I initially began to write this tactical review in my normal fashion but as the words continued to pile up, I decided to break it up into two parts. Part 1 will focus solely on the tactical approach taken by Sir Alex -- which has predictably been a huge talking point in the aftermath of this match -- while Part 2 will cover every other area from this contest that I felt was important. If you happen to stay with me for both parts, I offer a fake apology for taking you through this tactical tale twice (*). Quite obviously, I understand the enjoyment of this match was comparable to the experience of stabbing yourself in the eye with a rusty nail.
(*) Most writers want people to read their stuff! Duh.
Opening Lineups and Formations
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson elected to deploy his side in what many describe as his 'big' game 4-3-3/4-5-1 system -- although it's hardly been used much in the past year or so -- rather than his side's more typical 4-4-1-1ish system. Wayne Rooney led the line in attack while Nani and Ryan Giggs were preferred to Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young as the wide attackers. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick sat relatively deep in central-midfield while Park Ji-sung was positioned advanced from them to complete the midfield trio. Chris Smalling deputised for the reportedly ill Jonny Evans in central-defense while Phil Jones was selected over Rafael at right-back. Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra completed the back four while David de Gea was between the posts at the Etihad.
Much of the discussion in the aftermath of this match has centered around the conservative approach by Fergie. The exclusion of some players from the starting XI, such as Valencia and Danny Welbeck, sparked controversy but before discussion and debate can be had on the manager's selection choices, the approach he desired needs to be addressed first. With United entering the tie with a 3 point lead in the title race and with 3 games remaining, there were two results that obviously were massively beneficial to them -- victory or a draw. For City, they could only come away with a victory scalp of their city rivals if they wished a realistic chance to hoist the Premier League trophy at season's end. This context factored heavily into each manager's approach.
Perhaps respecting the home side's quality of attackers and midfielders, and their obvious need to attack in this match, Fergie decided to contain them as much as possible by keeping his lines compact and his team's shape narrow. As discussed in TBB's scouting report of City, Mancini's front four in their 4-2-2-2 system all look to quickly combine in the middle and use movement to drag defenders out of position so that a through ball can be threaded through in order to create chances. This is supplemented by Yaya Toure's powerful late-arriving runs into the box. Much of the space that City's tricky front four players like to utilize is between the lines and it was clear that Fergie wanted to limit that dangerous space because his two deeper central-midfielders -- especially Carrick -- were rarely far from United's two center-backs. In addition, when United were out of possession, their full-backs were positioned relatively narrow as well so that they could help keep the gaps tight against City's narrow front four. Jones' ability to defend in this somewhat central space was probably the reason he was selected over the marauding Rafael.
With Carrick sitting deep and helping to squeeze the attacking space in behind him, United had adequate numbers (a 5 v 4 situation) in a defending space that had been vertically minimized. In addition, Park and Scholes were able to mark Toure and Gareth Barry higher up the pitch. Thus, Fergie had the structure that he desired in the back and this was key in United limiting City's chances on target to just 3 in this match -- 1 of those chances came during Kompany's set-piece goal rather than from open play. United were cutting out opportunities in front of the box and through the middle of it as City were limited to just 5 attempted through balls. Instead, City were forced out wide and they were quite woeful in this route of attack -- their 1 successful cross from 26 attempts can attest to this as their wee attackers simply aren't accustomed to this way of attacking. United successfully forced this.
With things relatively stable in the back, it was left to United's front three to create chances on the counterattack. Giggs, who was nominally the wide left attacker in the front three, was actually tucked in and somewhat deep so he was basically operating as auxiliary central-midfielder. Logically, one would assume Park would link the midfield and attack as he was closest to being positioned as a 'number 10'. However, the Korean often broke forward into the left-central space in behind Toure and into the space Zabaleta had vacated when the City right-back got forward. It was Giggs that tried to receive the ball from the back so that he could turn and release the trio of Park, Rooney, and Nani.
The tension in this match was palpable and probably because this could easily be anticipated, Fergie elected to deploy experienced and tactically intelligent players for this title tilt. Park was preferred because he provided two key things: (1) the ability to mark a dangerous deep-lying midfielder like Toure and (2) the versatility to comfortably operate in any space in the attacking third. His understanding with Giggs and their ability to interchange has been important in recent seasons when they're deployed near each other on the pitch. Park provides energy and bite while shutting between the middle and outside while Giggs is then freed in these same zones so that he can roam into pockets of space in search of an opportunity to create. It's a dynamic relationship. The criticism of Park by many is harsh as he did a decent job in preventing Toure from being a major threat in attack. Sure, the Ivorian's distribution from deep was tidy but his influence from late driving runs into the box was limited during Park's 58 minutes on the pitch. Despite his continual ability to get in behind Toure (who lazily tracked back at times) when United initially broke to counter, Park's first-touch on the ball was horrendous and this severely hampered his side's attack. This criticism of him is certainly fair.
Rooney's selection for this match was an obvious one but he had a difficult time getting involved because of the outstanding Vincent Kompany. Wazza was the lone striker and when deployed in this role, he tends to act more as a 'false 9 -- a striker that drops deep to receive with his back to goal in order to link play and create space in behind him for midfield runners. Kompany continually followed him into these deep spaces and the City captain simply got the better of the United striker. As the match wore on, Rooney was visibly frustrated and it's likely somewhat due to how tight and physical Kompany was with him. Wazza's touches were often heavy as were his hurried passes to the touchline for United's wide players -- a number of these blew by the receiving player for a City throw-in. The brief moments he enjoyed himself most was when he drifted outside and dragged a defender with him and as a result, there was a player like Nani darting to make an inward diagonal run into vacated space.
That inward run and unorthodox movement by Nani is likely why he was selected over Valencia. Perhaps simplistic, but the Ecuadorian winger thrives when he can receive a ball near the right touchline and then have space to beat his marker so that he can supply crosses for United's attackers. When United are confident enough to deploy a front four against sides that will give them space -- which is more often than not -- then a direct player like Valencia is ideal in that he stretches the attacking space by playing wide and that he can beat a marker (or two) in order to get to the byline. I'd argue he's simplistically beautiful.
A versatile player like Nani though, in a counterattacking system that has fewer attackers but more space to attack into, can vary his play by receiving at his feet or into space on either flank or through the middle. Thus, his versatility provides more options and is simply less predictable. Contain a player like Valencia, a major avenue is blocked in attack. Contain Nani, well move him around and see if something opens up elsewhere. The Portuguese multiplies options. Sadly though, our counterattack completely sputtered as evidenced by 0 shots on goal.
Early on, when we started somewhat brightly, the midfield closed down and quickly played balls into space. This was either to: Rooney coming deep (dealt with well by Kompany), Nani running onto diagonal balls played behind Clichy or receiving a simple pass to him between the lines (from here, he failed to make quick decisions), or to Park behind either/both Kompany (when he came to track Rooney) or Zabaleta (Park's horrendous first-touch sputtered attacks). The approach and idea behind Fergie's tactics were arguably right, and the defense held up admirably, but the counterattack failed United. As City grew into the match and gained control, things simply unraveled as that initial key pass to the attack was cut off and the home side increasingly pinned United back. What resulted was hoofed balls forward from the back and City simply gathered and restarted new attacks. Half-time couldn't come soon enough for United so that they could regroup. Unfortunately, it came a minute too late.
It may seem simplistic but a domino effect occurred -- United defended well and won the ball back high enough to ignite seemingly fruitful counters, the counters died due to hesitation and City grew confident and began to control the midfield more, United's loss of control resulted in them in failing to find the necessary early ball to ignite threatening counters and as a result, they hoofed it forward while City regrouped quickly and came forward, and the home side then went ahead right before half-time in a deserved fashion -- albeit it being a set-piece.
Conclusion of Part 1
It's impossible to say whether United would have been overrun or if they would have possibly controlled the match had they taken a more positive approach. However, with either a victory or draw suiting them just fine, and with the pain still raw from from being torn apart during an open affair during the derby disaster in October, taking a conservative approach versus City was a reasonable one. Fergie's men, in their 4-5-1 shape, did very well to contain City for match's opening hour as they limited City's chances on goal to just two during that time -- only a feeble attempt by Pablo Zabaleta that trickled to de Gea and Kompany's powerful headed-goal that resulted from a defending error on a set-piece were the home side's only clear chances. Where United was let down was in their impotent counterattack.
When United were genuine European conquerors in the 2007-09 era, they often took their safe and structured 4-5-1 system with them for their difficult ties away from Old Trafford. With their defenses secured in the back, it was up to the versatile front three -- any three of Rooney, Park, Tevez, and Cristiano Ronaldo -- to use their precision, pace, and interchanging movements to provide enough varied incisiveness in attack. The feared trident typically got the job done. Since that time though, United have lacked a trident anywhere near that potent. It wasn't Fergie's approach that failed Manchester United Football Club on Monday night, it was their now impotent counterattack -- and that likely merits a discussion of a much bigger problem at the club.
In Part 2, more on why Zabaleta was so free to influence the match, Park's man-marking role on Toure, and 2nd half adjustments.