side that either Silva or Milner were leaving. United's full-back from that side could have gotten forward in order to create 2 v 1 advantages on the flank. At the very least, this would have made City more wary about roaming so freely in attack.

City 2-3 United | Etihad Stadium (FA Cup round 3) | January 8, 2012

Just over two months later, United met City again but this time at the Etihad for a FA Cup tie. By January, United were more structurally sound but their attack lacked the same sparkle that it had at season's beginning. Nonetheless, United were grinding out results and staying in the Premier League title race -- well, for the most part anyway as Fergie's men were coming off of successive losses to Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United.

Fergie used a deep-defending approach as he deployed his side in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish shape. Rooney and the wide attackers were dropping deep and getting goalside of the ball whenever United lost possession. Basically, they were defending with a bank of four defenders and five midfielders. Mancini got away from his usual 4-2-2-2ish and 4-2-3-1 systems and instead deployed City in a 4-1-4-1 shape. Nigel de Jong was the lone holding-player while Sergio Aguero was the lone striker.

United were happy to concede possession and keep their shape. As a result, they soaked up pressure and then looked to counterattack through the pace of Welbeck, Rooney, Nani, and Antonio Valencia. In the opening 12 minutes of the match, City dominated possession but United looked comfortable. The away side finally had a golden opportunity in the 10th minute as Rooney slipped de Jong in the space between the lines and was free to swing the ball out wide for Valencia. The Ecuadorian then whipped in a cross that Rooney impressively headed in for the opening goal. It was a dream start for United and it had gone perfectly according to their tactical plan.

Soon after, City captain Vincent Kompany was sent-off for a challenge on Nani and the home side were reduced to 10-men. City simply switched their shape for the remainder of the 1st half and United took full advantage by adding two more goals prior to half-time. Fergie still had his side taking a cautious approach as they kept it tight defensively, patiently worked the ball out of the back, and then finally probed until they could create an overload versus a 10-man City side. United's humble approach was a masterstroke response to their previous derby nightmare.

At half-time though, Mancini made an astute adjustment by deploying his side in a 3-4-1-1 shape. As United grew more bold, perhaps with retaliation in mind for 1-6 at Old Trafford, Rooney began to play higher. Therefore, City's three-man back had a preferred spare man while the wings provided energy on the flanks. They had adequate numbers to compete in midfield and they even had a link player in Samir Nasri for counterattacks.

City valiantly pulled two goals back with 10-men but Scholes helped close the match out when he was introduced as a substitute -- merely hours after it was announced that he had returned from retirement. United played keep-ball and Scholes sublimely passed the ball 73 times in 31+ minutes at an incredible 97% success rate. A Scholes giveaway did lead to a City goal but tactically, it was a brave move by Fergie to bring on the 37-year-old legend. However, the midfield maestro brought calm to his side like few other footballers could have in that situation. And he's been dictating matches since.


The coaching staffs from both sides are undoubtedly pouring over film and data from these two matches. Tactics will play an enormous role in the possible title-decider on Monday so neither manager can afford to get their approaches wrong. United have shown two drastic approaches this season and one was obviously much more effective than the other. While tactics is certainly about maximizing the best possible approach from a side, there's a cunning part to it as well so what's obvious in hindsight is not always the case ahead of a match. Despite what seems obvious, who knows what approach both managers will take. There's certainly some game theory to being a football manager. It would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall this week as Fergie and co. and Mancini and co. prepare for this battle.

Time permitting, we plan to have a tactical piece per day leading up to the Manchester derby on Monday. Be sure to check in with us on a daily basis if this is the sort of thing that you fancy.